Java Head and Tiger Bay - Two Films by Ana May Wong
Directed By:Thorold Dickinson, J. Walter Ruben
Starring: Anna May Wong, Elizabeth Allan, John Loder, Edmund Gwen
The port city of Bristol, England, in the 1800s is home to Java Head, a sailing ship line company. The owner has two sons. One, a handsome seafarer, is in love with a local girl, but cannot marry her due to a long-running feud between their fathers. After a lengthy voyage, he returns with a very exotic, noble Chinese wife, which scandalizes the conservative town. His other son, a "landlubber", seeks to convert to steamships, to the disgust of his father. Even worse, he is secretly dealing in contraband.
Java Head is the first part of a double bill of features starring Anna May Wong, a third generation Chinese-American actress who was very popular in Hollywood during the 1930s, co-starring with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express and Douglas Fairbanks in Thief of Bagdad.
Java Head is a melodrama about star-crossed lovers from different societal classes. A scandal surrounds the circumstances of Netty Volar’s conception, and the society women of Bristol love to gossip about such things. Her father has been waging a decades-long feud with Gerrit Ammidon’s father, preventing Gerrit and Netty to be happy together.
Gerrit is a sailor much like his father, and takes the captaincy of The Nautilus, one of the company’s two merchant sailing ships, heading around the world. Meanwhile his brother, William looks after the business side of the company and is determined to bring it kicking and screaming into the 19th Century, with plans to buy some new Tea Clippers and even a couple of Steam Ships.
When Gerrit and The Nautilus arrive back in Bristol a year later, the people of Bristol are in for a shock, as he returns with a Chinese bride called Taou Yuen. This obviously comes as a crushing blow for Netty, who still hoped that someday...
Java Head is very much a film of it’s time – filmed almost completely on a generic studio set and has a very stage-bound feel to it. There are a couple of scenes which manage to add some local colour, surprisingly. One is an arial shot of a ship making it’s way up the river Avon towards the Bristol Channel, passing under the still-under –construction Clifton Suspension Bridge. The other involves a runaway horse and cart stampeding down the Ladies' Mile on Clifton Downs. As a resident of Bristol, it was quite rewarding to see these little details.
The film is a stuffy melodrama which comes to life with the appearance of Anna May Wong. Her quiet dignity weathers the gossip of the town and ingratiates her with her new family. The only fly in the ointment is Netty’s uncle, who has also visited the orient and is besotted with it’s culture and history. He’s become addicted to opium and lusts after Taou Yuen.
Java Head is a minor film but at the same time is a fascinating example of studio films of the period, and a rare look at one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, Anna May Wong.
5 out of 10(MikeOutWest)
Directed By:J. Elder Wills
Starring: Anna May Wong, Victor Garland, Lawrence Grossmith, Rene Ray, Henry Victor
A young Englishman abroad, Michael, visits the local low-life spot of Tiger Bay to test his assertion that the spirit of human romance survives even in the most unpromising of circumstances. He intervenes when a local criminal protection racketeer targets a Chinese nightclub, and falls in love with the owner's young English foster-sister. But Olaf's gang have only just started their campaign against Lui Chang, the cultured, elegant woman who owns the premises... and she is determined not to be intimidated or driven out of business under any circumstances...
Tiger Bay is an improvement over Java Head in as much as there is a bit more action than malicious society gossip. This is one of Ealing Studio’s early films and is completely filmed on studio sets. Victor Garland plays Michael as if he’s just stepped out of Raffles in London, all brilliantine’d hair and stiff supper lipped delivery. He comes to the aid of Letty, a young blonde under the protection of nightclub owner Lui Chang (Wong), when a heavy called Olaf tries to molest her.
The film splits it’s time between the so-called romance between Michael and Letty (a fascinating flash-back fleshes out why she is with Lui Chang), and the attempts by Olaf and his gang to extort money from Lui Chang. Her stoicism and calm demeanour “forces” them to take more and more drastic measures, leading to the kidnap and ransom of Letty.
At the start of the film, Tiger Bay is made to sound as if it were Mos Eisley –“never will you find a greater den of scum and villainy” – and the film goes out of it’s way to populate the place with an eclectic mix of accents and races. This leads to a strange range of accents, including Margaret Yarde as the nightclub’s receptionist who sounds, to quote another review, like a Blackpool landlady.
There’s a reasonable amount of action within Tiger Bay, including fist-fights and shoot-outs to keep things lively. The cast is a bit more interesting than in Java Head, although Anna May Wong still outshines them all.
This is an interesting attempt by Ealing to do something a bit “exotic” and another good showcase for Anna May Wong.
6 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
SPOILERS – COMMENT ON BOTH FILM’S ENDINGS
I was rather surprised by the endings of both of these films – In both, Anna May Wong’s characters commit suicide. In Java Head, Taou Yuen takes an overdose of opium pills to allow her husband to be with his true love, Letty. She knows that he loves them both, and will never leave her, but she’s sure that he will still carry a flame for Letty. So she kills herself out of love. Twisted, I know, but I can just about comprehend it. And it’s worth it to see the expression on Netty’s uncle’s face.
In Tiger Bay, Lui Chang, after a whole movie’s worth of oppression, threats of violence and worse from Henry Victor’s Olaf, finally turns the tables on him and kills him with his own throwing knife. The undercover police officer who finally takes an interest in what is happening around Olaf, decides that this is the one deed that needs to be seen to be punished, and tells her she’s under arrest. Feeling that her going to jail would destroy her ward, Letty, she opts to kill herself (a poisoned ring). And even though the policeman pontificates that every life is sacred and she didn’t have the right to take another’s life, makes no attempt to stop her killing herself.
The ending of the first film just feels contrived to finally get Netty and Gerrit together at last, but the ending of Tiger Bay is a real kick in the teeth and leaves a real sour taste. Sadly, neither film marked the first time that Anna May Wong’s character has to commit Suicide in order to show her love for someone else.