Broke my own "Lightning Review" rule and viewed this twice, plus looked up a little background ... early dialogue film from Paramount and director William Wellman ... anything with distance, long shots and tracking shots, is dubbed ... remaining scenes appear to be inside early sound studio where only the dialogue is heard ... otherwise, not even a pin drop ... a simple musical score fills some of the silence, but overall a very eerie quality about Chinatown Nights ... style of a silent film, but with healthy amount of dialogue ... advertised as Wallace Beery's first sound film, though his voice was recorded for portions of previous Wellman outing Beggars of Life (1928) ... period fan and trade magazines seem disappointed that Beery appears to have now given up comedy ... this change works well out for Beery soon enough, when he moves from Paramount to MGM ... Florence Vidor's final film and only talkie ... she was criticized for a poor voice and her acting during drunken scenes ... none of this stood out as particularly poor by my eyes or ears ... Vidor didn't return for dubbing, so we often hear someone else's voice anyway ... Swedish-born Warner Oland plays Beery's Chinatown rival, Boston Charlie, predating his Fu Machus and Charlie Chans ... don't worry, Beery is not in "yellow-face" ... Beery is Chuck Riley, white leader of Chinatown gang ... it appears many real Asian actors are on hand in bit parts and as extras ... thought I saw Willie Fung, and sure enough, IMDb lists him ... Jack Oakie lousy as stuttering reporter ... the harder the consonant, the more forced his stutter ... Jack McHugh won raves as Beery's shadow, kid who worships and follows big Chuck around Chinatown ... McHugh billed on IMDb/TCM sites as "The Shadow," but listed in opening credits as "Jerry" ... he's good, but most effective in silent pantomime ... Beery's Chuck Riley is boss of the Won Pings Tong ... Oland's Boston Charlie is boss of rival Ho Yen faction ... Vidor's Joan Fry is uptown socialite exploring seedy Chinatown underbelly ... Joan held captive overnight by Chuck, protecting her after gang war breaks out on streets below ... while locked alone in Chuck's room, Joan discovers he's deeper than she had suspected ... many books, Shakespeare, an inscription naming Chuck as 1908 graduate of anonymous institution ... Joan departs next morning once safe ... Oakie's reporter sets up movie-house showdown between Chuck and Charlie just so he can get scoop ... Joan and her uptown "rubberneckers" arrive and get in way of shootout ... she follows Chuck home ... barbarian masculinity of the day wins Joan over — Chuck smacks her, she follows him up to his room ... he's hurt when she goes to leave next morning ... "Head uptown. Body Barbary Coast," Chuck says. "Which are you?" ... uptown she says, preparing to leave ... "For once in my life I wanted to be a real woman." ... As Joan exits a prostitute across the hall spots her and asks "Going my way?" ... Chuck laughs at her; Joan hurt by laughter; Joan decides to stay ... She's Chuck's kept woman in Chinatown now ... can't even leave apartment ... gives up everything for Chuck, wants him to get out ... "You belong to Chinatown now," he tells her ... after Chuck reveals Tong members are susceptible to deportation, Joan uses the information to try to stop the war and free Chuck ... he physically throws her out ... McHugh's Shadow character follows Joan, now an alcoholic ... boy takes her home after she's tossed from seedy dive bar ... war escalates ... will Chuck save Joan from what she's become so she can in turn save him from Chinatown ... poor reviews in its day ... while transitional silent-sound style is awkward, also effective ... I thought it was much better than its contemporary critics did ... my IMDb rating: 6/10.
Lightning Review: Chinatown Nights (1929) Starring Wallace Beery
Lightning reviews are first impressions of movies I've yet to research for more detailed articles. Unlike my more polished full reviews there is little to no research here; sparse images and links; a more relaxed writing style. These are movies I'd love to eventually cover with a more fully developed article, but until time permits, here's the short version:
This film was somewhat of a pleasant surprise, especially since I didn’t realize that it was more of a “part-talkie,” and that there were significant amounts of silent footage that featured a synchronized score, which I enjoyed. The visual fluidity of these scenes was appreciated, and I wish that these “silent” stretches could have remained an option within talking films instead of the stilted dialogue scenes that ultimately prevailed. The dubbing, when it occurred, I thought well-done. I always wonder exactly what the silent actors and actresses were saying, but for this film, the “dialogue” seemed to match the original lip movements well. The same is true for some of the dubbed scenes in Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (more so towards the beginning of that film).
On the negative side, Florence Vidor’s character: she just wouldn’t go away! Not to be unkind, but it was borderline stalking, and she just kept showing up when she was told to go. Also, although I give the film credit for showing the heroine in a negative light with the drinking/alcoholism, that inclined me even more against her character when she already proved herself a pest. Also, I wonder why she said that she couldn’t go back to her world after deciding to stay with Beery. Would that many of her “friends” (whom she really didn’t like) be scandalized by her decision to live with a man in Chinatown? Would they really even care? I doubt the “uptown” crowd was that Puritanical in the 1920’s, since they went “slumming” at nightclubs, etc.
In regard to Miss Vidor’s voice, I did notice occasions when it was Nella Walker uttering her lines in the silent footage, but I’m not entirely convinced that she did so in every talking scene. Case in point: after Beery gets the arm wound, and Vidor attends to it, that lovely close shot in which Vidor asks him if he’s better–the voice sounds much younger and less quavery than Nella Walker’s. If that was actually Florence Vidor’s voice, it sounded very nice to me.
The plot went in several odd directions, too; and I couldn’t help feel that less of the up and down if the Beery/Vidor relationship would have helped the film. Seeing Beery slap lovely Florence Vidor was interesting, to say the least.
Just a few random thoughts. Thanks so much for posting about this neglected film.