Wednesday, September 25, 2013

YELLOW CARGO (1936)

Just in case you thought Yellow Cargo was a movie version of "The Banana Boat Song," a quick look at the poster to the left -- specifically the title's font -- should set you straight. As an immigrant official in the movie explains, "Asiatics are being smuggled in by land and water." I Googled the word "Asiatic" just to see if I could find a recent usage in the New York Times, but came up with (that means "zero." There was no Chinese word for "bupkis"). Movies like Yellow Cargo weren't meant to stand the test of time. They exist today as they did when they were originally released -- to entertain, albeit on a different level.



"The problem is, a half hour later they
feel like smuggling them in again. HAHAHA!"




Allan O'Connor, a federal narc, is temporarily assigned to the Immigration Bureau to discover who's behind the Chinese smuggling operation in Los Angeles. As with the hero of Sucker Money, O'Connor is a former actor -- was this a common career move during the Depression or just a convenient way for moviemakers to explain the leading man's, well, leading man's looks?  This particular leading man, by the way, is Conrad Nagel, who often resembles James Spader when you least expect it. (Had things been different, Nagel might have starred in Sex, Lies and Flammable Celluloid.


"You must be an actor; you're always in
the same profile."
Soon after O'Connor arrives in L.A., he discovers the smugglers are operating under the guise of Globe Productions, a phony independent movie production company run by Al Perrelli and Montie Brace, who are even more disreputable than the Weinsteins. Under the guise of making a melodrama about Chinese pirates, Perrelli and Brace ferry 20 white actors (in Asiatic make-up) per day to an island off the coast. After shooting 30 seconds of footage, they pay off the extras and send them home on another boat. Real Chinese illegals are then smuggled back in the extras' place. If you ever wondered how studios stay afloat after releasing big-budget flops, there's your answer. 


Crack reporter Bobbie Reynolds displays her
Star Trek costume while her photographer
looks on in confusion.
O'Connor is aided by wisecracking reporter -- like there's any other kind -- Bobbie Reynolds, who takes a shine to him, probably because he looks like James Spader. She's been trying to do a story on Globe Productions, but keeps getting stonewalled. In an effort to go undercover in their criminal activities, O'Connor almost begs to be an extra in Perrelli and Brace's "movie" but keeps getting the brush-off. C'mon, Allan, the casting couch works for guys, too, y'know!



O'Connor almost gives himself away
by showing his right profile yet again.
Up 'til now, the audience's credulity has been stretched thinner than Gwyneth Paltrow on the Ex-Lax diet. But forehead-palming time really arrives when O'Connor successfully disguises himself as an extra without Perrelli recognizing him from two inches away. Meanwhile Bobbie and photographer Bulbs Callahan start snooping around as well. Soon the jig is up, leading to a chase scene featuring a highway sign reading U.S. 61. Just how they suddenly got on a road that runs from Louisiana to Minnesota is one of Yellow Cargo's many unexplained mysteries.

Two guys in the front seat with a bound & gagged
woman -- no, nothing suspicious here.
All turns out well -- Bulbs sticks a pin in the neck of the driver, which appears to kill him. (No matter how many old low-budget movies I've seen, I'm still pleasantly surprised by the endless ways they make absolutely no sense.) O'Connor, who has been on their trail after getting out of a hospital bed with a gunshot wound, cuffs the bad guys.  O'Connor and Bobbie admit their true identities to each other, Bobbie being yet another Federal agent on the trail of the smuggling gang. If all Feds are as dizzy as her, we can expect a terrorist takeover of the Herald Square Mall any day.

If LAX looked like this today, I'd live there.
For a movie that's supposed to be about human smuggling, Yellow Cargo's most interesting moments are those that have nothing to do with it. The location shots in and around L.A., so prevalent in budget-minded movies of its time, are always entertaining. (The original Los Angeles Airport looks more like a hacienda.) Too, the  subplot offers what are probably pretty accurate representations how fly-by-night studios operated, even if they weren't criminal fronts. And there's plenty of shoptalk, too. Bobbie wonders why a movie producer like Montie Brace doesn't want any publicity: "He's hiding something -- third dimension, color processor, another Garbo." Yes, they were talking about 3-D movies in 1936.  But the line must have hit a little too close to home for Conrad Nagel. Early in his career, he played Garbo's lover in M-G-M's extravagant The Mysterious Lady. Now here he was stooging for an actress with a Bronx accent (in L.A.?) in a Grand National programmer. But perhaps Nagel accepted his fate, if this quote is any indication:

"What, another freaking movie?!"
I was never a big star, so I never had a role like Moses or D'Artagnan. But being assigned to 31 pictures in 24 months, I had an opportunity to play every type of part. The variety, though, didn't keep me from becoming a drug on the market. My wife would say, "Well, let's go out and see a movie tonight." We'd get in the car and discover that I'm playing at the Paramount Theater. And I'm playing at the Universal Theater. And the MGM Theater. We couldn't find a theater where I wasn't playing. So we'd go back home. I was an epidemic.

Thirty-one movies in two years! I've known actors who would destroy any vaccine to be an epidemic like that.

Per usual, it's the character actors who steal the show here. Vince Barnett (Bulbs Callahan) was the archetypal mousie guy who could trip over his own shoelaces even if he wore loafers. He's given several slapstick bits in Yellow Cargo, including sitting on a miniature cactus -- hilarious only because it's so abruptly edited. (You have to see it to understand.) Working well into the 1970s, Barnett's greatest on-screen credit was in 1954's Red Planet Mars where he played Seedy Man Listening to Radio, a part that resonates quite deeply with me.

You wouldn't expect Al Perrelli to be played by an actor named Jack La Rue. But it starts to make sense when you realize he was born Gaspere Biondolillo. La Rue kept pretty busy in B-movie gangster roles, never really graduating to the A-league. You might say he didn't have the range of his contemporaries. Couldn't sing and dance like Cagney or play empathetic like Bogart or cultivate an air of refinement like Robinson. But in his own way La Rue's more convincing than all of them because of his limitations -- I mean, did John Gotti have a lot of range? Jack La Rue looks and talks like an honest-to-God hoodlum. (He's terrifying in the pre-code shocker The Story of Temple Drake.) And if Matt LeBlanc from Friends had entered crime instead of show business, he'd have looked just like him.

It's always interesting to see movies like Yellow Cargo -- that is, those made in pre-enlightened times -- just to hear how casually language deemed insulting today was not only accepted but part of the common vocabulary. The extras portraying "coolies," for instance. Bobbie, trying to remember a Chinese official's name, jokingly comes up with "Long Hot Poo." That's the kind of jape I use at home just to get a rise of out the missus and to make our semi-politically correct 17 year-old daughter laugh in spite of herself. This should give you further evidence, as if any was needed, of my emotional (im)maturity. 

So yes, times change. At some point, probably when it was sold to TV in the '50s, the title Yellow Cargo was considered disparaging enough to warrant a change. Take a look at the title credit of the prints now in circulation. If you were Chinese, would this make you feel better about yourself?




                                                ********************* 
 

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