Movie Review: Where East Is East (1929)
It’s a love story, and our young lovers, Toyo Haynes and Bobby Bailey (Lupe Velez and Lloyd Hughes), are together at the start. Meaning something will drive a wedge between them during the course of the movie. But what?
Initially, it’s the girl’s father, Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney), a man who makes a living, and a good one, trapping wild animals in Indo-China for circuses, zoos, etc. He has the scars to prove it—not to mention the nickname. He objects to the union because he wants his daughter to be happy—that’s all he’s lived for—and he’s not sure Bobby is the man for the job. “I’m not trustin’ your happiness to any young whipper-snapper like that!” he tells Toyo via intertitles. Dropped g’s and all.
Then a tiger gets loose and Bobby protects Toyo. The father does most of the work restoring order but he appreciates Bobby’s bravery and the two men shake hands. Problem solved.
Except we’re 10 minutes in. So what comes between the lovers for the rest of the movie?
The girl's mother.
Ah. Same reason?
No. She wants Bobby for herself.
Was this a regular thing back then? A wanton Chinese woman hypnotically seducing innocent western men? It's directed by Tod Browning, and parts reminded me of von Sternberg’s “Blue Angel”: the man reduced and in torment because of the awful woman and her wiles. She’s the nightmare from which he can’t wake up.
Something tells me Bobby would’ve been in trouble anyway. Shortly after the tiger attack, a pudgy Chinese woman flirts with him, until Toyo, who I suppose is supposed to be half Chinese (Velez herself is Mexican), tells her off via Chinese intertitles:
Was this a regular thing back then? UntranslatedChinese intertitles? Was it an early attempt to get into the Chinese market or just an attempt at verisimilitude—letting us know that these two people were saying things that Bobby, for example, didn't understand? If so, why not translate for the mostly western audience?
Here's my attempt anyway: For the above, I knew the first four characters (“You women are...”) but not the last two. Turns out it’s mo-gui: “devils.”
Bobby is passive during all this and it gets worse on a trip he takes with Tiger to deliver animals to Bobby’s father. On board the ship, a lounging woman in slinky outfit, known as Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), spies him, pushes a ball his way. He picks it up, sees the small boy to whom it belongs, comes over. But then he trips over the boy. Sign of stumbles to come.
At this point, via two more Chinese intertitles, we get this dialogue between the mother of the boy and Mme. de Sylva:
For these, I needed some help from my Chinese teacher. I didn’t know 隻 was the traditional form of the measure word for animals, for example. And in the reply, I didn’t know 莫 is a colloquial form of 别, meaning “don’t,” while 出聲, chu sheng, is “to utter sounds.” Basically the above is this:
Mother: This stupid child is like a pig.
Mme. de Sylva: You, don’t say anything.
That took me half a day. You‘re welcome.
Afterwards, Bobby spends more time with Mme. de Sylva, then introduces her to Tiger, who scowls angrily while she eyes him coolly. They obviously know each other, but when Tiger stomps off Bobby doesn’t go after him to find out how; he simply apologizes for Tiger’s behavior. Then we get more bad dialogue as the boat sails quietly on into the sleepy evening.
He: This is all like a poem of Kipling’s.
She: [Sidelong glance] My East will by our East. You will love it ... I promise.
Then they kiss. Now he’s hooked. Tiger has to literally knock him out and take him ashore to explain what he should have explained immediately: that Mme. de Sylva is ... Toyo’s mother. That wakes Bobby up. Both men agree to return home to Vien-Tiane, Laos, and never speak of it again.
Except guess who’s waiting for them? And even though Mom left her when she was young, Toyo’s super happy and literally hopping all over the place at the prospect. So what can Dad do? As for Bobby, he’s still hooked. Almost hypnotized. You know those Dragon Ladies.
We continue in this fashion: Mom seductive, Bobby tormented, Tiger angry, Toyo oblivious. A caged gorilla—who hates Mme. de Sylva because she used to torture him—is introduced in the second act, and it doesn’t take Chekhov to figure out what will happen in the third. That’s how Mom finally gets it. Cue close-up and silent scream. Tiger, who released the gorilla, is injured, perhaps fatally, in the assault, but he’s there in a makeshift wheelchair for the wedding, after which Toyo and Bobby limp off into what can only be a marriage of mutual recriminations or long sad silences.
Bobby: How could you have let your mother stay?
Toyo: How could you have wanted to fuck her!?!
In the end, Dad was right: He shouldn’t have trusted Toyo’s happiness to that whipper-snapper.
Chaney is great here. He exudes power and emotion while reigning it in. One understands why he was such a respected silent film actor. It’s a shame he only had another year to live before dying of throat cancer at age 47. This is his third-to-last film.
Lloyd Hughes? He made the transition to sound well enough, but stopped making movies in 1939. Not sure why.
The actresses, famous in their time, might be better known today for the men in their lives. Estelle Taylor married thrice, the second time to Jack Dempsey when he was still heavyweight champion of the world. Valdez married just once—to Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller—but was linked to such a Who’s Who of masculinity as to make Taylor look like a piker: Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a Texan character actor who looked like a bigger, stronger George W. Bush), Erich Maria Remarque, and boxers Jack Johnson and, hey, Jack Dempsey again. Why not? If she had a type, it wasn’t exactly Bobby Bailey. She was also apparently volatile and abusive. Cooper supposedly lost 45 pounds in nervous exhaustion during their relationship. She supposedly fired a pistol at him when he was trying to leave. Interestingly, Taylor was one of the last people to see Velez alive. In 1944, amid another volatile relationship, she committed suicide.
Of course, what none of these actors are, in this tale of Chinese seduction, is Chinese. That's truly where Hollywood is Hollywood.