Yellowface in Hollywood

The Criterion Channel is currently running a series that studies the difficult crossroads between mostly-white Hollywood and the world’s largest group of people: Han Chinese. It analyses both the racist yellowface movies of decades past, to recent American films directed by Asian Americans. The series is called Hollywood Chinese.

Yes, I’m posting two articles about Criterion in one week. It’s a matter of timing. (The first one covered movies leaving Criterion at the end of August.)

To make this series, Arthur Dong selected 23 features and several shorts to show how Hollywood treated Asians over the decades. Of those I watched eight, and I decided to stick to movies made in the days of yellowface and racism. If you want to see more of the newer films in Dong’s series, I can recommend Chan Is Missing, The Wedding Banquet, and Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl..

In 2007, Dong made the feature documentary Hollywood Chinese. It begins with cheap movies made by amateurs in the silent era, then continues the era of Anna May Wong, and the good and bad aspects of Charlie Chan. It examines Chinese actors working in Hollywood, along with white actors in yellowface. Things get better in the ’60s, and more so into the 21st century.

I usually list films from best to worst. This time, it’s from oldest to youngest. That way, you can see how Hollywood changed over the years, and how it didn’t.

A Broken Blossoms (1919)

We’re not supposed to say good things about D.W. Griffith, but this small masterpiece is one of the best silent melodramas. It deals with horrific poverty, child abuse, drug abuse, religious proselytism, and yes, racism. Set in the slums of London, a cruel and brutish boxer takes out his anger on his helpless daughter (Lillian Gish). A Chinese immigrant takes her under his care, but that will make things worse.
Just how racist? We think of Griffith today more as a racist than a cinematic pioneer. But he treats the Chinese as civilized people – something he couldn’t do with Blacks in Birth of a Nation. And yet, the Chinese hero is played by white actor Richard Barthelmess.

D- The Letter (1929)

This courtroom drama is the sort of early talkie that makes you wonder why silent films didn’t survive. It’s stagy and overdone. A proper woman living on a rubber plantation kills her lover because he’s now hooked up with a Chinese woman.
Just how racist? I’m not sure if this movie is racist or is trying to show the horrors of racism. Probably both. The white people often treat the Asians horribly. The Chinese lover is much more decent than the white woman who committed murder.

F Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

This is an extremely bad horror movie. Anna May Wong plays the daughter of Fu Manchu (father is played briefly by Warner Oland in yellowface), and she must kill an important British family. Not a single moment is entertaining. This is the sort of movie where people run around in an old mansion with secret doors.
Just how racist? With one exception, Chinese people here are cruel, violent, and stupid (the one good Chinaman dresses as an Englishman). At least it uses real Asians for some of the cast.

B+ The Good Earth (1937)

I didn’t expect a movie with Hollywood stars in yellowface to be so good. I was quickly swallowed up among this epic about a Chinese farmer (Paul Muni) and his family. His wife (Luise Rainer) is stronger and smarter than he. They struggle with draught, famine, and immigration to the big city. The production value is amazing.
Just how racist? This is the earliest Hollywood film I’ve seen where Chinese people acted like, well, people. That’s a big leap, except that almost all the main characters are played by white people made up to look Chinese.

D Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)

The star’s yellowface makeup and stupid proverbs aren’t the worst of this silly murder mystery. It doesn’t provide any reason to care who done it. Eddie Collins’ comic relief character is more annoying than funny. I don’t understand the film’s title, since Chan clearly lives in Honolulu, yet the film could just as well be set in Cincinnati.
Just how racist? Chan is always the smartest, most decent, and kindest person in the room. He’s also a very happy and loving patriarch. Despite Sidney Toler’s yellow face in the main character, the movie treats Asians very well.

C China Doll (1958)

This World War II movie, made in the late 1950s, isn’t much. Victor Mature lacked the charisma and acting chops to be an effective leading man. Stationed in a remote area of China, Mature’s character falls in love with a young Chinese woman. This leads to pregnancy and marriage.
Just how racist? Not a single character in the film is racist. No one brings up the issues of mixed marriages, which would have been very serious in the 1940s.

B- Flower Drum Song (1961)

Probably the least known movie adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, mostly because of the lack of white people in the cast. The cliched story of mismatched couples is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown – a bold choice for a Hollywood studio in 1961. Much of the humor comes from older Chinese immigrants uncomfortable with American ways, and their young, more American children. The songs are mostly forgettable, with a couple of exceptions. Hermes Pan’s choreography is vigorous and delightful. James Shigeta makes a fine, romantic lead, but as the ingenue, Miyoshi Umeki shows an acting range from innocence to purity.
Just how racist? This big musical was exceptional for a 1961 movie. The all-Asian cast shows us entertainingly how different immigrants became Americans.

A- 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

This George Pal fantasy is still one of the best children’s films ever made – and yet, much of it is pointed to the adults in the audience. Tony Randall, made up as an old but brilliant Chinese magician, comes to a small town in the old west. This new stranger uses magic to help the townspeople understand themselves through Lao’s circus.
Just how racist? How do you praise a great children’s film that’s also somewhat racist. Randall, a white man, plays the title character in yellowface (he also plays several other characters, also in heavy makeup). As Lao, he changes accents when he needs to. In one sense, Lao could be called a Chinese version of the Magic Negro.