Friday, May 12, 2017

Son of Universal: Chinatown Squad

Lyle Talbot worked with Ed Wood, the Three Stooges, and Ozzie & Harriett. He was also the first actor to play Lex Luthor and Commissioner Gordon in the Superman and Batman serials. Rather embarrassingly, he only has one significant scene with an Asian cast-member in this highly-dated crime yarn, but his appearance with Japanese-American actress Toshia Mori is the best thing about Murray Roth’s Chinatown Squad, which screens during MoMA’s current film series, Son of Universal: More Rediscovered Gems from the Laemmle Years.

Earl Raybold went into a private booth at the Peking Café upright, a high-class chop suey joint in painfully 1930s Chinatown, but he left feet first. As luck would have it, Ted Lacey, a former beat cop-turned tour guide had a group at the restaurant that night. He takes charge of the scene until his former colleagues arrive, but he lets the mysterious Janet Baker slip away, for reasons that are easy to guess.

Raybold’s death throws a spanner into the works for all his various business colleagues. Their business was supplying armaments to the Chinese Communists in Manchuria. That’s right, the Reds, not the Nationalists. In many ways, arch-HUAC-critic Doroe Schary & Ben Ryan’s screenplay is both racist and pinko, which is not nearly as unusual a combination as the latter would like us to believe.

Of course, John Yee, the owner of the Peking Café and chief fund-raiser for the Communist forces is played by E. Alyn Warren, a pasty white character actor who was frequently cast in Asian roles. The uncredited Mori only appears briefly as Wanda, a telephone operator with a hot tip for Lacey, but her charisma just pops off the screen. As Lacey, Talbot is a poor man’s leading man, but at least Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein and the future Mrs. John Profumo) holds up her flirty femme fatale end of the bargain as Baker. Yet, probably the most memorable performance comes from Andy Devine, playing Raybold’s sarcastic flunky George Mason, in his signature Andy Devine voice.

Chinatown Squad is definitely problematic, but it is worth periodically revisiting hoary old relics like this, to spot the weird Easter Eggs within. In this case, Mori and Devine are worth keeping your eyes peeled, for very different reasons. Recommended as a museum piece, Chinatown Squad fittingly screens at a museum tomorrow (5/13) and next Tuesday (5/16), as part of MoMA’s Son of Universal series.