Dangerous to Know (1938) / Island of Lost Men (1939) / King of Chinatown (1939)


With her simultaneously smooth and raspy voice, striking demeanor and undeniable presence, Anna May Wong strikes one as a Golden Age Sigourney Weaver.  In fact, Ms. Wong was Hollywood’s first leading lady of Chinese descent (though she was in fact an American, born in California).  In the time of her greatest career prominence, Wong was nonetheless routinely passed over for the kind of romantic roles that went to Caucasian actresses. Heaven forbid a white leading man be depicted kissing a Chinese woman- such was the basis of widespread miscegenation laws of early twentieth-century America, as well as such rules that were baked into Hollywood’s Hay Code of production standards.

Naturally, such racist rules restricted Wong from having the kind of career her white female peers enjoyed.  Short of ever being a romantic lead (she was infamously passed over for the lead role of the Chinese wife O-Lan in Sidney Franklin’s ballyhooed 1937 production of The Good Earth.  That part went to German-American-British actress Luise Rainer, who’s portrayal netted her the Oscar for Best Actress), Wong was stuck in an unjust box, cast either in demure submissive roles, or as an evil woman of treachery.  In short, she was either the butterfly or the dragon lady.  Various attempts at going international did little to broaden the range of parts she would be considered for.

Consequently, her films would often suffer for the limitations inflicted upon her.  Rumors of female lovers, resulting from her close relationship with her Shanghai Express co-star Marlene Dietrich and others, did further damage.  Wong only made four films under her Paramount contract before it got cut short as consequence of box office under performance.  Three of these titles- Dangerous to Know (1938), Island of Lost Men (1939), and King of Chinatown (1939)- have been gathered by KL Studio Classics for inclusion in its three-disc three-film Anna May Wong Collection.  

Today, Anna May Wong is remembered as a trailblazer of stage and early screen.  Though she did land top billing on these particular films, it must be observed that her presence therein often pales to that of her more dynamic male co-stars, including a young Anthony Quinn in all three.  While none of these astonishingly brief films are masterpieces, all three land as engagingly worthwhile glimpses into the career of one of Hollywood’s most unique stars.

Dangerous to Know


Akim Tamiroff plays the central figure of Stephen Recka, a different sort of high-level gangster.  Recka has no qualms about putting forth a softer persona, evident in his honest appreciation of the arts and music.  Recka will venture forth and commit murder every now and then, but he’s tidy about it.  He’s the kind of guy who’s savvy enough to make it look like suicide, open and closed.

On her in-depth audio commentary, film historian Samm Deighan covers every immediate angle to Dangerous to Know, as she considers this Paramount crime film vital for reappraisal.  She spends the seventy-minute running time effectively laying out her case.  Director Robert Florey gets particular attention in Deighan’s analysis, rightly commended for his effective pacing and infusion of high melodrama into the genre several years before Film Noir came along and made a habit of it.

Florey’s deftness with his camera is top-notch in Dangerous to Know.  One look at a scene in which one character backs another out of a high rise window to his plummeting demise underlines Deighan’s case for his importance.  In that single sequence, we see shockingly subjective camerawork, slow-burn villainy, and a stunning special effects shot of the victim plunging into an awaiting skylight.  It coalesces effortlessly as low-level bravura.

Anna May Wong plays Madame Lan Ying, Recka’s exotic “hostess” within his estate.  (“Hostess” being a Hays Code-acceptable euphemism for her more intimate place in the dwelling).  While it seems that the actress has precious little to do in Dangerous to Know, it eventually turns out that the film’s ominous title may’ve indeed been referring to her all along.  Wong’s character sends viewers out on a memorable note amid one of cinema’s earliest ironic needle drops as “Thanks for the Memory” plays over a scene of uneasy tragedy.  The song would soon become synonymous with Bob Hope and recapture its far less ominous sweet melancholy.  But definitely not yet.

Dangerous to Know also stars Gail Patrick, Lloyd Nolan, Harvey Stephen’s, and Anthony Quinn.  While I don’t quite share Deighan’s level of appreciation for this film, I do agree that, going forward, it’s worth a closer look.  Any such closer looks will be helped along by the brand new 2K transfer on display on this very nice Blu-ray edition.  Aside from the commentary and a few trailers for other movies, there are no other supplemental features.

Island of Lost Men


In this 1939 remake of of the Charles Laughton starrer White Woman (1933), Anna May Wong once again comes in on the “demure” side of of her common casting duality.  Though once again top billed, her character, Singapore nightclub entertainer Kim Ling, spends the film in the shadow of eccentric jungle crime lord Gregory Prin (played an insufferably greasy J. Carrol Naish).  As Island of Lost Men plays out, however, we come to see that Ling has no trouble holding her own as necessary.

The truth is that Ling is actually hanging around Singapore hoping for leads to find her lost father.  Her search brings her to Prin’s isolated up-river labor camp and compound, a place so remote and out of the way that his Kurtz-ian lording of despotic power somehow seems par for the course.  No one dares tread on his ego, much less oppose him on any matter.

In the opening minutes of Island of Lost Men, Wong sings “Music on the Shore”, cited by Max Evry on the Blu-ray’s commentary track as the only time the former cabaret entertainer sang on film.  The track, shared with fellow entertainment journalist/author Bryan Reesman, is super-well researched but also unfortunately very rushed.  Reesman in particular treats the gig as an info-sprint, making the track feel like a double-speed listen.  Evry is thankfully not so rushed, although it is obvious that both commentators divided the topics-load between them ahead of time and are working from their prepared scripts. Often, long passages from books and reviews are speed-read.  Reesman and Evry make for a good team, though it would be so much better if they’d just slow the heck down.  As is, it can’t help but be a challenging track. One might guess they’re paid per factoid.  It’s not a race, fellas.  

Island of Lost Men is a mostly gripping powder keg of contained tensions.  While it can’t be said that director Kurt Neumann brings much in the way of visual flair, the detail-happy production design of the central compound more than makes up for it.  Amid the pile-on of nefarious backstabbings and double-crosses, there’s always plenty of crafty design work and decorations for the eye to scan.  Island of Lost Men, while obviously a backlot construct, is imbued with a far-flung desperation by its supporting cast, including a strapping Anthony Quinn, a heartbreaking Eric Blore, and a chiseled Broderick Crawford at his barking best.

King of Chinatown 


Hailing from “cinema’s greatest year”, 1939, King of Chinatown opens with a festive bang.  It’s the big celebration of the Chinese New Year- or, as a quippy doorman puts it, a spectacle of “the Fourth of July celebrated in the middle of February, and they call it New Years.”  Right away, we see how Hollywood movies of this time were just as culturally sensitive as ever.  Which is a sarcastic way of saying, Stone Aged calloused sensitivity levels.

Women, though portrayed as competent professionals in the medical profession, generally depicted just as acceptably.  When an aged Chinese man explains that rice is his country’s national dish, a white lady retorts, “The only way I like rice is thrown at me!”  Will she get her wish?  Love will have to wait, as King of Chinatown is first and foremost another crime film.  (Making KL Studio Classics’ Anna May Wong Collection three for three within the genre).  All those fireworks and carrying on in the streets make this New Year’s celebration the perfect time and place to shoot adversaries right out in the open.  

And so it comes to pass that the racketeering “king of Chinatown”, Frank Baturin (Akim Tamiroff), is gunned down (though not killed) by the criminal opposition.  After a stay at the hospital, Baturin manages to buy his way into the personal care of Dr. Mary Ling (Anna May Wong)… and eventually, her heart.  Can this budding union be the key to peace in Chinatown?  Or at least peace for her oppressed but defiant father (Sidney Toler)?

Wait {abrupt needle scratch!}, hold on a minute…!  In this film, Anna May Wong is neither a demure butterfly nor an evil dragon lady.  Wong plays not only the best doctor in the local hospital (that goes well beyond “competent”), but eventually finds her way into (can it be?) a romance.  This romance is never physically played out in any way (not even a hand is lovingly held).  But still, this is a progressive leap away from the deeply racist policies that were meant to keep people of color from commingling with Caucasians.

Director Nick Grinde, who’d very soon shove off from Paramount to go direct Boris Karloff in a string of his unofficial “mad doctor” movies at Columbia, helms King of Chinatown with utilitarian punctuation but no panache to speak of.  The supporting cast is terrific if also a comically predictable copy/paste of familiar names.  Repeat players from Island of Lost Men and Dangerous to Know include J. Carroll Naish, Anthony Quinn, and Roscoe Karns.  An imposing Philip Ahn also prominently appears.

The audio commentary on this Blu-ray is by author/film historian David Del Valle and archivist/film historian Stan Shaffer, who do a good job of talking up King of Chinatown.  Though they admit that they lack in-depth long-term knowledge of Wong’s career, they clearly know plenty.  Enough, at least, to justify this track.  Del Valle does refer to this 1939 film as “pre-code” a few times (Wong did appear in a number of silent and pre-code films), which would place it no later than 1933.  But that minor slip-up is forgivable in light of everything else he brings to the track along with Shaffer.  They feel that King of Chinatown stands tall as one of Wong’s finer efforts, or at least tallest of the three collected for this set.  They may be correct in that it’s the best of the Anna May Wong Collection, though all three titles ultimately rank as above average, though none are outstanding.

On the whole, KL Studio Classics’ Anna May Wong Collection is another solid entry in the label’s series of occasional actor-themed three-film sets.  It joins such previous sets as The Audie Murphy CollectionThe Carole Lombard Collections, and The Rock Hudson Collection near the top of the list.  Film buffs will not want to miss this rare gathering of three of Anna May Wong’s Paramount titles and looking great in brand new 4K and 2K masters.