Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

Daughter of the Dragon (1931)‘Ah, you feel the atrophy of the throat muscles?’

20 years after his supposed death, Fu Manchu returns to London again to pursue his vendetta against the Petrie family. This time he recruits his daughter to help him execute his murderous scheme. She is a dancer and stage star and knows nothing of her deadly heritage.

The 3rd and final film in the brief series of Fu Manchu pictures made by Paramount starring Warner Oland as the good doctor. Oland was from Sweden of course but it was common practice in Hollywood at the time to cast whites in Asian roles. He also went on to play the screen’s best loved Charlie Chan. This time he portrays Fu simply as a cold villain, ditching the slight attempts at charm from the previous films and his performance is stronger because of it. Still, he disappears about half way through and top billing goes to Anna May Wong as his daughter.

Wong had made a big splash in the silent era as the ‘world’s first Chinese-American movie star’ but had relocated to Europe after being typecast as exotic ‘foreigners’ and villains. A successful run in a Broadway play led to another studio contract but her casting in this film gives you a fair idea of Hollywood thinking at the time. A few years later, she auditioned for the two leading women’s parts in ‘The Good Earth’ (1937) with Paul Muni but was rejected because the producer felt she did not fit his concept of ‘what Chinese people should look like.’ Additionally, inter-marriage between Asians and whites was still illegal in many U.S. States and this might have caused problems with exhibition in those regions. The roles eventually went to two Austrian women, one of whom took home an Oscar.

Wong’s life would make a terrific movie but you’re not likely to see it coming to a multiplex near you very soon. As well as dealing with the dreadful racism of Hollywood in the 1930s, it would also need to address her treatment by her own people, which was far from pleasant. Despite her vocal opposition and struggles against typecasting, she was widely regarded as a ‘traitor’ for accepting the roles she was offered.

Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

‘I’m sorry, Bramwell, but your crimes against acting can no longer be tolerated…’

Having said all that, there are some signs of enlightenment present in this film. Wong’s character is not a one-dimensional stereotype; she is conflicted about her part in her father’s schemes, although predictably she reverts to evil type at the climax. The nominal lead is handsome Bramwell Fletcher, a year before his appearance in ‘The Mummy’ (1932) (‘He went for a little walk…’) but it’s Sessue Hayakawa as a Chinese detective, who handles most of the action and emerges as the real hero at the climax. Fletcher meantime demonstrates why he never enjoyed a successful career in pictures.

In general, the movie blunders again by presenting Fu as an exotic, but common, criminal bent on personal revenge, rather than a twisted genius planning world domination. This motivation was present throughout the whole series. Perhaps, even then, this was dictated by racial sensitivities but it seems far more likely it was just a convenient plot device to keep the action and intrigue on a confined, and affordable, scale.

All in all, a stagey and melodramatic picture but an interesting reflection of the different attitudes present in Hollywood at the time.

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