Movie Review: Shanghai (1935)
Loretta Young falls in love with a Chinese man! Wow. What a forward-looking movie by Paramount.
OK, so the Chinese man is half Chinese.
OK, so he’s played by French actor Charles Boyer, the great romantic lead of the time.
Who sounds French. And looks French.
And the Chinese themselves think their relationship is a bad idea. (So it’s not just us.)
OK, so “the Chinese,” in this instance, is Ambassador Lun Sing, who is played by Hollywood’s go-to Chinese star of the 1930s, Warner Oland, who is, of course, Swedish.
And though set in bustling Shanghai, we hardly meet anyone who's Chinese. Keye Luke and Willie Fung are given perfunctory scenes, but overall “Shanghai” is a drawing-room melodrama created by white writers (C. Graham Baker, Lynn Starling, and Gene Towne), a white director (James Flood) and a white producer (Walter Wanger), whose main message is that hopefully someday prejudice will die.
Sorry. Easy to poke fun 80 years later. The filmmakers were well-meaning people who were dealing with the prejudices of the day, and a production code that forbade “miscegenation,” while still trying to sell wish-fulfillment fantasy to the masses. So ... this.
New York socialite Barbara Howard (Loretta Young) travels by ship to Shanghai because her Aunt Jane (Alison Skipworth) is ill; but it’s all a ruse. Aunt Jane is worried Barbara is too much in the gossip rags and wants to save the family name; but Barbara is feisty and about to take the next steamer back when she meets Dimitri Koslov (Charles Boyer), a banker.
She’d met him once before. Or eyed him. When she first arrives, he’s among the rickshaw drivers crowding the gangplank begging for work. So how did he become a banker so quickly? Connections. 关系。Also, he’d been a banker. Then he starts his own financial advisory business. In a flash, he’s the talk of Shanghai. Plus he’s with Loretta Young. Not a bad deal.
Until Ambassador Lun Sing obliquely reminds him of his place.
Lun Sing: In Shanghai, one may defy all the conventions but one. It matters not how noble the strains, if they have been crossed—as yours have been—a man becomes an outcast. You are in grave danger, my son. Your features are those of your father. It would have been better for you had your saintly mother predominated. Even I must sometimes remind myself that you came from her. Many women of your father's race will love you. That you cannot prevent. But you can, you must, keep yourself from loving them. [Sips his tea] I often say, next to myself, no one in Shanghai serves such tea as Dimitri Koslov.
Koslov: Clever tea makers—we Chinese.
“Crossed strains”: Don’t hear that much anymore.
For a time, as his fortunes rise, Koslov heeds Lun Sing and avoids Barbara. She keeps phoning, generally lounging on a chaise, but he’s never available. Finally she just shows up. He’s distant, and she assumes he’s interested in power, since he’s not interested in her. But just before Lun Sing walks in, they kiss and she melts.
Now the question becomes: How will she take it once she finds out? Koslov has confidence; Lun Sing is not so sure. Also, how to tell her? Quietly? Privately? Just the two of them?
Of course not. Koslov throws a costume party and wears his rickshaw outfit. Barbara comes dressed in the same outfit that the Chinese princess wears in the giant painting on his wall. And before a large crowd of well-wishers, he thanks the two women to whom he owes his success: Barbara, and, indicating the painting, “my beloved mother.”
Everyone resists letting that other shoe drop.
Aunt: Your mother, Mr. Koslov? But she is a ...
Koslov: A Manchurian princess, who condescended to marry my distinguished father, who was only a Russian general.
Amid murmurs, people slowly drift away. Aunt Jane doesn’t murmur at all; she calls loudly for Barbara, who holds her drink and stares sadly at Koslov. She takes a sip and stares again. Then she sets down the drink and walks away.
Guess what? In 10 minutes, this will be the good family.
Apocalypse Now Predux
Koslov leaves Shanghai and Barbara decides to go look for him—she loves him even with the crossed strains. Her younger brother Tommy backs her. So does their black servant, Coretta (Libby Taylor), who is going along because she knows Mandarin. It’s the older generation that’s the problem. Except ... Aunt Jane gives Barbara her mink coat to keep her warm. She’s suddenly cool with it, too? Yep. And that’s how they become the good family. That’s how Hollywood pats itself (and us) on the back. We’re OK, they’re awful.
Chartering a boat up the river, Barbara witnesses backbreaking Chinese laborers with sad eyes in very expensive outfits. At one point they refuse to go further so she surrenders her mink. Eventually she reaches Koslov. She wants to make it work now, and this is her argument: “Should I hate the man I love because he falls ill or becomes a cripple or goes blind?” Imagine the metaphors if he’d been 100 percent Chinese.
Even so, they plan to get married ... until back in Shanghai, Lun Sing tells Koslov he’s financially ruined. He also tells Koslov the real lesson of his parents:
The world beat them down—humiliation, poverty, despair for them both. For your mother, death. ... She killed herself. Those who commit folly must someday pay for it.
Anyway that’s why they call it off, to not commit such folly, and it leads to our end: the intertwined lovers, cheeks pressed against each other, agreeing not to go on, because the world is just too awful.
What was the world’s reaction to “Shanghai”? I couldn’t find much. One wonders if it even played in the South. The New York Times praised Boyer for displaying “the twin virtues of restraint and understatement” but felt the film simply wandered to its conclusion, which the reviewer, like Lun Sing, felt was inevitably “a tragic one.”
To which our Chinese hero might add: Mais bien sur.
“Someday, darling, the world won't be as awful as I was when I first found out.”