Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Logic and Emotion Working in Tamden in a "Quest for Love" (1971)

Joan Collins is an actress whose very name conjures up images of glamour, flamboyance, and camp.  She is still best remembered for playing Alexis Carrington on the 1980s prime time soap "Dynasty."  I was never a fan of that series and was put-off by Collins's gaudy appearance and performance on that show.  It just wasn't my cup of tea.  However, through the years, I have found that I appreciate Collins's extensive work as a film actress in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  She actually had a long and interesting career before she hit the stratosphere of celebrity with "Dynasty."  As a contract player with 20th Century-Fox in the 1950s, she had a classy, earthy quality in most of her roles there that belied the larger-than-life image she'd later project.  After she had taken time off to start a family, she did some interesting work as an episodic TV guest actress on shows like "Star Trek," "Batman," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "Mission: Impossible."  She was also an enjoyable presence in horror/suspense films in the 1970s--"Empire of the Ants" (1977) remains a guilty pleasure of mine.  In short, I have always admired the longevity and survival of Collins's career.  But she probably gave her best performance in the little-seen British science-fiction romantic fantasy "Quest for Love" (1971).

Tom Bell plays a physicist who, after a botched scientific experiment, finds himself in an alternate reality where WWII and the Vietnam War never occurred, John F. Kennedy never became President of the United States, and Man never conquered space.  In this alternate reality, he is a philandering playwright, and not the ethical scientist that he knows himself to be.  Bell's character meets the beautiful wife married to his counterpart in this alternate reality, the vulnerable and sensitive Otillie (played by Collins) and immediately falls in love with her.  Collins's character, however, is wary of Bell's explanations that he has come from an alternate world and believes that he is merely playing tricks to try and hurt her again.  Bell's character eventually convinces Collins he is telling the truth, and the two fall in love.  However, Collins is dying from a heart condition that the cure for has not been discovered in this alternate reality (but which exists in the proper reality Bell came from).  When Collins tragically dies in Bell's arms from her ailment, she urges him to find her alternate self in the reality he originated from.  When Bell returns to his own alternate reality, he races against time to find Collins's counterpart (who is an airline flight attendant unaware of her heart ailment) before he loses her again permanently.

I know the plot description I just gave you sounds confusing, but once you watch the movie it is very easy to follow.  What helps is the fact that director Ralph Thomas and screenwriter Terence Feely focus less on the fantasy elements of the story and more on convincingly developing the relationship and genuine love between Tom Bell and Joan Collins's characters.  Bell projects a sympathetic "everyman" quality that is easy to identify with.  He is a scientist, but one that is able to balance emotion with logic in order to be a fully developed human being.  It is ironic how Tom Bell's character in the other alternate reality, the playwright, has built a career less on logic and data, and more on emotion and drama, and yet (from what we hear of his insensitivity and cruelty from Collins and other characters) has no kindness, sensitivity or understanding of human needs and feelings compared to the Bell character who is a scientist, and yet has tremendous caring and compassion.  It's also interesting how the screenplay implies that, without WWII having occurred, great strides in the development of science and medicine would not have taken place, and that Bell's character would have become a self-indulgent, selfish artistic philistine, rather than a man of science both advanced emotionally and intellectually.  The movie implies that science and logic go hand in hand with emotion and feeling to create and maintain romance and love.  (Got all that?)

But what makes "Quest for Love" truly special is the radiant performance by a superb Joan Collins, who has simply never been better.  She is low-key and subtle throughout the film, her usually shrill and hard-edged delivery is replaced by a soft, almost whispery voice that reflects Otillie's sadness and vulnerability.  Collins has been likeable and earthy in many roles throughout her career, but rarely has she ever been called upon to be this sweet and sympathetic.  Her greatest triumph is that Collins never becomes boring or saccharine playing such a kind character--she makes Otillie interesting without any over-the-top gestures.  Collins looks absolutely beautiful throughout the film, clothed in tastefully glamorous gowns designed by the esteemed British costume designer Emma Porteous that have not dated in 40 years and would still look fashionable today.  It's hard to believe that this is the same actress who wore appallingly repulsive,  over-designed Nolan Miller gowns week-after-week on "Dynasty."  When Collins urges Bell to find her in the alternate reality, the scene has tremendous emotional impact.  In a subtle example of "less is more," Collins effectively conveys the happiness, mixed with sadness, of her character just as she dies at the moment she has finally found love and happiness in her life.  Other actresses, even Collins later on during her "Dynasty" years, might have played that death scene with overwrought emotion, but here she hits a home run by perceptively playing the scene low-key.  She lets her beautiful eyes and vulnerable voice do the work here.  Despite having a long and interesting career, Collins rarely had a role as good as this one.  It is a shame that "Quest for Love" has not become more widely known through the years.  Despite it's fantasy/science-fiction elements, it's one of the most intelligently romantic movies I've seen in recent memory.  It should have had a higher-profile release so that Joan Collins could have been considered for the kinds of accolades and awards a performance of this caliber richly warrants.  A film of this quality simply deserves better.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hypocrisy and Elitism of "Knots Landing"

Being a kid of the 1980s, I was a big fan of all the Lorimar prime time soaps: "Dallas," "Falcon Crest," "Flamingo Road" (starring the sublime Cristina Raines), and "Knots Landing."  I loved them all equally, but at the end of the day I still acknowledge "Dallas" as the King of the Hill.  In recent years, "Knots Landing" started to be touted as the best of the prime time soaps due to its purported emphasis on so-called "middle class" characters that better reflected the perspective of most Americans than the epic, larger-than-life "Dallas."  I used to believe that party line myself, until I became older and watched "Dallas" on DVD and realized that "Knots Landing" wasn't any better than "Dallas" in terms of its writing, acting, and directing.  Despite its middle class airs, "Knots Landing" was actually snootier and elitist about itself.  The show heavy-handedly seemed to believe that it was better simply because it was set in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac rather than the epic Southfork Ranch.  (Check out the contemptuous manner in which the characters of "Knots Landing" in its early seasons speak about the Ewings of "Dallas" and you can sense the show, and its characters, demonstrating a level of insecurity about themselves.)

Most of the original cast, before the show tried to keep up with the Joneses and glamorized itself to death

The "middle class" party line that its creators and stars like to emphasize really only applied to the first four seasons of "Knots Landing."  I acknowledge that the 1979-1983 seasons of the show are sublime in how it examined the foibles of modern marriage and middle class angst in a way that was unique and humane.  The shallow and misogynist "Desperate Housewives" never came close to tapping into the reservoirs of emotion that those first four years did.  During that time, "Knots Landing" truly was about middle class suburbanites and this was reflected in the fact that Donna Mills's vixenish and scheming Abby Cunningham was more a neighborhood troublemaker than the high-powered mogul she later became.  The argument that the show was more "realistic" and "down-to-earth" really applied during those first four years.  (Even then, it should be noted that the show was clearly about the UPPER middle class, who could afford a nice home on a cul-de-sac and were working as attorneys, music producers, and owned car dealerships.  There was a comfortable lifestyle depicted in those early years that was still alien to many working class viewers, who struggled to make ends meet with their low-paying jobs.)

JR visits Knots Landing in a "special guest villain" appearance

During this time when it was comparatively more grounded in reality, "Knots Landing" was a show that was doing moderately in the ratings.  It was dwarfed by the success of "Dallas" because viewers at that time probably didn't find anything particularly exciting about "Knots" compared to the epic storytelling of "Dallas."  It was only in the 5th season, when the show introduced William Devane's mysterious and powerful Greg Sumner, and the show started moving away from depicting the mundane aspects of suburbia by focusing on stories about corporate intrigue and organized crime, that "Knots Landing" started becoming more of a ratings winner.  Characters like John Pleshette's troubled and mercurial attorney Richard Avery (he deserved an Emmy for that role), and the newlywed couple Kenny and Ginger Ward (James Houghton and Kim Lankford), who were key to establishing the community suburban atmosphere in Seaview Circle, were phased out during this time as the show moved further away from scenes depicting curbside conversation and more towards boardroom boredom.  Even though I liked Devane's work on "Knots Landing" and feel that he created a compelling character, at times there was far too much of him on the series for my liking.  Sometimes "Knots Landing" felt like it had become "The William Devane Hour."  (I once met John Pleshette in a bookstore in Los Angeles and complained about this direction to "Knots Landing."  He seemed to acknowledge this and joked that the show became "Dallas in California" by the time he left.) 

Scene from the pilot episode, before the glamorous clothes and the facelifts ruined everything...

"Dallas" did a good job of maintaining our interest with its corporate intrigue storylines because there was an emotional basis for them.  JR was constantly trying to build Ewing Oil into being bigger and more powerful than what his daddy Jock Ewing had created in an effort to try to win his father's approval and love.  Bobby got involved with Ewing Oil at his wife Pam's encouragement, at least in the beginning, in order to move away from being the company's "pimp" and become a man of substance and character.  I never felt there was the same motivation on "Knots Landing" for its characters to become involved in such larger-than-life corporate storylines.  Abby Cunningham simply wanted to be richer and more powerful.  I know I'm simplifying matters by stating that, but that's all there was to it.  (Even "Falcon Crest" did a better job with these sorts of business-oriented storylines, due to Angela Channing's determination to carry on her grandfather's legacy with the winery he created.  There was never such a legacy with the characters of "Knots Landing" to warrant its emphasis on such stories.)

Donna Mills ponders how she can drag her show in an upscale direction in this scene from the second season.

As much as I like her, Donna Mills is one of the leading and most egregious perpetrators in the ongoing hypocrisy of "Knots Landing."  She has boasted in interviews as to how she urged the writers in the early seasons to make Abby richer and more powerful, like JR on "Dallas" was.  She has talked about how she urged the producers to shell out for a better wardrobe for the female cast members in the 3rd or 4th seasons because people want to watch escapism when they watch television.  These days, because depictions of wealthy characters are less politically correct, you'll find Mills contradicting herself and claiming that "Knots Landing" was unique because it was about "us" (the middle class) rather than "them" (the wealthy and powerful).  This is blatant hypocrisy since Mills was the leading proponent in the early seasons of "Knots Landing" to urge the producers to move away from the suburban milieu in favor of something more glamorous.

When the show was truly "middle class," albeit "upper"

Even now, the ongoing elitism of "Knots Landing" persists.  These days, when the cast of "Knots" is interviewed and asked if there is a chance that it could be revived the way TNT has revived "Dallas," they usually say that "Dallas" was more likely to be revived because there will always be an on-going interest in the so-called "1%" of society, whereas "Knots Landing" was less lauded on an international basis because it was purportedly more "believable" and "intimate."  That's a load of hogwash.  I direct your attention to the 5th season storyline about the Wolfbridge Group organized crime syndicate, the 6th Season storyline involving Val's Babies (and its entanglement with the introduction of Howard Duff's powerful Paul Galveston), and the 7th Season storyline involving Empire Valley (which involved the building of an underground espionage communications headquarters) to refute these claims that the show was more grounded in "reality."

"Hi...I'm here to take over your show..."

The truth of the matter is that "Knots Landing," for all its good qualities, simply was never as popular as "Dallas," which is why it is less likely to be revived on TNT the way "Dallas" has.  "Dallas" featured amazing characters whose popularity and appeal crossed over on an international basis--and it never tried to pretend to be something that it wasn't.  "Knots Landing" had more of a "niche" appeal and, as with anything that attracts a "niche" audience, a ridiculous form of reverse-snobbery developed with "Knots Landing" against "Dallas."  "Knots Landing," and its personnel and constituents, repeatedly tout its purported superiority to "Dallas."  They constantly compare themselves to "Dallas" rather than try to stand on their own.  The irony is, "Knots Landing" tries too hard to build a legacy for itself when the reality is, if there's a legacy to be built for "Knots Landing," others will build it for them.  "Knots" and its personnel would not have to do it for themselves if it were real.  (The lukewarm ratings that greeted the 2005 2-hour CBS Reunion special "Knots Landing: Together Again," as well as the lackluster sales for the Season 1 and 2 DVDs, bear this out.)

The underrated and underutilized Larry Riley and Lynne Moody, who were often short-shrifted in terms of screen time on "Knots Landing"

For all of its airs, "Knots Landing" was still mostly a show about financially secure Caucasians.  Its only ethnically diverse characters, the African American Williams family (played by the talented Larry Riley, Lynne Moody, and Kent Masters King) who joined the show in 1988, were often relegated to the sidelines and rarely had any stories of substance.  Nevertheless, "Knots Landing" patted themselves on their backs for introducing the Williams family, as if they had done them a favor, but in the end never did much to substantially utilize them.  Their characters were introduced as being in the witness protection program and, unfortunately, that was about it.  They were primarily written as a plot device in terms of how they related to the other characters on the show, but the writers never allowed them to stand on their own as significant characters.  It was a waste of the talents of these actors.  (For the record, I am the last person in the world who believes that television needs to be politically correct or ethnically diverse, but if you're going to continue patting yourself on the back for your much-vaunted realism, you should be called out on it.)  As someone who grew up in Southern California in a neighborhood that was populated by a combination of Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American households, "Knots Landing" seemed hardly "realistic."

A realistic show about "middle class America"?, really?

I find it annoying that "Knots Landing" fans narcissistically speculate as to whether any of its characters, besides Gary and Val, will turn up on TNT's new "Dallas."  There are too many characters from "Dallas's" rich history, such as Donna Krebbs (Susan Howard), Katharine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany), and Holly Harwood (Lois Chiles), who I'd rather see brought back before we even speculate as to whether they'll incorporate any "Knots" characters.  I also wish "Knots" personnel and constituents would stop citing the fact that it was originally created before "Dallas" was created.  At the end of the day, "So what?"  It appears to be another tactic in an increasingly futile and desperate effort to establish the purported supremacy of a show that does not even generate enough DVD sales for Warner Brothers to even consider releasing further seasons of the show on its DVD-on-Demand mail order service, Warner Archive.  While it's true that CBS asked creator David Jacobs, when he first proposed "Knots Landing" to them, to come up with another prime time soap that was more epic in-scope, and he came up with "Dallas," the fact remains that CBS only became interested in actually putting "Knots Landing" on the air when "Dallas" became a runaway hit, and only then if Jacobs could somehow make it a spin-off of "Dallas."  It doesn't matter what was conceived first:  "Knots Landing" still needed "Dallas" to get on the air.  At the end of the day, in more ways than one, "Knots Landing," in order to be relevant, remains dependent on "Dallas" more than "Dallas" ever needed "Knots Landing."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bring Back Kate Warner!

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the introduction of one of my favorite TV characters of all time, the imperiled heroine Kate Warner (played by Australian actress Sarah Wynter) in Season 2 of "24."  She was originally conceived as a potential love interest for the series' protagonist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), and debuted on the premiere episode of the second season, which aired October 29, 2002.  Throughout that season, Kate was the "true blue" good girl who often rose to the occasion and aided Jack in accomplishing his mission.  At the time, I was very intrigued with the character because I felt she quietly, and effectively, reflected the naivete, strength, and resolve of the American public, both before and after September 11th, an accomplishment that far surpassed her original conception as a mere romantic foil.

Kate Warner was introduced during the second season of “24” as the show’s new leading lady after her predecessor—Jack’s wife, Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope)—was murdered in the finale of the previous season.  She was the attractive daughter of millionaire industrialist Bob Warner (John Terry) who, as the season opened, was helping her younger sister, Marie (Laura Harris), prepare for her wedding.  Unlike the introduction of other new characters in subsequent seasons of "24," that I sometimes felt were shoved down our throats, the producers in Season 2 wisely eased Kate into the fabric of the series by having her do only two or three scenes in each of her first few episodes until she was firmly established into the plot.  

During Season 2, Kate suspects her sister Marie’s fiancĂ©e Reza of being involved with terrorists; learns that her father really works for the CIA; inadvertently gets her father arrested on suspicion of treason; is kidnapped by terrorists and tortured for information; is rescued by Jack Bauer and accompanies him on his day-long quest to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles; enters a Mosque disguised as a worshipper, and without backup, to ID a suspect; helps Jack interrogate another suspect in Arabic; learns her own sister Marie (and not Reza) is actually the one who is in cahoots with the terrorists and almost gets killed by her; is asked to help retrieve evidence to prevent a war; gets locked in a car trunk after being traded by Jack with one of the villains in order to secure vital information; is almost killed by thugs while retrieving a computer chip with vital data; takes a quick bubble bath; and rescues Jack’s hapless daughter Kim Bauer from another dire situation in time for the penultimate scene where she reunites this estranged father and daughter for the Season’s finale (which takes place moments after witnessing another father-daughter relationship—her own father and sister—split apart forever).  

Sarah Wynter made Kate’s reactions, as the show’s resident civilian, to the events swirling about her believable and compelling, and became one of TV’s most underrated heroines.  I didn't see her as a mere plot device--I was always curious what would happen next to her character and was enthralled at the arc that the writers had created for her.  I disagreed with TV Guide’s Matt Roush when he stated that Kate is a “thankless” character that the show would be better off without.  In his hilarious Washington Post article, “Run, Kim, Run!,” Hank Steuver sarcastically quipped that the hapless teenage Kim Bauer “was us” because “Without meaning to, she has come to represent the vapidity and naive innocence of a Britney Nation caught up in something deadly serious, with only her wits and the occasional visibility of her nipples to save her."  From a less cynical perspective, it was really Kate, and not Kim, who better symbolizes civilian America in the face of adversity.  The early episodes of Season 2 depicted Kate as an intelligent, well-educated young woman so consumed by her own family’s personal problems that she fails to recognize the larger global implications of the events swirling on about her.  After she has been kidnapped and tortured for information, instead of shriveling in fear, Kate summoned up reservoirs of strength and courage in an effort to face danger and evil head on.  She could be forgiven at times for being wimpy (she was not a federal agent or law enforcement officer, after all) because her resolve never wavered even when it was clear she was not a stereotypical action heroine.  

By the end of the day, Kate experienced so much horror and violence that she came to the difficult, but inevitable, conclusion that the evils of the world cannot be easily rationalized.  At first disbelieving that her sister willingly aided the terrorists, Kate comes around by the time of the season finale when she returns to CTU in time to moderate a confrontation between her father and the apprehended Marie.  Separated behind a wall of glass, Marie Warner refuses to answer her father’s desperate pleas (“There MUST be a reason”) to explain her acts of treason.  Kate says simply, “There is no reason, Dad…Trust me…She’s not going to give you any answers.  She can’t.  At least nothing that we could ever understand.”  According to’s Charles Taylor, “Kate speaks the truth (her father’s) good, rational liberalism cannot countenance…the pain of that scene is not that Marie has accepted madness, but that (Kate), having been through hell herself, having escaped torture and then death at the hands of her sister, is now in a position to understand the presence of the irrational at work.”  

After Kate was written out of the series, Jack Bauer was paired with romantic interests who were either connected to the DoD (Kim Raver's Audrey Raines) or was a Federal Agent (Annie Wersching's Renee Walker).  Kate’s absence left the show without a civilian outsider, who is not connected with the President’s inner circle or the Government, for the audience to identify with.  Kate remains, in the eyes of the series fans, one of the more controversial characters.  She was either loved or despised.  There was no middle ground on this issue.  Kate is as despised by some "24" fans as Tanya Roberts's Stacey Sutton in "A View to a Kill (1985) is despised by Bond movie fans.  Some fans were irritated by the character's inexperience and naivete because she was not a trained Federal agent with field experience.  Others felt Sarah Wynter's performance was stilted and complained bitterly about her facial expressions, which included a pensive frown and furrowed brow that I acknowledge was unflattering at times.  On the other hand, people like me enjoyed the subdued humanity that Wynter brought to the character.  Even if her facial expressions seemed unattractive at times, it just made her seem REAL.  It demonstrated to me that the otherwise beautiful and attractive Wynter was more concerned about bringing authenticity to her work as Kate than about her appearance.  Kate's lack of romantic chemistry with Jack was made up by the fact that Sutherland and Wynter had a genuine brother-sister rapport on-screen.  I liked the friendship that developed between their characters that season.  At the very least, I think Kate deserved better than being short shrifted in her send-off with simply a brief telephone scene in Season 3’s premiere episode.  Since then, Sarah Wynter followed-up her promising work on “24” by focusing more on her family life after she married Details magazine editor Dan Peres and had three sons.  I thought Wynter was a real up and comer when I became acquainted with her work 10 years ago, and I still hope she will have further opportunities to show what she's capable of.  

A couple of years ago, when “24” was filming its 7th season in Washington, DC, I ran into the production crew of the series filming scenes near the Navy Memorial.  I recognized Executive Producer/Director Jon Cassar on the street between takes.  During an appropriate moment, I approached Mr. Cassar and said “There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for almost 5 years now.  Why won’t you bring back Kate Warner, not even for just one episode?”  Mr. Cassar seemed incredulous and said “You LIKED Kate Warner?!”  I assured him that many fans of the show, especially people in Washington, DC, liked the character.  I guess my inquiry intrigued him, as he asked me to walk with him as he was directing the crew to set up the next shot.  We debated the whole Kate Warner issue for maybe about 10 or 15 minutes.  He said that the show’s producers concluded that Sarah Wynter simply didn’t have great romantic chemistry with Kiefer Sutherland, which contributed to her character’s departure.  I argued that the character should have been brought back, not as his girlfriend, but as a loyal and supportive friend who believed in him and was willing to help him at all costs.  He at least acknowledged that aspect of the character.  At the end of our conversation he said, “OK, dude, I never thought of her as anything more than his girlfriend, but for you I’ll do it.  I’ll bring her back.”   

Cassar left the series after that season, so Kate never had a chance to return to the series before it was finally cancelled.  (It's also possible that Cassar was insincere when he said he'd bring Kate back, just to appease me.)  Perhaps it’s just as well Kate never returned.  “24” had a bad history of regarding its characters as mere plot devices whose motivations and personalities could be changed on the whims of its lazy writers in a cheap effort to shock its audience.  And at least Kate didn't get killed or have her life ruined by being involved with Jack Bauer, like his other leading ladies were.  I would have hated to see Kate come back under those circumstances.  Kate had a character and story arc that remained consistent.  I like to think of Kate Warner as one of the few characters on “24” who was never compromised or ruined by its writers and producers. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Charlie Chan and the Case of the Monogram Pictures Mysteries

Being of Asian ethnicity, I was highly aware of the Charlie Chan mystery movies of the 1930s and 1940s more by reputation than by actual viewing while I was growing up.  They simply weren't airing them as often on television in the 1970s and 1980s when I was a kid, probably due to concerns over political correctness.  I have seen many documentaries about the depictions of Asians in Hollywood, and the Chan series is often derided as ranking among the nadir of portrayals of Asians in cinema.  Thanks to YouTube, I've had an opportunity to catch up with these movies and make my own assessment of them.

The reason why the Chan films remain a troublesome issue is the fact that he was, after all, portrayed by Caucasian actors (first Warner Oland, then Sidney Toler, and then Roland Winters) who all played the role in a stereotypically stilted speaking style.  I have found that I am personally not offended by the series because I recognize that it had good intentions--it meant to portray an Asian character who was smart, respected by the community and by the world at-large not just by Caucasians but by all other ethnic groups as well, and who always brought the story to a resolution.  He was never a passive or subservient character standing by the sidelines.  It's just too bad that he wasn't played by an actual Asian actor--even though I hate political correctness, I acknowledge that this is a major caveat that has caused the series to remain controversial to this day.  

But I find that what redeems them is the fact that all the other Asian roles in the series are in-fact played by Asian actors.  In the Chan films I've seen so far, the other Asian actors play their roles with intelligence and, in the cases of the portrayals of Chan's many sons (played variously by Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung or Benson Fong), they are allowed to have different facets of personalities on display.  They weren't just one-dimensionally stoic, they could be humorous, heroic, and romantic.  Even though the Chinese aspects of these characters are often highlighted and accentuated by the screenwriters, I think it's still preferable to the current politically correct portrayal of Asians in cinema and television, which tends to cast Asian actors into thankless roles as doctors or lawyers who make no significant contribution to the plot but are meant to fill some sort of casting quota.  Or even worse, casting Asian actors in roles with American or European-sounding last names, as if their Asian heritage was totally superfluous or expendable.  The Charlie Chan series remain fascinating because the racial aspects of these films contain both troubling as well as positive nuances.  On the one hand, they perpetuate the stereotype of the saintly wise, Confucius-quoting Chinese male who speaks in metaphors in an unnaturally stilted manner.  On the other hand, the series often refutes the conspiracy-laden "Yellow Peril" cultural stereotypes that regarded Asians with contempt, distrust and suspicion.  

One entry of the series, "The Trap" (1947) even calls attention to this cultural distrust of Asians when one of the characters, the hysterically pathetic blonde showgirl Clementine (Rita Quigley), accuses her female Asian colleague San Toy (Barbara Jean Wong) of murder simply because one of the victims had been strangled by a silk bathrobe cord, which the script alleges is a murder technique favored by the Chinese.  San Toy never wilts under the pressure of these false accusations:  She calmly and admirably confronts her accusers and is the one who calls in Charlie Chan to solve the mystery.  In particular with "The Trap," a film presumably written, produced, and directed by Caucasians, it is the Caucasian characters who are unflatteringly portrayed as emotional, hysterical, devious, manipulative, unintelligent, and vengeful.  It highlights how Asians and other ethnicities are arguably not treated any worse, or any differently, in the Chan series than the Caucasians.  

"The Trap" was one of the later Chan mysteries made at the Poverty Row grade-B studio, Monogram Pictures, after the original studio 20th Century-Fox ended their series of Chan films in 1942 (purportedly due to concerns of American audiences not being interested in watching an Asian hero on-screen after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).  I actually prefer the Monogram Chan Films because of the addition of the gifted comedic African American actor Mantan Moreland as Chan's right-hand man/chauffeur Birmingham Brown to the ensemble.  Moreland himself is a controversial figure in cinema history, as some people have accused his style of comedy and on-screen image as being racist and unflattering towards African Americans.  While I acknowledge and can respect such concerns, I admit that I am a great fan of Mantan Moreland and I have personally found that his characters are often self-aware, street-smart, and sympathetic despite their apparent lack of sophistication or refinement.  In the storylines, I feel that the Chans regard Birmingham not as a servant, but as a valued member of their team.  I enjoy watching the genuine friendship and easy chemistry & camaraderie between Moreland's Birmingham Brown, Chan's various sons, and Chan himself.  They are great together.  

Monogram acknowledged Moreland's contribution to their films by often giving him equal billing in the credits and advertisements as the Caucasian actors.  In the Chan films, Moreland almost always received second- or third-place billing in the credits and he remained a mainstay of the series even after Sidney Toler died and was replaced by Roland Winters.  Even though the Chan films are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, they are still notable when you consider how rare it is to find films in classic Hollywood cinema where characters of different ethnicities (including Asians, African Americans and Caucasians) are all sharing screen-time playing significant roles, and working together in a spirit of friendship and cooperation, to accomplish a common purpose. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Flight with Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

This morning I read that it was the 10th anniversary of the death of Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone in a tragic plane crash that also took the life of his wife and one of his children, as well as members of his staff and the plane's pilot.  You normally won't find me discussing anything remotely to do with politics on this blog, but I'll make an exception in his case.  I met him on an airline flight from Washington, DC to the West Coast in January 2001.  I had come to DC for a couple of days looking for work.  I was not successful in this endeavor and was returning to Los Angeles with my tail between my legs.  I noticed the gentleman sitting next to me in Coach looked familiar, but I couldn't place him at first.  Finally, I realized that I was sitting next to Senator Wellstone. 

I said Hello to him and was surprised to find that he was friendly and accessible.  He didn't seem to mind that I interrupted him reviewing the documents he brought on the flight to read, and actually seemed to welcome the company.  Now that I've worked in Washington, DC for several years, I can legitimately state that Wellstone's demeanor was as far from "DC" as you could imagine.  He was not fancy or ostentatious in his attire at all.  I recall he wore a plain dress shirt and tie and slacks that looked like it came off the rack in the department store.  It wasn't nearly as elegant or refined as the suits that is de rigueur for lawyers, lobbyists and elected officials in this town.  There is nothing wrong with dressing well--I like to dress in nice clothes for work everyday--but it was clear he wasn't trying to impress people with his appearance. 

What I remember the most was his kindness and sincerity and genuine modesty.  He did not seem like someone who was impressed with himself.  Now that I know more about his career in the Senate, all of these qualities helped epitomize what it truly means to be a public servant.  He asked what I was doing in Washington, DC.  I told him I was looking for work, but unsuccessful at it.  To my surprise, he asked if there was anything he could do to help me.  At the time, I considered myself much more conservative than I do now (I'm more of a moderate these days) and I remember saying "I'm not sure I'm the person you would want to help, because I think I'm on the other end of the political spectrum from you."  That didn't seem to deter him, because he still offered to help regardless of my political leanings at the time.  Senator Wellstone did not seem to be a judgmental person at all.  I remember he asked where I was from.  I told him I was from Los Angeles.  To my surprise, he talked about how he enjoyed his visits to Southern California through the years.  As someone who normally has people from the Mid-West or East Coast tell me how much they hate my hometown, I was pleased to see that the Senator didn't let popular opinion dictate his reactions to things.

When I learned of Senator Wellstone's death, I was actually on my way to visit DC again to check out law schools, which eventually led me to move the nation's capital and build a life and career here.  He had left a positive impression on me and so his death hit me hard.  He always seemed like someone who was real:  his sincerity and lack of pretense made him come across vulnerable and human.  Even though I only spent several hours with him on that flight, it was enough for me to come away feeling he was a genuinely good person.