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Monday, June 25, 2012

Forget Men in Black III -- Rediscover these Strange, Forgotten S.F. Classics

Posted By on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 11:02 AM

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For a few years now, the Warner Archive Collection has been a key destination for even the most jaded cinephile. Warner Brothers' burn-on-demand DVD service offers up a massive repository of strange, overlooked, or otherwise forgotten films. With a new batch of releases each week and every genre and decade in film history represented, fans are guaranteed to discover at least a few "new" unsung classics each month. Now that Warner distributes burn-on-demand discs for Sony and MGM as well, it has become an increasingly indispensable source of lost favorites and new discoveries, especially for those of us who tend to be depressed by the bulk of Hollywood's new 3D monstrosities.

San Francisco is well-represented among the films in the Warner Archive Collection. The three films discussed here were all shot on studio sets, but each of these historical thrillers is set here.

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Old San Francisco (1927, dir. Alan Crosland) Based on a scenario by Hollywood legend Darryl F. Zanuck, Old San Francisco is Hollywood's dream of a rough-edged city whose original Spanish-flavored romance was wrecked by the greed and corruption of 49er sleaze. The unbelievably gorgeous silent-era siren Dolores Costello stars as the only child of Don Hernandez de Vasquez, whose estate has been passed down through several generations of Californios. San Francisco businessman Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland) is horning in on the property, making it clear to Vasquez that he intends to take it, by hook or by crook. Buckwell has made his own fortune by controlling business activities in Chinatown (i.e., keeping the Chinese firmly under his thumb). Here's where it gets really weird: Buckwell is actually Chinese, and in a secret temple far beneath the streets, he keeps his own dwarf brother locked up in a cage lest he get out and betray Buckwell's secret identity! It all gets very nuts -- and then the city shakes and burns, putting an end to everyone's plans.

A still from the '06 earthquake scene in "Old San Francisco"
  • A still from the '06 earthquake scene in "Old San Francisco"

Made in 1927, Old San Francisco is silent, although concurrent developments in sound-on-film technology allowed Warner Brothers to release it with a Vitaphone soundtrack containing a musical score and some sound effects. (The first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, was released by Warner Bros. just a month after Old San Francisco.) The visual effects during the earthquake sequence are extraordinarily effective -- so much so that they were cribbed by numerous future films, including The Sisters (1938) with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, another 1906 'quake movie available in the Archive Collection.

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Frisco Kid (1935, dir. Lloyd Bacon) Not to be confused with the similarly-titled '70s comedy with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, this one stars James Cagney as Bat Morgan, a down-on-his-luck sailor who starts out the film narrowly escaping an attempted shanghai-ing only to end up a man of influence and power on the murderous Barbary Coast. Set in the 1850s, at the height of the Barbary Coast's notoriety, the atmosphere is thick with killers and thieves -- as well as businessmen who profit from barrooms, brothels, and cheap hotels. Of course, the Hays Code had been adopted by Hollywood studios in the early 1930s, a self-censorship tool that ensured moving pictures would conform to antiseptic notions of decency. Accordingly, the Barbary Coast was not to be romanticized. That's why Frisco Kid features characters like a crusading newspaper editor who takes it upon himself to clean up the neighborhood and eliminate the bad element. Cagney finds himself working both sides against a morally vague middle, a strategy that has mixed to negative results. It's a fast-paced movie though, directed with economy and style by San Jose native Lloyd Bacon; the action is buoyed along by Cagney's incomparable charisma.

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Mr. Wong, Detective (1938, dir. William Nigh) Released in 1938, this was the economy-sized studio Monogram Pictures' entry in the Asian detective sweepstakes. In the '30s, Fox had enormous hits with their Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, the former of which starred none other than Warner Oland, who played the "secret Chinese" Buckwell in Old San Francisco. The Mr. Wong series, which only ran for three pictures, starred Boris Karloff in the title role. He was a big catch for Monogram, as he was riding very high after his breakout performances in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), and a succession of other popular thrillers and horror movies. Unfortunately, the cheapness that Monogram was known for is unconcealed in Mr. Wong. The film's plot -- in which Wong investigates a string of clandestine poisonings -- is thoroughly undeveloped. Scenes drag on awkwardly, and often in silence, as if the film has been padded to reach feature length (it's only 69 minutes). Karloff, as always, cannot help being interesting. He plays Mr. Wong in his own voice (i.e., with an English accent), and the makeup used to make him look Chinese is not nearly as offensive as the era was known to be in that regard. Mr. Wong, Detective, is decent late-night entertainment (preferably after a few glasses of pisco punch), but it was never destined to be a classic.

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Casey Burchby

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