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FEATURING ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICANS
Between 1940 and 1949
This is a very low-budget B movie of poor quality. Its uninspired story of an Asian detective, James Lee Wong, solving a murder mystery is only a cheap attempt to cash in on the Charlie Chan movies of the era. But unlike Chan, the Asian detective hero in this film is an acculturated American, and he's played by Chinese American actor Keye Luke, not by an actor in Yellowface." Luke's character is a confident, clear-speaking man of action. In an era when Asian stereotypes ran rampant in Hollywood, Luke's stereotype-busting lead role redeems this otherwise lackluster thriller.
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HORNET STRIKES AGAIN
Directed by Ford Beebe & John Rawlins
Cast: Warren Hull, Keye Luke, Wade Boteler, Eddie Acuff, Anne Nagel, Pierre Watkin, Arthur Loft, James Seay, William Hall, Jack Ellis, Joe Devlin, Dorothy Lovett, Jean Brooks, William Forrest, Nestor Paiva, Eddie Dunn, William Ruhl, John Holland, Paul McVey, Joseph Forte, Alfred Hall, Philo McCullough, Ethan Laidlaw, Jack Clifford, Earl Gunn, Henrietta Burnside, James Blaine, C. Montague Shaw, Richard Kipling, Alden 'Stephen' Chase, Phillip Warren, Harry Cording, Eugene L. Eubank, Harry Fleischmann, Robert Barron, Frank Hoose, Jimmy O'Gatty, Karl Hackett, Jay Michael, Allan Cavan, Roy Barcroft, Al Bridge, William P. Carleton, Lane Chandler, Jack Cheatham, Tristram Coffin, Bob Kortman, Pierce Lyden, John Merton, Charles F. Miller, Irving Mitchell, Thomas Mizer, Edward Payson, Jack Perrin, Walter Sande, Clarence Straight, Forrest Taylor, Ray Teal, Allen Wood
Hey, wait a minute. What's this movie doing on the list? It's an adaptation of the classic Victorian novel by Emily Brontë. It doesn't have anything to do with Asia. Or does it? In fact, the film's star, Merle Oberon (1911-1979), is part-Indian. She was born in Bombay to an English father and a Sunhalese mother. This lineage gave Oberon her "exotic" looks that British audiences, and later Hollywood audiences, found so fascinating. What make Oberon's story of particular interest are the great lengths to which she went to conceal her Asianness. She denied being Indian, cultivated her makeup and lighting to look as pale as possible and even concocted a phony life story that had her born in Australia. The biographer Charles Higham believes that Oberon's perpetuation of this ruse ultimately wore her down emotionally and led to her death at age 68. Oberon's portrayal of Cathy in this highly acclaimed adaptation is probably her best-known and best-loved performance. The film ranked number 73 on the American Film Institute's list of "The 100 Best American Movies," the only entry on that list in which an "Asian" performer gets top billing. (HBO Video)
If Merle Oberon was technically the West's first South Asian movie star, its first openly South Asian star was Sabu. This native of India first broke into films as the child star of the British-produced " Elephant Boy" (1937). As he grew, he continued starring in such British films as the re-make of " The Thief of Bagdad" (1940). "The Jungle Book" features Sabu in his first real adult starring role as Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli. The British-based Alexander Korda, driven overseas by World War II, produced the film in the United States. The story is set in India, and all of the supporting characters appear to be played by white actors in "Brownface." Still, Sabu holds the screen as the heroic main character, and this Technicolor movie remains very enjoyable as an example of the era's fantasy filmmaking. Sabu would go on to have a career in Hollywood, playing other "exotic" lead and supporting roles in movies as " Drums" (1938), " The Arabian Nights" (1942), " Black Narcissus" (1947), " A Tiger Walks" (1964) and "Sabu and the Magic Ring" (1957). He died in 1963. Although quite popular in his time, Sabu is barely remembered today. Jason Scott Lee would inherit the role of Mowgli in the 1994 re-make of " The Jungle Book ".
Katherine Hepburn starred as a defiant Asian woman interested in the politics of her Chinese village and leads her fellow villages in an uprising against Japanese invaders. Agnes Morehead also stars as a conniving "Oriental" woman. The use of caucasian actors and actresses in oriental roles significantly detracts from the film's realism and paralleLs the mood of the US towards Asian Pacific Americans. Based on Pearl S. Buck's novel of 1942. Academy Award Nominations: 2, Best Supporting Actress--Aline MacMahon, Best (Black-and-White) Cinematography.
BLOOD ON THE SUN
Amazon Review: Cagney is a crusading newspaper editor in 1930s Japan who's come into possession of the "Tanaka Plan" for world domination. Amidst political intrigue and crossed loyalties, Cagney must now find a way to warn the outside world. A fine, entertaining melodrama that's based in fact, with Cagney as good as ever, but this time with judo chops. If only the Japanese knew some kind of hand-to-hand combat, they might be able to stand a chance against Cagney. Dated only by its condescension towards the Japanese, Blood on the Sun never slacks its pace, providing quick-witted patter all along in the mark of the classic Hollywood style. It seems peculiarly American (in an inadvertent way, of course) that in the film's final moments the day should be saved by none other than Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont).
Rotten Tomatoes: Set in the 1930's, an American newspaper editor (Cagney) working in Japan discovers the insidious "Tanaka Plan" while investigating the double murder of a fellow reporter and his wife. If he is to warn the world about this Japanese plot for world domination, he must stay alive and out of the hands of the secret police with the help of Iris (Sidney), a beautiful Chinese-American spy.
It's been stated that "It isn't PC (considering that it was produced just after the end of WWII), but it's not all stereotype either. There are some real Asians in the film, the plot is a true story, and not all the Japanese are evil. That said, yes, there are a lot of quasi-offensive squinty-eyed caucasians with fake buck teeth in the film, too. Editor's Note: Of course, the Americans are the good guys who fight better than the Japanese (sic White actors playing roles in "YellowFace.") that stretches the imagination. James Cagney does the best he can, considering the time period that he lived in.