Okay, let's take a quiz. What do the actors Paul Muni, Agnes Morehead, Henry Travers, Warner Oland, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer, Walter Huston and Boris Karloff have in common? Well, isn't it obvious?! All have played Chinese people in films!!! While none of these people remotely looked Asian, and there were plenty of Asian actors available (such as Keye Luke, Victor Sen Young, Anna May Wong and others), Hollywood stupidly decided to have very White looking actors play Chinese characters again and again in the 1930s and 1940s--and in some cases, even up through the 1970s! So in this context, it isn't all that surprising that Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young play Chinese-Americans in this exceptional and exceptionally strange movie. Now I was actually surprised to see that underneath the makeup, Loretta Young didn't look too bad as an Asian, however Robinson looked about as Chinese as Scatman Crothers!! In fact, apart from a silly hairstyle he only sported at the beginning of the film, he looked like Little Caesar throughout the movie!!! Because of this ludicrous casting, I felt pretty irritated with reviewers that gave this movie a 10 (one going so far as calling this "one of the best movies ever made")!! Sure, it is a really cool movie, but to me a 10 implies a perfect film. Casting a Jewish man (Robinson) as a Chinese person has to automatically knock off a point or two! In addition to him and Young, ALL the rest of the major Chinese parts were played by White actors--such as J. Carrol Naish and Dudley Diggs!! Now once you get past the stupidity of the casting, what you have left is an exciting Pre-Code film. Pre-Code means that the film was released before the strict Production Code was adopted in 1934. As a result, the film had a few adult themes (such as adultery and violent murders) that you just wouldn't have seen a few years later--or they would have been severely censored--lessening their impact.
The film is called THE HATCHET MAN because Robinson is literally a hatchet-wielding assassin who does his tong's bidding. Tongs were secret Chinese-American societies--much like the gangs of today. And, when someone offends the tong, it's Robinson's job to kill--even when he is ordered to kill his best friend! Ironically, upon killing this friend, Robinson inherited the man's fortune AND custody of his young daughter--with the intention that Robinson later marry the girl! Now THAT'S ironic!! While everything seems just fine after they marry 20 years later, eventually this lady (Young) is seduced away from Robinson--not a smart move considering Robinson is a skilled assassin with a hatchet!! Despite his rage upon discovering the affair, he forgives her and allows her to leave with her lover--much to the dismay of the tong. The secret society is angered that Robinson acted so weakly and lost face, so they threw him out of the organization and his life went downhill fast.
What happens next is just too exciting to reveal, but the film has one of the most interesting and lurid conclusions I have seen in a long time. Thanks to a fantastic script, it's well worth seeing--plus, the plot is so bizarre and creepy, that it's a real guilty pleasure. See this one--and try to look past the ridiculous casting.
By the way, if you are so inclined, try counting the number of times the "Chinese" characters say the word "honorable". My bet is that it must be at least 100! So, according to old time Hollywood, a White guy can squint and say "honorable" at the end of every few sentences and he becomes instantly Chinese! Wow...I gotta try that!
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