Wednesday October 19, 2022

Movie Review: Shadows Over Shanghai (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS

So this is where Edward Woods wound up.

In case you don’t know his story: Woods lost the starring role in the 1931 gangster flick “The Public Enemy” when, a few weeks into production, the writers, the director and eventually the producer realized, “You know, this Cagney fellow has some verve and snap to him,” and switched their roles. The decision relegated Woods to second banana, which seemed to seal his fate. For the rest of the decade, he was mostly fourth-billed in increasingly cheaper productions, until this final straw, his last film role: sixth-billed in a shitty Poverty Row production and acting opposite a woman so wooden she could attract termites. 

He plays Peter, the deliverer of the film’s maguffin. His sister Irene (Lynda Grey, the wooden one) works at the Woosung Refuge for War Orphans, and one day she and a gray-haired elder are talking paternalistically about their Chinese charges when a plane flies overhead. No, two planes. She assumes it’s Peter and a friend, but it’s not a friend. It’s the movie’s villain, Igor Sargoza (Robert Barrat, with a bad Russian accent and worse Leninesque goatee), who shoots down Peter’s plane. There’s a crash landing but no fire. Bandaged and awaiting greater medical attention, Peter pleads with his sister to complete his mission: something about getting an amulet to friends in San Francisco. “Whoever has that amulet can either help or rob China,” he says. “I gave Hoy Long my word that China would not be robbed.”

Hoy Long? Yeah, we never see him.

Passport problems
Later we find out it’s half an amulet, and someone in San Francisco has the other half, and … you know the rest. It’s such a hoary premise that when our hero, newspaper reporter Johnny McGinty (James Dunn), hears about it, he says that it’s like something out of the comics. It’s the screenwriters mocking their industry. Or themselves. 

Anyway, that’s why Sargoza shot down Peter. And why he follows Irene to Shanghai. He wants the amulet, too. Which begs the question why he shot down Peter in the first place. Isn’t that risking the thing he’s after? Or is the amulet fireproof?

In Shanghai, Irene and McGinty meet when he fights off the men attacking her, then again at the Café Hotel, since, in a helluva coincidence, he’s friends with Howard Barclay (Ralph Morgan), the very man Peter told her to seek out if she ran into trouble. Her trouble? She didn’t have a passport.

She: Do I have to have a passport even for an evacuation?

We also get a semi-creepy scene in the hotel room when the three leads meet up: 

Barclay: Would you believe I used to dangle her on my knee when she was a mere infant?
McGinty: Mmm. That’d be alright about now.

There’s a secondary villain, too, Yokahama, played by Paul Sutton in yellowface, and our heroes are captured, released, captured, escape, etc. Much of the movie has a cheap, movie-serial feel to it, and much of the action involves where to hide the amulet: first in McGinty’s camera, then in an incense burner. Except, oh no, that’s an explosive device that kills Sargoza. So much for the amulet. Except, oh phew, Barclay never put it there. He still has it. And he gives it to Irene and McGinty as they prepare to sail to America. But … without him? He’s not going?

Believe me, Johnny, there’s nothing in the world I’d like more. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty. In fact, it’s a long time since I’ve seen … liberty of any kind.

And that’s that.

Everything about the movie has a sad defeated air. Everyone seems to have started out in better places and wound up here.

The other Warner
The movie was made by Franklyn Warner Productions, which was responsible for seven cheapies between 1938 and 1940. Three of them, including this one, were directed by Charles Lamont, who directed 87 features in his day. He started out in silent comedies with Mack Sennett, then went on to do Donald O’Connor teen flicks, the Ma and Pa Kettle series, and a few latter Abbott and Costellos. Apparently he’s also been credited with the discovery of Shirley Temple. The girl, not the drink.

As for our boy? We only see Edward Woods in the first 10 minutes. After he sends sis on the mission, Sargoza shows up, demands the amulet, searches him, and then goes to the Chinese orphans standing in the window. He asks them if the girl got the amulet. One of the kids replies, “I saw nothing. Nothing,” like an ur-Sgt. Schultz. That made me smile.

Sargoza figures it out anyway. “Girl was here,” he says to Peter. “Did you give to her? Did you?”

Peter’s answer is silence. And that’s the last time we ever saw Edward Woods on a movie screen.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Wednesday October 19, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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