Shadow of Chinatown (1936) is a condensed feature-film version of the fifteen chapter serial also called Shadow of Chinatown; aka, Yellow Phantom (1936). At 300 minutes it is one of the longest serials ever made. The feature is 65 minutes.
The whole serial can be had as a two-disc dvd set, but the feature version would be sufficient torture for most. The serial with all its redundancies & its higher number of racist stereotypes is merely worse.
San Francisco Chinatown is being victimized by a conspiracy led by Victor Poten (Bela Lugosi) & Sonya Rokoff aka the Dragon Lady (Luana Walters), to destroy all the Chinese import merchants which have siphoned business away from Caucasian neighborhoods.
Whites disguised as Chinese have been starting violent incidents to be blamed on the Tong family societies in order to frighten tourists away from the district.
The theme of Chinese Americans victimized by caucasians is unusual in the B-film environment where Yellow Peril is more to be expected, but little else about the story could be mistaken for progressive.
Reporter Joan Whiting (Joan Barclay) investigates the conspiritorial goings-on & gets kidnapped for her troubles. Martin Andrews (Bruce Bennett, credited as Herman Brix) is a writer doing detectiving to find Joan, resulting in totally absurd adventures.
The film tries to include a screwball comedy angle between Martin & Joan, but their romance isn't sexy & it merely undermines the potential for suspense which Bela Lugosi awkwardly attempts to drum up.
Sonya is an exotic femme fatale whose evil genius pits her against mainstream businesses. But Victor has mesmeric powers to control Sonya & turn her lust for power into more of an anti-Chinese agenda, as Victor just hates the Chinese. He also has one hell of a grudge against Martin Andrews for his past writings.
Willy Fu (Maurice Liu) is Martin Andrews' valet or butler but also his research assistant. He unfortunately speaks like a fortune cookie, but is otherwise a competent character.
Liu had only a brief acting career in the 1930s. What a horrid task it must've been trying & failing to get roles that would allow him to speak & act like a human being instead of a submissive servant.
An array of Asian actors fill out the background cast of the full serial version as reminders of the racist imbalance of opportunity Hollywood always represented.
The best of these characters preserved in the feature-length version is Detective Wong (James B. Leong) who assists Martin in revealing Sonja's plot. He shouldn't be confused with the "James Wong, Detective" series absurdly starring Boris Karloff as a hulking Chinatown detective.
Leong had a two-decade successful career as a character actor, from yellow peril figures to servants to dockworkers to a Shanghai cop, though a huge percentage of his roles were too small to even score a screen credit.
Sonja is easier to bring down than Victor who is out of control on a murderous path of insane vengeance. He uses his hypnotic powers to stop anyone who stands between him & his target, Martin.
Dr. Zander (Henry Hall), a psychiatrist, attempts to break Victor's mesmeric control of Sonja. Victor is a rabid anti-Chinese fanatic who has invented a telepathic television which can spy on his foes. Victor is such a corny villain, but Bela is always enjoyable in such roles, even though he's not trying very hard in this one.
What makes the ending a happy one is that Joan gives up her career dreams. Martin says no wife of his will ever work, & Joan thinks that's hunkydory.
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