Secrets of Chinatown
Canada Before 1950
Directed by Fred Newmeyer.

An incredible psychotronic delight. Vancouver Chinatown is a hotbed of men in hoods, knife-throwing fiends, coins of death, and a satan worshipping cult of opium smugglers. What more can you ask for?

The insularity of Chinatown leads to much speculation as to the sinister events which must be occuring inside, away from the prying eyes of the ineffectual police and the rest of the country at large. Secrets of Chinatown reaches a conclusion I must admit I'm surprised we haven't seen more often -- they're secretive because they're a bunch of Satan worshippers!

The scene: Vancouver, Chinatown. Two corrupt ship captains are sitting in a Chinese restaurant discussing shipping opium into the city stuffed into cigars when one of the nearby patrons gets a coin delivered in his soup and a knife in the back. The police are on the case right away, but soon enough even their best man is killed. Only one man can crack the secret of the Chinese death coin -- Donegal Dawn! (Raymond Lawrence). A real Sherlock Holmes type, but with an imperialist flair, Dawn heads to the Mayor's office to take on the case -- in disguise as a Hindu, for some reason, including a bit of blackface, so "no one suspects I am working on the case," he says, though given that absolutely no actual Hindus appear in Chinatown, he would have probably stood out somewhat anyway. But that's just the beginning of his almost endless array of clever strategems and brilliant ideas, none of which make a whit of sense.

Meanwhile ace reporter Robert Rand (Nick Stuart) heads down to the curio shop where he meets two people: the owner, Chan Tow-Ling (Harry Hewitson, the only Chinese actor on set), and Zenobia (Lucille Brown), his quiet, blonde haired, blue eyed assistant. "But I don't understand," he cries, "You're a white girl, what are you doing in a place like this?" When he very nearly gets a knife in the back, too, he goes running to Dawn for help.

Donegal investigates: " seems they didn't bow down to the magic eye of Lao Tse," he explains, "the ancient seer...the father of a strange devil worship. he lived on the side of a mountain where they came to worship." I love this movie. Of course he's referring to Lao Tzu, famed recluse and author of the Tao Te Ching. It's not every day Taoism is considered a form of devil worship. But there's more: soon, a man is hypnotized to kill, and only an old mystic shaman can unlock his brain (another of Donegal's brilliant schemes, of course). Zenobia, meanwhile, is being worshipped by black cloaked fiends, until she turns into a gold statue of Buddha. The reporter is set to be sacrificed, and only Donegal Dawn can save the day, and unmask the leader of the mysterious, robed cult (gasp -- can it be -- the ONLY Chinese actor in the film? Gee, what a surprise).

Only an hour long, Secrets of Chinatown is a delirious mix of yellow peril paranoia and boys adventure story. Knife-wielding Chinamen, opium smugglers, hypnosis, hallucinations, and a satanic cabal are arrayed against our hero Donegal Dawn, an old India hand I would imagine, whose keen intellect constantly provides insights like, "The human mind is queer -- it makes happenings like this possible."

In 1927 the British Parliament, looking to put a stop to the flood of American pictures dominating the market there, passed the British Cinematograph Films act. This act placed a quota on exhibitors for the number of British films shown in relation to the number of foreign films. The act would in effect shut out many American productions from distribution in the U.K. However, there was one loophole -- the act considered films made in any of the Commonwealth countries to be "British." So Hollywood did the only sensible thing -- they set up studios in Victoria, Canada to dash off a bunch of cheap films that could fill the quota.

The Victoria studios were at first independent, under the name "Commonwealth Productions Ltd," but they could not find a distributer for their first film, The Crimson Paradise, and went bankrupt before completing the second. Columbia Pictures bought it up, changed the name to "Central Pictures," and they went on to shoot a dozen more, in 1935, and successfully distributing them in the U.K. before the British finally got wise and closed the loophole.

Secrets of Chinatown is a 1935 effort from Central Pictures (Though, it still has the "Commonwealth Productions Ltd" name on its title card). These "quota quickies," as they are called, are almost universally reviled by film historians. "Less than B-Grade," is the usual dismissal. But if this film is any indication, they were every bit as entertaining as any other programmer made in the 30's. One of Central Pictures other productions featured a young Rita Hayworth. The cast of Secrets is not too bad, either. James Flavin, a veteran of over three hundred films who always appeared as a rock-jawed working class Irishman, and never a bad guy (perhaps best remembered as the second mate in King Kong (1933)), has a part here as a ship captain in over his head. Lucille Brown is the imperiled white girl, who often appeared as a heroine in westerns, and was married to Flavin in real life. Of Harry Hewitson, the Chinese villain of the piece, I could find nothing else. He spoke fluent Cantonese, my untrained ears thought they heard, and was not a bad actor to boot. But as far as I know his career began and ended here, in a long forgotten quota quickie.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.

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