Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), the Eurasian agent of an international importing chain, is ordered to destroy the tourist trade of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is providing unwanted competition for her employers; she hires shady scientist Victor Poten (Bela Lugosi), a Eurasian like herself, to start a crime wave in Chinatown, hoping the police will close it to tourists. However, she doesn’t realize that Poten, bitter about the mixed ancestry that makes him an outsider among both Orientals and Occidentals, is determined to take violent revenge on society; his Chinatown campaign soon becomes a murderous one, and Sonya finds herself unable to stop the “Frankenstein’s monster” she’s created. In the meantime, mystery novelist Martin Andrews (Herman Brix) has been talked into investigating the Chinatown troubles by bustling rookie reporter Joan Whiting (Joan Barclay); aided by Joan and by his astute Chinese servant Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), Andrews soon begins to interfere with Poten’s crimes–and resultantly draws the master criminal’s wrath down on himself.
Shadow of Chinatown was the first of two serials produced by Sam Katzman’s independent company, “Victory Pictures;” its writers, Isadore Bernstein and Basil Dickey (director Robert Hill also receives an “original story” credit under the pseudonym of “Rock Hawkey”), carefully steer clear of any plot developments that might place too much strain on Victory’s shoestring budgets. As a result, Poten’s campaign of terror is very small-scaled, limited to a smoke-bombing and a burst of harmless gunfire in a Chinatown shop and restaurant, several kidnappings, and a series of unsuccessful murder plots–most of them directed against Martin Andrews, not the Chinatown merchants.
Though great emphasis is placed on Poten’s scientific genius, the budget also prevents him from using many gadgets, aside from his television-like surveillance device; he largely relies on lethally booby-trapped household items to carry out his schemes, or on near-supernatural hypnotic powers. The latter attribute does give the character some real menace, but he still fails to come off as the world-threatening super-criminal that his fearful associates make him out to be. Said associates frequently tell us that Poten’s ultimate goal is the mass extermination of all whites and Chinese, but it’s pretty hard to believe that a villain who’s repeatedly reduced to using improvised death traps in fruitless attempts to kill a single novelist could ever hope to commit murder on so lavish a scale.
Poten never really takes even a tentative step towards carrying out this monstrous plot; he also virtually abandons the Chinatown terrorization scheme by Chapter Three, devoting nearly all the remaining episodes to trying to eliminate Andrews or trying to protect himself from his rebellious henchman Grogan and his increasingly reluctant accomplice Sonya. The widening schism between Poten and the two latter characters, and its result on his battle with Andrews, helps to diminish the narrative repetitiousness arising from the ongoing assassination attempts–as does the boat trip to San Francisco that consumes several of the serial’s middle episodes.
However, neither the trip or the villainous squabbles do much to accelerate the lethargic pace of the serial. Like Katzman’s other Victory serial, Blake of Scotland Yard, Chinatown was structured so that it could be smoothly edited down into a coherent seventy-minute feature; as a result, it’s padded out and slowed down by footage designed to be easily removable– examples including Poten’s interminably prolonged setup of his telephone death-trap in Chapter Four, the endless “dramatic” closeups that drag out Sonya’s Chapter Twelve confession, and (most noticeable of all) the bizarre stock-footage disaster montage that’s abruptly shoehorned into Chapter Fifteen, interrupting the search for Poten. The latter footage makes so little sense in the context of the plot that I tend to think editor Carl Henkel must have accidentally inserted it in place of some police-dragnet stock footage (which would have fit in logically enough). Numerous dialogue sequences also serve to pad out Chinatown’s running time; some of these are absurd and self-contradictory–like the several scenes in which police detective Walters accuses Andrews of being behind the Chinatown crimes after Poten borrows murder methods from Andrews’ books, then admits Andrews must be innocent after the writer is nearly killed by one of these methods, and then inexplicably goes back to accusing Andrews.
However, other dialogue interchanges are much more entertaining, and enliven the serial by individualizing the characters to an unusual extent. The bouts of romantic-comedy-style bickering between Andrews and Joan Whiting are well-written enough to be more funny than irritating; the same goes for Willy Fu’s alternately florid and slangy conversational style (when a henchman pokes a gun at him, he quips “I accede to honorable request of thug”). The principal villains–the obsessive and embittered Poten, the resentful Grogan, and the sly but increasingly frightened Sonya–are also given above-average lines (particularly the “Frankenstein’s monster” interchange between Poten and Sonya, and the “sap” bit with Poten and Grogan) in their various interactions with each other. William Buchanan, who also plays one of Poten’s henchmen, is credited with “special dialogue” for the serial, which makes it sound as if he was assigned to “punch up” the screenplay; if so, he succeeded to an extent, materially assisted by the serial’s cast.
Above: “I feel responsible for you.” “Do you, Martin?” “Of course I do; you haven’t and you never have had the slightest idea of how to take care of yourself.” A potential romantic interlude between Herman Brix and Joan Barclay is truncated by Brix’s amusing sarcasm, as Maurice Liu watches.
Action scenes are extremely scarce in Shadow of Chinatown; the enjoyable rooftop chase/fight in Chapter Thirteen is basically the only extended sequence of its kind in the serial. The hero’s Chapter Six hand-over-hand climb across a telephone wire, his subsequent swing through a window, and his short clash with a henchman on a circular staircase in the next chapter are also memorable; most of the other action scenes, however, consist of wild and sloppy-looking brawls that take place on a strictly occasional basis and are almost inevitably cut short. The actors handle their own stuntwork in these brief fights; one assumes Herman Brix was doubled for the wire-climb sequence–although it’s quite possible the athletic star performed it himself. Certainly, Brix’s memories of working “like a dog” on the serial (he put in sixteen-hour days and sleep several nights at the studio) make it easy to picture him assisting Katzman further by doing his own climbing.
Unlike the earlier Bela Lugosi serial Return of Chandu, Chinatown doesn’t use additional helpings of eerie atmosphere to compensate for its lack of traditional action. Director Robert Hill and cameraman Bill Hyer occasionally seem to be trying to give the serial a spooky, horror-movie ambience–but, though they contribute a few nicely ominous shots of a lurking Lugosi, the serial’s budget forces them to shoot most “suspense” scenes in far more flat and pedestrian visual style. Such scenes–like the hero and heroine’s search of Poten’s headquarters in Chapter One, or the poison-gas sequence in Chapter Twelve–are also paced and edited too sluggishly, being filled with so many redundant shots that they lose most of their potential impact.
The poison-gas sequence serves as Chapter Twelve’s cliffhanger; in concept, the scene (which has a rose succumbing to the early effects of an invisible gas that’s going to strike the unsuspecting heroes next) is fine, but is undermined by poor handling. Other cliffhangers range from respectable to ridiculous: Brix’s apparent off-camera felling by a poison needle hidden in his phone works well, due largely to the terrified reaction of heroine Joan Barclay. The Chapter Two double cliffhanger (which has Barclay menaced by closing walls and Brix by a thrown knife) is quite good, while the manhole-explosion and roof-fall chapter endings (the most visually impressive cliffhangers in the serial) are fine too–although the former is rather abrupt. Sitting at the “ridiculous” end of the spectrum is a sequence that’s justly infamous as one of the most laughable cliffhangers in serial history: the Chapter Five ending, in which Bela Lugosi suspends a fishbowl over the unconscious Brix’s head in the fanciful hope that it will focus the rays of the sun into a beam that will boil the hero’s brains. None of the other chapter endings attain this level of sublime absurdity, most of them being acceptable but uninspired, though often a bit contrived-looking–like Charles King’s seeming strangulation of Brix with a flimsily-secured wire.
Above left: Brix is blown towards a Chinatown shop by a bomb planted beneath a manhole, at the end of Chapter Three. Above right: Brix is supposedly endangered by that hanging fishbowl at the end of Chapter Five.
Chinatown’s sets, like its cliffhangers, are uneven in quality; Andrews’ suburban home, Sonya’s apartment, and Poten’s Chinatown den are all suitably spiffy or shabby, while Chinatown itself is represented by what seems to be a genuine and inhabited street. An actual dockyard pops up briefly in two episodes, while an unfamiliar semi-rural stretch of California roadway provides an interesting backdrop for a too-brief chase in Chapter Eleven, and a real rooftop does good duty in Chapter Thirteen. On the other hand, the serial never manages for an instant to convince us that alleged ocean-liner–on which parts of Chapters Seven and Ten and all of Chapters Eight and Nine take place–is actually at sea; the lack of outdoor lighting and the absence of even a brief stock-footage shot of the ocean make the drably-furbished “decks” seem like the soundstages they are.
Above left: Luana Walters and Bela Lugosi at the railing of the “ship.” Above right: Herman Brix and Joan Barclay stop to fix a tire on the road, unaware Lugosi’s car is coming into sight behind them.
As mentioned, the principal cast of Shadow of Chinatown is an excellent one; most of its members can be heard stumbling over their lines on occasion (retakes were obviously even more infrequent here than in the average serial), but they do a fine job nonetheless. Herman Brix is well cast as the detective-novelist hero–since, unlike many other serial leads, he’s capable of seeming not only heroic but intellectual as well; his quietly thoughtful and keenly alert demeanor suits the slightly offbeat role perfectly. He also does a good job of acting alternately bemused, sarcastic, and wryly exasperated in his many scenes with Joan Barclay’s impetuous reporter heroine. Barclay herself is not only exceptionally pretty but endearingly enthusiastic, her breathlessly eager performance contrasting nicely with Brix’s calm and reserved one. Talkative and quick-tempered as her character is, she plays her with such an appealing combination of earnestness, go-getting energy, and ingenuousness that she avoids coming off as obnoxious.
As Poten, Bela Lugosi dominate his scenes in characteristic fashion–gesturing and glowering with arresting intensity, issuing orders to henchmen with cold harshness, dismissing Sonya Rokoff’s objections with arrogant curtness, and occasionally displaying brooding anger when his character refers to his status as a outcast. Lugosi also plays a brief (and wordless) second role as a Chinese waiter whom Poten impersonates. Another of Poten’s disguises, that of a crotchety old invalid, gives Lugosi a short-lived chance to show some comic flair; he adopts a shrill and querulous voice quite different from his usual tones, but–unfortunately–soon drops this amusing masquerade.
The lovely Luana Walters does an excellent job as in the unusually complex role of Sonya Rokoff; she conveys shrewdness and self-assured sophistication (in the serial’s early episodes) and regret and fear (in the later chapters) with equal skill, and manages the always-difficult task of making her initially villainous character’s repentance seem entirely believable, winning audience sympathy in the process. Charles King is also outstanding in one of his meatiest 1930s serial roles; as Grogan, he gets to display surly resentment and panicky terror in his scenes with Lugosi, clumsy affection and furious anger in his scenes with Walters (who plays on his emotions in order to incite him to rebel against Lugosi, then spurns him when he gets too affectionate), and bug-eyed obsequiousness and demoniac vigor in the scenes in which he’s forced to serve as Lugosi’s hypnotized slave.
Maurice Liu is very likable as the incurably ebullient Willy Fu, a character who’s entertainingly quirky without being irritatingly stupid; his cheerful garrulousness and fondness for verbal ornamentation never interfere with his ability to offer intelligent advice or provide courageous physical assistance. James B. Leong is much more stoic as Wong, the capable Chinatown detective who frequently aids the heroes–but whose presence in the serial is never completely explained; the character’s name makes me suspect an attempt to evoke Hugh Riley’s contemporary “Mr. Wong” magazine mystery stories, stories that were later adapted into Monogram B-movies. As in Ace Drummond (in which he appeared the same year), Leong maintains a dignified if rather sinister presence, but seems to have some trouble delivering lines in English.
Experienced scene-stealer Forrest Taylor is entertaining as the gruffly skeptical Captain Walters, though (as mentioned) his character comes off as stupid and schizophrenic at times. “Special dialogue” writer William Buchanan gives a fine but somewhat overwrought performance as Poten’s jittery henchman Healy, who becomes fairly prominent in the later chapters–after Sonya breaks with Poten and Grogan is placed under basically permanent hypnosis. Henry B. Tung delivers his lines in a maddeningly droning monotone as venerable Chinatown elder Dr. Wu, turning in by the far the poorest performance in the serial.
Other victimized Chinatown citizens are played by Paul Fung and George Chan, while Victor Adamson and John Cowell play minor henchmen; Richard Loo, a future A-list character actor, is wasted in the bit of a Chinatown street loiterer. Roger Williams is the heroine’s phlegmatic but hard-driving editor, Bruce Mitchell makes multiple appearances as an unexpectedly witty police officer, John Elliott figures prominently during the shipboard chapters as a concerned captain, Harrison Greene is the equally concerned San Francisco mayor, Lester Dorr pops up briefly as a steamship ticket-seller, and Henry Hall appears as a psychiatrist. Director Robert Hill has a walk-on as one of the bystanders watching the Chapter Thirteen rooftop fight (he’s the white-haired one with the glasses).
Slow-moving, pedestrianly plotted, and cheaply produced as Shadow of Chinatown is, it’s saved from becoming a complete disaster by its interesting and distinctive collection of characters, and the excellent collection of actors and actresses who portray them. Together, characters and cast make the serial moderately interesting throughout its fifteen chapters, although never particularly thrilling.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Ed Hulse–author, serial expert, and editor of Blood ‘n’ Thunder–for providing me with useful background information for this review, including a physical description of Robert Hill (which allowed me to identify him in the Chapter Thirteen scene), and several quotes from a 2003 interview with Herman Brix (which confirmed my suspicion that Brix performed the wire-climb himself).