Movie Review: Hatchet Man (1932)
It’s not often that a movie in which the principle characters are white actors in yellow face is more embarrassing for its sexual politics. But here we are.
After playing Italian gangster (“Little Caesar”) and Greek barber/gambler/gangster (“Smart Money”), Warner Bros. cast Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, an honorable hatchet man from Sacramento, who is sent to San Francisco for a job. What is a hatchet man? The opening title card tells all. Warning: It's a bit dated:
San Francisco's Chinatown of fifteen years ago had the largest Oriental population of any colony outside China. Its forty thousand yellow residents were divided into various political factions known as “Tongs,” each governed by a President and Council. These various Tongs were almost constantly at war, so the office of “Hatchet Man” was one of special importance. The honorable title of “Hatchet Man” was passed from father to son by inheritance only, and it was he, with the aid of his sharp axe, who dispensed the justice of the great god Buddha.
Basically they keep the peace by chopping off people’s heads. And whose head needs chopping off in San Francisco? “Not Sun Yat Ming, the silk merchant?“ says Wong Long Get, stunned. ”But he’s my closest friend!”
Of course he is.
And how about that name? Sun Yat Ming? They didn’t dig deep into Chinese history for that one, did they? Why not Chiang Kai Qing? It’s as if the Chinese created an American character called Abrajim Lincoln.
Initially objecting in a way that gives us backstory (“Why, we were boys together, came over on the same boat from China”), Wong relents and sadly visits Sun (J. Carrol Naish), who is, of course, writing his will. And of course leaving everything to his good friend Wong Low Get—including, by the way, the hand of his daughter, Toya (Loretta Young) when she comes of age. Except she’s not Loretta Young yet. She’s just young: 6 years old, to be precise.
When Harry met Toya
We do get some nice early shots from director William Wellman. When the gong of war sounds, the camera pans across the street and back again, as people panic. And after Sun is killed by Wong, we cut to his daughter falling asleep, while her doll, with its head barely held on, lolls to the side. Nice.
One would think the plot would revolve around what happens when Toya (a name that sounds a bit Japanese) discovers her husband killed her father, but that doesn’t enter into it. Suddenly it’s 15 years later, the Tong wars are heating up again, and Wong, now on the council, keeps pushing for diplomacy. He warns that the actions of Tong president Nog Hong Fah (Dudley Digges) will cause wars in Chinatowns across the U.S. Wong’s argument wins the day, but Nog (a name that sounds a bit ... caveman) insists on bodyguards to protect against assassins from the east. Wong finds this amusing—a bodyguard for a hatchet man—and when he sees them he dismisses them aloud: “Boys. Just little boys.”
One of the little boys is Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), whom we’ve already seen make a play for Toya at a nightclub. Of course he’s assigned to Toya. Of course Wong is sent to Sacramento. Of course when he returns he finds Toya in Harry’s arms. They’ve become lovers. A dark shadow falls across Wong, and Harry panics:
Harry: You can’t take the law into your own hands like this! We’re in America.
Wong: Tonight, we three are in China.
Except Toya objects, Wong remembers his promise to her father, so he gives her to Harry. He makes one demand: Make her happy. Classy move, considering. But not to Nog, who expels Wong from the Tong for acting “in a manner unworthy of the great Lem Sing Tong.” In a flash, Wong loses his wife, his place in society, his business.
As slow-paced as the first hour is, the final 10-15 minutes cover a lot of ground. When we next see Wong, he’s an itinerant field worker, yet somehow a letter from Toya finds him. Guess what? Harry didn’t exactly make her happy. Opposite. They’re in China, he’s an opium addict, and she’s become a servant girl in the same opium den. She calls it “a living death more terrible than that which mercifully puts an end to suffering.”
So hatchet man to the rescue. He buys back his hatchets from a pawnbroker, shovels coal to pay for his slow boat to China, and finds her in an opium den/brothel at No. 7, Street of Red Lanterns. The Madame there objects to Wong taking Toya, since she paid good money for her, but Wong plays the hatchet-man card. He demonstrates with an expert throw across the crowded room—which, unbeknownst, kills Harry, who was leaning against the wall on the other side. That’s how the movie ends. Someone is talking to Harry, and Harry, dead-eyed, seems to be shaking his head, but it’s because someone is trying to dislodge the hatchet on the other side. When it’s pulled free, Harry falls, we hear a scream, the movie ends.
That's a pretty good end for a pretty weak movie.
Related to Russian royalty
“Hatchet Man” is a First National picture, which is basically Warner Bros., which is why you have all the Warners players from the early ’30s in yellow face. It was based on an unproduced play, “The Honorable Mr. Wong” by David Belasco and a guy named Achmed Abdullah, a pulp writer who grew up in Afghanistan and claimed he was related to the Russian tsar. One gets the feeling his life and lies would’ve made a more compelling movie than this one.
In his 1932 New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall writes of the New York premiere in which Robinson and Abdullah overpraise each other and visiting star Janet Gaynor blows kisses from the audience. Hall, who mistakenly calls Naish’s character “Sun Yat Sen,” doesn’t praise the movie much, but adds:
It is, however, a fast-moving tale with an Oriental motif and one of its particularly effective features is the make-up of the players, not so much that of Mr. Robinson but of others, especially Dudley Digges and Loretta Young.
So the thing that was praised then is what’s embarrassing now. I’d also disagree that the make-up was effective, particularly for Loretta Young. She looks ridiculous. And was it considered far-sighted that the white actors don’t use pidgin English but speak in their own voices? Maybe, but it winds up sounding ridiculous, too.
Question: Did Robinson always play guys betrayed by women? Was that part of his shtick? Cagney slaps them around, Bogart gets his heart broken, Robinson is betrayed.
All of this is true, by the way: the Tong wars and the hatchet men in turn-of-the-century Chinatowns. A good movie could be made from this.