Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 10 February 2012

'40s kitsch with Jade and Judy, not to mention Carmen !



DRAGON SEED, 1944: Sometimes its hard to get one's head around the fact that in the last desperate years of World War II while dreadful things were happening in Europe and the Far East, Hollywood was still turning out those dream factory products like MRS MINIVER, RANDOM HARVEST, MEET ME IN ST LOUIS and this piece of oriental make-believe, made in 1944. (The MINIVER film though was designed to showcase the plucky Brits and gets Americans involved, like Anna Neagle's I LIVE IN GROSVENOR SQUARE). It must have seemed a good idea at the time to get Katharine Hepburn to play Chinese - after all, Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young did in THE HATCHET MAN in '32; along here with that cast including Walter Huston, Agnes Moorehead, Akim Tamiroff and Turhan Bey. Kate is Jade, a pre-feminist Chinese woman who struggles with her family for survival when the Japanese invade. Presumably audiences of the time did not mind that other races were played by well-known actors. The film made while atrocities against the Chinese were being carried out reflects the American thinking at the time, as depicted through the keen expert eyes novelist Pearl S. Buck, author of THE GOOD EARTH. It also reflects what was available to Hollywood film-makers at that desperate moment. Given the time and the circumstances, the movie does quite an adequate job. Hepburn's name on theater marquees also ensured that many more people would see the film than otherwise (like Bette Davis in WATCH ON THE RHINE). Hollywood was of course also courting the South American audience, as their films were not available in wartorn Europe, with all those Carmen Miranda films set DOWN ARGENTINE WAY...

The plot here is: Ling Tang and his family live on his prosperous farm in rural Southern China and have not yet felt the impact of the Japanese invasion in the North. Tang's two oldest sons, Lao Ta Tan and Lao Er Tan are married and hard working while youngest son Lao San Tan remains a free spirit. Er's wife Jade is also willfully unconventional and desires to exercises her literacy skills by reading books, a most unfeminine practice in 1930's China. Tang's only daughter is married to Wu Lien, a city merchant who profits from selling Japanese goods. When the dreaded invasion reaches their village, the family is scattered as the sons join the resistance while Wu Lien survives by collaborating with the enemy.Hepburn, thankfully, is less mannered and less on display than usual - her idea of being Chinese amuses now - and as a wartime drama it holds the attention. An interesting curiosity now then.

The later 40s shows the dream factory in full force with those favourites like A LETTER TO 3 WIVES, ROADHOUSE, THE HEIRESS etc and now A DATE WITH JUDY in 1948. Another 40s dreamworld where the middle-classes have roomy comfy homes and domestic help - yes its a coloured maid here, as Jane Powell as the perky teen Judy sings at the local high school, is friends with Carol - Elizabeth Taylor, the local rich girl, and worries about her parents' marriage as it seems father (Wallace Beery) is having an affair with a woman at his office. She though is Carmen Miranda who is teaching him how to rhumba to Xaviar Cugat's music at his wedding anniversary! Carmen is a bit subdued here but adds some sparkle, Jane Powell trills some songs like "Its a Most Unusual Day"; young Robert Stack is the new guy in town working in the drugstore whom both girls have their eyes on. 16 year old Elizabeth Taylor is marvellous here, patenting her future roles as the nice rich girl with some steel when it comes to getting her man. A Joe Pasternak production directed by Richard Thorpe, it is a pleasing discovery now. Perfect late 40s entertainment, particularly when Wallace Beery shows off his rhumba skills and the girls get their beaus, and of course with Leon Ames as another paterfamilias who learns the importance of his family. And of course teens then were just younger versions of their parents until the '50s when teenagers were suddenly invented and got their own culture as rock'n'roll arrived!

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