east is west (1930)
East is West is one of the stranger films to come out of Carl Laemmle Jr.'s tenure as head of production at Universal, and the pre-code era in general, though it's not nearly as sexually-charged as the era's more notable films. It's deceptively simple, although as the years go on, it becomes more complicated viewing. It seems to me that, even in its day, it was aimed at being a socially aware farce, though unfortunately not a very funny one. We're treated to pre-code Hollywood's unabashed interest in the obscure, though always played with a bit of vaudevillian flair and showmanship. For a country merely a generation or two removed from its own slave trade, the film's politics take a harsh stance against human trafficking, making for one of the film's more astute comedic observations as Lupe Velez's Ming Toy remarks at how 'uncivilized' it is not to buy or sell human beings. For the west, the exchange of capitol for possession of a person had only recently gone out of style and was previously the hallmark of civilization. It reminds one of Orson Welles' famous observation that the twentieth century west was the first civilization in human history to try and exist without slaves (and that the jury was still out on how we were coping with it). As with all films centered on the Orient (including Welles' classic The Lady from Shanghai) in those days, a pre-occupation with the western male caught in the exotic world of the 'other' plays front and center as the picture unfolds.
This picture, however, is interested in the flip side. After a brief foray in Hollywood China, we return to gay old San Francisco's Chinatown to continue our tale. Edward G. Robinson's Charlie Yong is the perfect counter for Velez as the two make up the most memorable performances onscreen. There are a few yucks to be had but mostly watching the two pantomime broken English provides only mild amusement. Still, there is something endearing about watching the culture clash, the very idea of the other coming into contact with customs they do not understand the gravity of in the eyes of the American onlookers provides much of what director Monta Bell seems to be trying to say. Much in the way of the pictures throughout the 30's (and surging again in the war as well as during cold war anti-communist pictures) the main value on display is that of the cultural superiority of Average Joe America. Unlike his stuffy elder generation who grew up during the era immediately post-slavery, Lew Ayres' Billy Benson is compassionate towards non-whites, curious about other cultures, upholding of fairness and ready to sock a guy in the jaw to prove it. We witness several times as the question of race and individuals staying within their race are presented again and again. Wealth as a means toward social status as a means to transcending one's race is again presented over and over with no mind paid to trying to keep any character "clean" in all of this besides of course Billy Benson. Though Ming Toy is clearly meant to be seen as the main character, we are not meant to identify with her in a welcome break in formula; the character is meant to be observed and admired, just as the females for sale on the Love Boat at the film's opening. Her overtaking in status of the butler character represents some of the film's more audacious moments as each volley to keep the other as the lowest on the perceived totem pole. It's a comedy of manners and of customary viewing of status which makes all cultural custom seem utterly ridiculous. Still, The Rules of the Game this is not and unfortunately a half-baked screenplay and 75 minute runtime don't allow it to rise above sitcom fodder. Even the venerable Edward G. Robinson is unable to bring much more than silliness to his role and seems to delight in parading around as Charlie Yong, though unfortunately the character's underworld ties are never brought to the forefront as it could have made for a mirror to the US underworld and the Chinese broad daylight culture as being more similar than different. There's a commendable story in here somewhere, we just never get close enough to it.
It's impossible to tell for sure what effect, if any, the film had on the viewer at the time. It's stuck in that odd era of pre-Hayes, so it's able to do generally what it pleases, a healthy freedom needed more in commercial art. It seems to have something to say about ethnic and racial equality amongst individuals and cultures living together in the USA, however it seems stuck by what it's set out to do (be a commercial piece of entertainment) and the world from which it comes. It's trying to say something, yet eventually seems to fear straying too far from well-tread ground when it comes to saying it, trapped by public opinion? Like the worst of screenplays it tip toes around and dabbles in what it would like to be about, ultimately getting cold feet and trying to make a weak joke about the whole thing. We couldn't go all the way so we've opted to try and please everyone. Stranger still it exemplifies all of the symptoms of modern work in reverse, it can't break from its cultural norms just as most contemporary work, just in wildly different ways. The bizarre final moments of the film solidify it as an amusing, yet ultimately forgettable, work.