sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-11-11 05:30 am
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I'm a civil engineer, but they changed the government, so I had to go to work

I try not to be that reviewer who swears all the time. I'm not good enough at it. You want primo-grade narrative profanity, read Better Myths. I am more likely to stick to "Flipping Hades Terwilliger!" as an expression of my amazement (and affection for Daniel Pinkwater) than to attempt a roll call of Anglo-Saxon intensifiers. Nevertheless, when I say that I have just finished watching a movie whose heroic climax involves Edward Everett Horton machine-gunning the oncoming Tartar hordes while wearing more eyeliner than the rest of the cast put together, Marlene Dietrich knock-off included, I hope you will all join me in a resounding chorus of "WHAT THE SHIT."

The movie in question is Roar of the Dragon (1932), a pre-Code pulp adventure which plays like a bargain-basement cash-in on Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932). Instead of Dietrich, we get Danish-born Gwili Andre as the mysterious white woman with elegant cheekbones and a murky past; instead of Clive Brook's Army doctor, masculine top billing goes to Richard Dix's hard-drinking riverboat captain; instead of a train captured by Chinese rebels, the close-quarters setting is a hotel besieged by Manchurian bandits. The guests are the usual assortment of colorful characters, including Dudley Digges as the riverboat's blowhard owner, ZaSu Pitts as a fretful Midwestern matron, Arline Judge as a cornet-playing chorus girl, and Horton as the civil engineer turned hotel clerk whose apprehensive stoop and bemused double-takes are recognizable even in long shot. I can't tell if C. Henry Gordon increases or diminishes the Orientalism playing a Russian in charge of a band of Chinese central casting Tartars, but either way he wants revenge on both Andre and Dix—the one fled his bed, the other bit his ear off during a pre-story, evidently no-holds-barred brawl. To no one's surprise but their own, the initially incompatible leads become an item during the course of the siege, to the point where she volunteers to sacrifice herself sexually to save his life. I have no idea of the film's production history, but it is impossible not to view it in some degree as the Asylum mockbuster of its day. But let's return to Edward Everett Horton.

Horton's sexuality is not a vexed question. All biographical sources I've been able to find on him for years indicate that his long-term partner was Gavin Gordon, whom I saw this spring in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932). His screen persona, however, was based on a dither of plausible deniability between high-strung ineffectual fussiness and actual effeminacy—in pre-Code films and after, he could be found among the most nervous of nellies, not flaming, but easily flustered, a man whose masculinity was constantly questioned but never definitively debunked. This is the mode Dragon's mild-mannered Busby begins in, a middle-aged makeshift concierge already spooked by the political situation and rattled by hotel guests' demands for information he doesn't have. He's nominally straight, but terrible at it; his diffident declaration of intent toward Judge's Bridgeport1 ("I'm thinking of marrying her") is shot down not only by the girl's preoccupied deflection ("Thinking's awfully bad for people with weak backs"), but by a parting kibitz from Dix's Carson, who has just made a much more confident pass in the same direction ("My, what a rough Daddy you'll make"). When she's assigned care and feeding of a passel of Chinese war orphans, he's the one who discovers a goat on the premises and insists on reserving the milk for the children alone. It takes him half the film to learn to carry a rifle the right way round. I am not joking about the eyeliner. I can't tell if it's meant to make him look careworn, youthful, emo, or what, but the results are the kind of stylized makeup that would have passed without comment in the silent era and in a sound film cause the viewer to wonder if anyone bothers with subtext anymore. Most of Horton's roles would leave him here, stealing scenes with precision-timed bewilderment. Roar of the Dragon doesn't, which is the only reason I am writing about it tonight. He's such a reliable comic actor, I genuinely enjoy seeing him get a character arc: it's the standard milquetoast-to-manhood, but assigning it to an actor of Horton's particular strengths produces some fascinating results.

For starters, he never turns square-jawed. Busby can still undercut himself, even in moments of assertiveness: confronting the riverboat owner over an exceptionally low act of theft, he seethes, "I have a strangely vicious desire to cut you in pieces and use you for bait—if I knew how to fish!" Bridgeport has no trouble throwing him off balance, meeting his admiring "You're like a picture on a magazine cover!" with the cheerfully provoking "No, you're wrong. I'm wearing too many clothes." Having bluffed his way into staying behind as a diversion at the finale, he cringes at Carson's apparent rebuke—"So we all go out here together, eh? What a first-class liar you are!"—until some awkward male bonding over cigarettes makes it clear that the newly sober captain is deeply touched and grateful for the clerk's choice. Even at the apex of his bravery, he still glances nervously around the windy walls of the abandoned hotel; he holds a pistol like it's more talisman than weapon. It is an endearing anxiety rather than a strictly comic one, a weirdly realistic touch among all the boy's own boilerplate.2 I find it harder to believe that his transformation is motivated by love, at least for the socially appropriate character. The dialogue insists on his feelings for Bridgeport, but their sweetest and most natural scene together is a moment of found family rather than a torrid clinch: while she wrangles orphans, he offers to play some music. She expresses indifference, he switches on the radio and gets Irving Berlin's "Always"; looks at her uncertainly until she gives him an approving wink, whereupon he cranks up the volume and she puts her tongue out at him, smiling. Cross-legged on the floor—out of sight of the latticed windows through which Voronsky's snipers have been taking potshots—he looks for once relatively at ease, tucking into a bowl of leftover noodles while Bridgeport settles one orphan for a nap and looks around for another. The tragedy that strikes a few moments later impels him toward the machine gun that started me on this whole mishegos, which is fair enough from the standpoint of the siege, but I can't read it as a romantic act. He dies in Richard Dix's arms. Saying something heterosexual, but still. This entire plotline fascinates me. It delivers such mixed messages and I can't tell which to assign to the writing, the acting, or the interaction of the two. I'm not even sure the finished film knows what it's doing. I'd love to know what Horton thought. I would also like to ask his eyeliner, which deserved a supporting credit of its own.3

I really want to be clear that I am not recommending this movie on its own merits. The plot is a pile of Orientalist action clichés, while the script is full of unintentional punch lines, as when Carson tells Natasha, "You better go inside while I explain to everybody just what a tough spot we're in," and we fade directly to Carson indoors, addressing the assembled guests: "You might as well know, we're in a tough spot."4 On a narrative level, I appreciate that Bridgeport is not a natural mother and her first attempt at establishing a "kindergarten" in the besieged hotel is filled with crying toddlers; on an aesthetic level, that was an entire scene full of crying toddlers and it went on forever. Gwili Andre has bone structure comparable to Dietrich's, but that does not mean she shares the same ability to act. Richard Dix plays a less clean-cut character than he did in The Lost Squadron (1932), which at least gives the audience something to look at that isn't his stalwart jawline, but I still found myself utterly failing to care whether he would get over his alcoholic indifference in time to save his fellow Caucasians. ZaSu Pitts is amusing, but ultimately wasted on her flightily helpless role when I have seen her be just as scatterbrained and much less deadweight in Going Highbrow (1935). I don't even know what to do with the late scene in which a Jewish shopkeeper, attempting to sneak food to the starving hotel guests, is caught by Voronsky's men, tied to a pole, and set afire while alive—I'm sure I wasn't intended to read it as a one-person pogrom, but I still found the relevant thirty seconds uncomfortable to watch. Please understand that I am delighted that this film exists in the world; I am always glad when more survives of an art form than just the canon, or even the acknowledged counterculture secondary gems. The fact that the Golden Age of Hollywood could produce mediocre to dreadful movies is curiously warming to me. It's both more real and more interesting than the glossier alternative. I will still freely admit that I watched Roar of the Dragon because I saw Edward Everett Horton's name in the credits and I pretty much endured the rest of the film in between his scenes. I think my curiosity was rewarded. It certainly showed me something I had never imagined onscreen.

Oh, God, how did I write 1900 words about this movie? I am stopping here. I did not sleep almost at all last night and have spent the day with a very small, very active child. (We took her to Drumlin Farm. The owls and the sheep were especially a hit. Worth it.) This incongruity brought to you by my brave backers at Patreon.


1. The character is listed as "Hortense O'Dare" in the credits, but no one ever calls her anything other than her nickname, after her home city. Occasionally she's "Little Bridgeport," which strikes me as more Dickensian than is ideally the case.

2. And he does get a few nice lines in, as he graduates from perpetually startled straight man to occasional snarker. When the society matron plaintively blames Busby for her stomachache after the third day on starvation rations—"He gave me some chewing gum and I was so hungry, I swallowed it!"—Horton doesn't protest or even double-take, just mutters wearily, "Keep away from sailors. They chew tobacco."

3. I could find very little information on this film beyond IMDb's claim that the supposed source novel does not seem to exist, but I would love to know anything about how Horton was cast in the part. I keep wondering if it was anything like the process by which Peter Lorre ended up starring as the romantic lead in Three Strangers (1946) instead of David Niven, Robert Montgomery, or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

4. Seriously, isn't that one of Leslie Nielsen's lines in Airplane! (1980)? The script isn't incompetent, but after a while I had to conclude that Howard Estabrook had temporarily lost track of his sense of humor, because every few scenes it seemed to have gotten underfoot. I believe it was the tense nighttime standoff in which Voronsky is trying to make his escape with his former lover held as a hostage at gunpoint that just made me give up: Carson growls with time-honored masculine protectiveness, "What are you going to do to Natasha?" and Voronsky snaps back, "Oh, use your imagination."

[identity profile] 2015-11-11 07:25 pm (UTC)(link)
...Edward Everett Horton machine-gunning the oncoming Tartar hordes while wearing more eyeliner than the rest of the cast put together, Marlene Dietrich knock-off included...


gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-11-11 07:35 pm (UTC)(link)
a movie whose heroic climax involves Edward Everett Horton machine-gunning the oncoming Tartar hordes while wearing more eyeliner than the rest of the cast put together

Clearly I must see this film, if only for the Edward Everett Horton scenes...

[identity profile] 2015-11-11 08:16 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, God, how did I write 1900 words about this movie? I

You did! 1900 thoroughly entertaining lines. I think reading this is probably much more entertaining than the movie itself, but it's a tribute to your ability to capture the interest of a scene on all levels that I'm actually considering it. I love your description of the found-family moment.

[identity profile] 2015-11-11 11:55 pm (UTC)(link)
I looked up some EEH clips on YouTube, and came across this incredible dream/nightmare sequence ( from Beggars on Horseback (1924).

[identity profile] 2015-11-12 01:37 pm (UTC)(link)
It seems to have influenced later stuff ( made by people who couldn't possibly have seen it (, possibly by haunting them.

[identity profile] 2015-11-12 08:27 pm (UTC)(link)
WOW. "Now I can finish my symphony" -- poor fellow.

[identity profile] 2015-11-13 06:01 am (UTC)(link)
This sounds frankly nuts, especially since Shanghai Express already exists. It's like somebody decided to pirate Brokedown Palace, or something.

[identity profile] 2016-03-18 03:12 pm (UTC)(link)
TCM is repeating this crazy thing right now and as soon as I heard EEH utter "Keep away from sailors. They chew tobacco", I closed my gaping mouth and typed it into my search engine. Which led me to you and your fabulous precis. I'm glad I somehow missed the pogrom (oops, no I didn't, yuck!!!), but pleased I got to see so much of the eyeliner. I had a dreadful thought during the crying Chinese toddlers scene. Considering the era and the probable lack of concern for Asian actors of any age, I wondered what the director might have told the kids to make them cry so reliably. I hope I'm wrong about that! Very bizarre flick.