Sunday, January 2, 2011

CHINATOWN SQUAD (1935)

Shady importer/exporter and "high-class con man" Albert Raybold is stabbed in the heart with a fork (!!) one night in a private booth at the Peking Café in San Francisco's Chinatown. A number of the restaurant patrons are suspects: Raybold's secretary George Mason (Andy Devine), international tea dealer William Ward, businessman Claude Palmer, restaurant manager Quong Su, and restaurant owner (and presumably tong elder) John Yee. Details surrounding Raybold's dirty dealings complicate things as it is learned that he was in the midst of a transaction to sell fighter planes to Communist rebels in Fuzhou at the time of his death-- $70,000 of the rebels' money held by Raybold has gone missing, as has a packet of incriminating letters written to him by a mysterious Woman in Black (Valerie Hobson) and a valuable jade ring.

(Whoever wrote up the synopsis for this movie on TCM's website describes "a mystical jade ring" which "gives its wearer the power to do irreparable harm to his enemies," but this makes it sound like a prequel to THE LORD OF THE RINGS or something. Actually, the ring is like a letter of introduction or a password or a secret handshake that can give its enterprising wearer entry into the darkest and most lucrative corners of the Chinese criminal and political underworlds. After all, if the ring was so powerful, how come it didn't protect Raybold from being forked to death?)

Another diner at the Peking Café at the time of Raybold's murder is ex-cop Ted Lacey (Lyle Talbot), formerly of the SFPD's elite Chinatown Squad but presently a neighborhood tour-bus guide (Jake Gittes, he ain't). Lacey's accidental involvement in the Raybold case reminds him of how much he enjoyed being part of the Chinatown Squad despite his conflicts with his sergeant, McLeash. Before long, Lacey joins forces with the Woman in Black and works with the squad to put all the clues together to solve Raybold's killing; he also squeezes a confession out of the killer and personally drives him to SFPD headquarters in a stolen police patrol van where the chief offers him his old job back with a promotion.

CHINATOWN SQUAD is one of those utterly monster-less, non-horror movies that Screen Gems tucked into the SHOCK! bundle. It's a fast-paced B-movie whodunit (written by Dore Schary) brimming with light banter and humorous touches (a reviewer on IMDb likened it to a "Thin Man" movie, but that's going way too far). Lyle Talbot's Lacey spends much of his time making wisecracks, needling Sgt. McLeash, and chuckling and grinning... in the still shown below, he has just slammed the door of the Chinatown Squad office and shattered the glass; he smiles and makes some dumb joke before running off and leaving McLeash impotently fuming. Such jackassery is typical of Lacey in this movie and it gets tedious quickly.

The Chinatown Squad was a special unit of the San Francisco police organized in the late 1870s that was re-activated in 1921 in the midst of concern with the alarming number of homicides in that neighborhood linked to tong control of prostitution, narcotics, smuggling, gambling, illegal immigration, extortion, and municipal political corruption. But in this movie the squad comes across like a bunch of inept clowns, a day late and a dollar short for whatever is going on. McLeash's mugging is especially grating; at one point, he takes a pratfall off of the Sausalito ferry pier while tailing Lacey and Yee. A darker murder-mystery melodrama about Chinatown's crime world would've been a better fit for SHOCK!-- CHINATOWN SQUAD is very light-weight.

(Oddly, the publicity photo of Talbot that Screen Gems uses for CHINATOWN SQUAD in the SHOCK! booklet is older, heavier, and has grayer hair than the guy in this movie. Actually, it looks more like the Talbot of GLEN OR GLENDA? [1953] and JAIL BAIT [1954].

January 7th EDIT: Thanks to doctor kiss for emailing me the following shots of Lyle Talbot from JAIL BAIT, confirming for me that this was the source for Screen Gems publicity photo.)

Lyle Talbot as Inspector Johns in Ed Wood, Jr.'s JAIL BAIT (1954)

Probably the only saving grace here for Universal horror-movie lovers is Valerie Hobson as Janet Baker, the black-clad mystery woman. Hobson was supposed to be all of 18 years-old in 1935; immediately previous to CHINATOWN SQUAD, Hobson had appeared in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

She's cool and lovely in this movie; surprisingly, she spends the last reel in a yellowface disguise meant to elude the Chinatown Squad (Lacey jokingly calls her "Ming Toy," a reference to Lupe Velez's character in Universal's EAST IS WEST [1930]). There are supposed to be romantic sparks between Hobson's character and Talbot's in this movie, but I didn't see them. Still, this film is worth watching just to see Hobson-- she's simply radiant (as usual) here.

Daily Review, Hayward, CA, March 11, 1960

After its syndicated release through SHOCK! and right up until 1979, CHINATOWN SQUAD appeared on television mostly in the morning and late afternoon time-slots. When it did show up at night, it was often as just a late show movie rather than part of a named "Shock Theater" or "Creature Feature" program. But it did make it into those showcases every once in a while. In an essay called "'Shock Theater' Memories," writer Rich Scrivani (I recommend his 2006 book Goodnight, Whatever You Are! My Journey with Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul) recalls: "Occasionally the supernatural aura of 1958 would be dispelled when some questionable entries would run. Titles like CHINATOWN SQUAD […] padded out the series. While we can enjoy them for their place in Universal history now, they were unwanted intruders at the time, tepid 'B' mysteries, holding no interest whatsoever for kids who wanted monsters."

For fans of zippy B-movie mysteries of the 1930s, there are worse ways to spend an hour than CHINATOWN SQUAD. But, as Scrivani says, for monster-crazy kids who waited all week to stay up late for SHOCK!, this movie must have been an aggravating and unsatisfactory viewing experience.



NEXT: "Two fiends clash in a death struggle while THE BLACK CAT creeps on Shock on this channel! Who will be the loser when Karloff and Lugosi meet! It's anyone's guess. Be sure to see the full-length feature THE BLACK CAT on this channel."

4 comments:

michael said...

Nice to see the SHOCK! obscurities getting coverage. As for the Lyle Talbot publicity shot. Might it be a trick of lighting that makes him appear heavier? Does the "CH" on the door indicate it hosts the offices of "CH"inatown Squad?

The Creeping Bride said...

Yes, that still of the broken window is from CHINATOWN SQUAD... you can just make it out along the bottom margin of the photo.

That picture wasn't the one that appeared in the SHOCK! material; I just now scanned that Screen Gems publicity photo and stuck it in my post under the smashed window shot from CHINATOWN SQUAD so that y'all would see what I was talking about.

As for the obscurities, michael, rest assured that I will be getting to them all before I am through (I'm following the listings in order as they appear in the SHOCK! booklet).

My posts on two other rarities-- SPY RING and ENEMY AGENT --are in the folder for November, I think... there are a bunch more coming up in February.

The Creeping Bride said...

UPDATE: doctor kiss emailed me with some caps of Lyle Talbot from JAIL BAIT that confirm my suspicions of Screen Gems' source for the CHINATOWN SQUAD publicity. I've edited them into my original blog-post above... Thank you, doctor kiss!

kochillt said...

The lone non horror entry from the Laemmle era, and a pleasant relief from the espionage programmers that comprise most of the others. A reasonable whodunit with Lyle Talbot still in his leading man phase, although it's Valerie Hobson who steals every scene (even more fetching disguised as a China doll). Hugh O'Connell's bumbling police sergeant is one major weakness, while Andy Devine can safely be discounted as a suspect. Bradley Page later turns up in ENEMY AGENT, Willie Fung (the driver who stops traffic) appears in DESTINATION UNKNOWN, and Tom Dugan appears in both MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM and THE HOUSE OF FEAR.