Monday, 27 December 2010

1929 kitsch colour extravaganza

This is a clip  from a 1929 extravaganza shot mainly in Technicolor, packed with elaborate dance sequences. It wasn't called "The Show of Shows" for nothing. Sound was new and colour even more shocking, so this film really announced a new era in entertainment. Trouble was it cost millions and was released just before the Wall Street Crash that started the First Great Depression. The Lehman Brothers of film?

This segment A Chinese Fantasy has almost nothing to do with China. Chinese opera costumes used without context, mixed with peasant hats, Japanese kimonos and "Arabian" objects like Aladdin lamps. This is high camp fun. No offence was intended at the time, though, apart from the basic fact non-whites were considered fair game and not just in entertainment. The film's not racist so much as totally off the wall. The idea was to get something exotic and colourful to make maximum impact.

Look out for the gigantic black legs that descend from the roof. It's a massive black genie, bearing the actress in his palms. The star is Myrna Loy, one of the big names of the 1920's. They are packing in every big name of the time, including the dog, the famous Rin Tin Tin. Loy's role is unashamedly yellowface, because everyone knew it was a vehicle for her and had nothing to do with authenticity. Had the part gone to a real Chinese  that would have been offensive as a real ethnic camping up like this would be selling out to stereotype.

Besides, at that time, any real Chinese actress dancing in her underwear would never have been able to live it down. No doubt the film was shown in China, but the audiences would have been tittering with embarrassment. Eighty years later, it's still hard for real Chinese to watch the sequence of dancers in Chinese hats and tops but NO pants, especially when they squat. OOPs!

The male lead is Nick Lucas, king of kitsch crooning, who created the original Tiptoe thru the Tulips. The song is Lipoli which is gibberish but sounds cute (and Italian to a Chinese.)

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