Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

My notes on the serial Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

One of the dullest serials ever made – fifteen draggy chapters, many of which fly by without even a fistfight – wearing its four and a half hour running time very heavily: in theory, the length of these things ought to allow for an epic story thread, but this starts small and peters out.

In San Francisco, ‘Eurasian’ Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), a looker, is out to ruin the business of the merchants in Chinatown so her ‘European Chain Stores’ can take over.  She hires mad scientist Victor Poten (pronounced Po-Ten) (Bela Lugosi) to do the work. He has invented a type of television whereby he can spy on anyone in a room where he has planted one of his tiny gizmos (unseen, but mentioned) and is furthermore fond of tricked-up crushing rooms, falling chandeliers, poisoned stilettos in phones, an idol with clutching arms that drops prisoners into a dungeon, hypnotic control of minions, etc. Poten, a half-breed fanatic consumed with hatred of the two pure races who have supposedly made his life wretched, enthusiastically carries out Sonya’s schemes, but has a larger ambition: to wipe out the two races and start a new one!

After some chapters of theoretically ruining business, things change among the baddies: Poten’s minion Grogan (Charles King) falls for Sonya, who turns against Poten, and Poten hypnotises him into a zombie slave. The good guys are two-fisted author Martin Andrews (Herman Brix, pre-Bruce Bennett), an early but pointless suspect since Poten copies some of his crimes from Martin’s last book, snippy Torchy-Lois-type reporter Joan Whiting (Joan Barclay), who is annoyingly inept and danger-prone but wins Martin anyway (cue cringe at fade-out as Martin has her editor fire her, ‘I don’t want my wife working for a newspaper – or any job’) and Martin’s houseboy sidekick Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), who plays the part so fey that he seems like the hero’s catamite. After the San Francisco plot is played out, the characters get on a boat to Los Angeles for a couple of chapters featuring Grogan trying to throttle Poten with a copper noose and Grogan dressing Martin in his clothes.

In LA, there’s a cardinal plot error as the villain becomes powerless and on the run – his gimmick is hiding in the heroes’ homes because it’s ‘the last place’ anyone would look. Martin second guesses this and realises he’ll be at Sonya’s house, but not that his own apartment is the next hiding place when he sends the girls there to be safe but actually to get in trouble (everyone has homes in both cities). At the end, after surviving a car going off the docks, Poten gets up as a Chinese waiter at the celebratory dinner for Martin and is undramatically exposed, handcuffed and carted away. The chapter endings are all curiously muffed (for instance, an explosion in the street but we see Martin safe under an awning before the fade and the trail), though there are also cheats like two men falling from a building one week and a retaken shot the next when the hero lands on a balcony and the baddie dies in the street. Lugosi, in a few token disguises (a phone engineer with dark glasses, an old man, the waiter), gives one of his drabber bad guy roles. Directed dully by Robert F. Hill.


One thought on “Film review – Shadow of Chinatown (1936)

  1. Andrew Osmond
    I caught Misery (the film) again last night – Kathy Bates’ rant against the ‘cheats’ in cliffhanger serials is one of the highlights. (One of the worst – and I think I’m remembering accurately – is in the Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers, where an episode ends with Buck’s junior pal crumpling under laser beams, only for the scene to be erased in the reprise the following week.)

    David Lee White
    I’m impressed that you got through this one. I only got through about four chapters before giving up. I was initially attracted to the eccentricities of the plot, but then it just became repetitive. I’d rather watch PHANTOM CREEPS again, or any number Lugosi’s Monogram pics.

    Tom Fallows
    In terms of serial cheats, I remember seeing Buster Crabbe getting shot at point blank range in an episode of Red Barry, and then carying on like nothing had happened in the next episode. Although he did stagger a bit. Still, nice to see a guy who’s first name was Red takin down some diabolical commies…

    Andrew Osmond
    Wouldn’t you know… typing ‘serial cheat’ into youtube brings up five fine specimens. (I especaiily like the first ‘Vigilantes are Coming’ clip.)

    Posted by kimnewman | February 18, 2022, 9:44 am

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