CHINATOWN NIGHTS. Paramount, 1929; William Wellman, director; Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor, Warner Oland, Jack Oakie, Jack McHugh, Testsu, Komai, Peter Morrison. Shown at Cinecon 41, September 2005.


   I may have a very soft spot for the resourceful Mary Miles Minters and Mary Pickfords of the film world, but let it not be thought that I subsist only on sweets. I’m also partial to Warner Oland, both for his masterful incarnation of Charlie Chan and for his earlier screen career as an Oriental villain, a role he once again assumes in this flavorful treat.

   Chinatown is ruled by two gang lords, Chuck Riley, the Caucasian tong leader played by Wallace Beery, and Boston Charley, the Chinese tong leader, played by Warner Oland. (It’s of interest that this screening was preceded by the showing of a trailer for one of the early, lost Chan films starring Oland.)


   Florence Vidor is the society woman who tours Chinatown and stays, infatuated with Riley, whose familiarity with Shakespeare and some signs of tenderness captivate her. The most striking scene takes place at the performance of a Chinese opera, attended by both Riley and Charley, that explodes in a shoot-out that shatters the always fragile quiet of Chinatown.

   The soundtrack is somewhat rough, but Beery is a commanding presence, with the dark, dangerous streets, punctuated by gunfire, creating an ominous background to the troubled (and troubling) relationship of Beery and Vidor.

   Oland’s role is, unfortunately, not large, but he doesn’t get lost in the crowd.

[EDITORIAL COMMENT]   Walter doesn’t mention it, but this movie is regarded as Florence Vidor’s first and last sound film. Her voice was dubbed by another actress, the story goes, and after a long career in the silent era (and once married to director King Vidor), she decided to quit the movie-making business, having married again, this time to violinist Jascha Heifetz in 1928.

   I’ve tried, but so far I’ve come up empty in finding a photo of Warner Oland in this movie. Sorry, Walter!    — Steve