Sat 6 Sep 2014
WEST OF SHANGHAI. Warner Brothers, 1937. Boris Karloff, Beverly Roberts, Ricardo Cortez, Gordon Oliver, Sheila Bromley, Vladimir Sokoloff, Gordon Hart, Richard Loo. Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne. Director: John Farrow.
West of Shanghai is overall an enjoyable, although occasionally stilted, drama/action film starring Boris Karloff with Beverly Roberts and Ricardo Cortez. Directed by John Farrow, whose movie adaptation of David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun I reviewed here, the film stars Karloff as a Chinese warlord by the name of Wu Yen Fang.
Fang’s an interesting fellow, that’s for certain. He’s brutal, yes, but he’s also got something of a heart of gold and a sense of humor to boot. One can’t help but smile when he repeats, with a gleam in his eye, his self-assured catchphrase, “I’m Fang” as a means of explaining of how he can get away with the seemingly improbable or impossible.
Perhaps one reason this movie isn’t as well known today is that Karloff is made up to look Chinese. He also speaks in broken English, taking us many degrees away from politically correct territory. Still, Karloff’s an absolute pleasure to watch, demonstrating once again that the classically trained English actor really had incredible acting skills.
Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne, West of Shanghai is an adventure film, a thriller, and a comedy of manners all in one. The story follows two business competitors, Gordon Creed (Cortez) and an older man named Galt as they travel north in China in the hopes of gaining business influence over an oil field overseen by Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver). It should come as no surprise that among the film’s subtexts is a slightly comical, but also deadly serious, critique of American industrialists and human greed. At one point, the power hungry general tells Galt that the latter cares too much about money. Ouch.
Complicating matters even further for the businessmen is not only Fang’s growing military and political influence in the region, but also the fact that Creed’s estranged wife, Jane (Beverly Roberts), is both a missionary in the region and currently in love with Jim. Add to the mix Galt’s headstrong and quite beautiful daughter, Lola (Sheila Bromley), and you’ve got yourself some great human drama in an exotic setting.
All told, I found West of Shanghai to be an enjoyable picture with a lot in terms of plot and style to recommend it. Karloff is great as Feng and Cortez portrays the slimy, double-crossing, Creed really well. Vladmir Sokoloff’s portrayal of General Chow Fu-Shan is literally cut short when his character is killed by one of Feng’s assassins, but he’s also quite good as far as character actors go.
I’d hesitate to call West of Shanghai a great film, but at a running time of slightly over 60 minutes, it’s never dull and Farrow’s direction is solid. The movie’s no classic, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out even if for novelty value. They don’t make films like this anymore. But just because they really can’t, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth appreciating those that remain and enjoying them on their own terms.