Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by John F. Goodrich, Claudine West, and Leon Gordon (based on the play by George Scarborough and David Belasco)
The Son-Daughter is, I think, the oddest tangent of Clarence Brown's career. It's capable of being compared in some specifics to this movie or that movie in his filmography, and broadly it will remind you of all of his many women's pictures about a woman's hardships in a patriarchal society. The one that holds up to specific comparisons the best is probably the one that immediately preceded it, Letty Lynton, and one could run with this, because Letty Lynton was a hit and the space between their releases, May 1932 to December 1932, was, in 1932, a long enough period to have deliberately capitalized on it. The fact is that Brown merely had another project with Joan Crawford fall through, and this was more akin to scrounged-together make-work. Brown didn't even direct quite all of it, with Robert Z. Leonard helping out when Brown called in sick; but whatever Leonard's contributions were, they're integrated pretty invisibly into the Brown of it.
If you didn't know all that, however, you could suppose that this was a sideways attempt at recapturing that Letty Lynton success, taking on another (presumably) popular play that had, at least superficially, a comparable edgy energy. Nevertheless, even the Brown movie that it has the most in common with, structurally, still isn't that similar: the major point of resemblance is that Letty Lynton also turns into a violent, vengeful thriller about three-fifths of the way through, but Letty Lynton does not stay a thriller, while The Son-Daughter keeps being one right up until its final shots, with only the very last two doing anything else, namely delivering a silent epilogue to the violence which, with trademarked Brown ambivalence, counterpoises the climactic badassery with emptiness and uncertainty. Meanwhile, beyond those points, the two films don't look much alike at all—and, certainly, you could button that up with a "literally!", given that Letty Lynton's about Letty Lynton and The Son-Daughter centers on a woman we could call 莲花, or Lianhua, if we're prepared to do some modest work on The Son-Daughter's behalf, and I don't necessarily blame you if you're not, given that I cannot find one single attestation of that name for any actual human being, and it's a Google-style translation of "Lotus Flower."
Another significant difference is that The Son-Daughter was no success (it barely broke even); but I'm honestly not sure why it wasn't, especially since the obvious objection for us was not obvious to its audience in 1932. But it's muscled its way up my own Brown rankings in a way that, frankly, I find stressful; so I can only guess that its particular approach to its particular fad actually must've been disagreeable to its 1932 audience, too, only for different reasons. Whatever the cause, it was vanishingly obscure within months of its release, and nothing has changed since—I'm a little surprised that it even has a DVD, and have no hope whatsoever of anything better coming along—and Brown was dismissive towards it himself, though it's always worth remembering that most of Brown's pronouncements upon his filmography come from a place of deep retirement and a pose of sanguinity regarding how little he ever cared about most of his movies.
So as to its distinctiveness within Brown's body of work, then: we can quibble, but other than The Signal Tower, it's just about Brown's only proper thriller; it's one of Brown's few films that makes any attempt to be about a non-Western culture; most importantly of all, and very much related, it's the most blatantly phony thing he ever made, which is saying something, since Brown did MGM melodramas. But then, the single biggest reason for that phoniness is the absurdly distracting requirement, inflicted upon the film by its studio, of—oh, you guessed—an all-white central cast in yellowface. Or in Lewis Stone's case, maybe not even yellowface in the strictest technical sense, just these giant glasses.
And it is extremely distracting, to the extent that on this watch I had to rewind it twice during a corny dialogue-free woo-pitching scene, because my mind kept drifting to how I'd grapple with this film spending 79 minutes dancing on the line separating "it's racist in interesting socio-cultural ways" and "it's racist in terrible, outrageous ways," and that's despite my enjoyment of that scene on its cutesy-poo merits. There is no point, let's be clear, where it would not have been more emotionally immediate if its leading lady were, for example, Anna May Wong; emotional immediacy may not be the end-all be-all but it's usually better. It should make you mad to learn Wong was considered for the role, liked the role, and then MGM demurred because Wong was "too Chinese" to headline a movie that has virtually no speaking parts that are not Chinese, and the main one that isn't is Manchu, whereas the only function of one of its very few, very brief white speaking parts, a policeman with but a single line, is to allude ironically to white cluelessness while emphasizing the idea that Chinatown is a realm operating almost autonomously even as it's embroiled in a secret war for the soul of China across the sea.
The Fu Manchus always had their audiences, so who knows, maybe the public's problem with The Son-Daughter was that it is not a yellow peril movie, nor, I think, a mockery, at least not intentionally. A distributor made such a comment, suggesting that Hollywood take their "Chinese pictures" to Chinatown and leave them there, and moving past the dubious prospect of whether Chinese-Americans would like this all that much either, except maybe as camp, you take the point. To my mind, the most hateful part of yellowface (or any raceface)—apart from intention, which can very readily be evil, and the overshadowing history of using it for evil that makes it easily malum prohibitum even if I don't think there's a good philosophical argument that it's malum in se—was how it gave studios permission to remain white supremacist institutions that locked out non-white talent in favor of white people with, in this instance, rubber bands tied around their eyes. But anti-intellectualism does us no favors; the racial fearmongering of The Mask of Fu Manchu or the racial parody of Breakfast At Tiffanys really can't be held the same as the Brechtian device in Cloud Atlas, and none of those are quite the same as a thorny case like this, where it (and everything else) also becomes something like a Brechtian device but more negligently. And Goddamn, but it's crazy that many folks who'd claim they are the same will still tell you that Borat, the most egregious racial caricature of this century that wasn't immediately condemned, is a-okay.
What is true about this film, however, is that its goal is not "let's tell a serious-minded story about the impact of the Chinese Revolution on the Chinese diaspora." And even so it's notably supportive of that revolution while simultaneously being almost radically welcoming of Chinese immigrants for a 1932 film; a sub-theme, that dominates a single scene but informs the rest, amounts to the movie smiling at the crumbling of old-fashioned strictures, that may or may not be made-up, as Chinese become Chinese-American. You probably wouldn't notice if you didn't think about the movie too much, but it could eventually occur to you that there's not any other reason to do this story in America. It could've easily taken place in 1911 China, or any period of strife in China.
So while it's hard to completely hate a nearly century-old film simply for attempting some version of multiculturalism without a search engine, this is still astoundingly cavalier with, like, basic stuff. Consider how it thinks "Prince Chun" is actually a person's name; or that Zaifeng, the current Prince Chun, the emperor's father, not only died in 1911 but was a major leader in the Republican movement (curiously, he wasn't despised, but they weren't offering him management jobs); or how it thinks that Chinese shake hands funny; or the names; or-or-or. I certainly have questions, that I have not been able to satisfactorily answer, why every anti-Manchu Chinese-American in this movie, including ones who have no intention of going back, still wears the hateful Manchu-imposed bian (Hair Nazism has been a recurring theme in the history of that part of the world, and the Manchus managed to turn that into legitimate, hair-based genocide). Yet it seems to like Chinese people, even if it also always seems like the product of screenwriters who had maybe seen some Chinese people once, from a distance, an impression very much sealed toward the end when it refers to ghost money with the extreme literalism (though this is a great scene) of "white death paper." Well, if I must also suspect it's the most specifically anti-Manchu movie Hollywood ever made, to the extent it could've been Sun "expel the Tatar barbarians" Yat-sen's favorite Hollywood movie, this is only in line with how much it likes the Chinese.
As for these "Chinese," we find, in San Francisco's Chinatown, in what is no later than 1911, one Dr. Dong Tong (Stone), widower father of the beautiful Lien Wha, to use the film's spelling (Helen Hayes), and the film's gravest misstep might just be introducing us to Lien Wha as her father, a hobbyist painter, finishes her portrait, and she declares it to be faithful to her hotness, meaning our first impression of her is slightly insufferable, though she gets better immediately. Tong, we've already learned, is a member of the Republican underground, opposed to the Qing Dynasty, and his organization has recently conspired to smuggle a vast arsenal to their comrades across the Pacific; but the murderous agents of the Qing are everywhere, and this is, I guess, a good enough explanation why the Republicans keep their queues, despite that fashion's rapid demise in China. A ship is presently set to sail, loaded with weapons, but its captain (Wade Boteler) won't budge, except for the balance of $100,000 he's owed.
For her part, Lien Wha lives in something like an idyll, aware of China's crisis and, indeed, sorry that she was not born a son so she could fight; but her abiding passion is more what you'd expect from a teenaged American, namely a young University of California student, Tom Lee (screen omnihuman Ramon Navarro), with whom she shares "no spoken word" (but many tender written missives) as he crosses back and forth under her balcony so "surreptitiously" that the joke is even the white cop who missed a kidnapping still knows about their hanky-panky. She would marry Lee, and Tong, despite much performative gruffness about the flouting of tradition, would see his daughter happy. And he should be pleased, and not just for the love-match, for Lee is secretly a noble prince, son of a revolutionary leader; but in one afternoon, all their best-laid plans are smashed by the reality of war, with the Republicans approaching Tong to inform him that the only way to get the money for the ship is for the fathers of the prettiest daughters to surrender their children's bride prices to the cause. Tom Lee has no bride price to pay, at least not on him; hence the only alternative is to marry Lien Wha off to someone who can pay. Tong hates it, and Lee hates it more, but Lien Wha, for all her seeming fragility, does not quail. And so even when the Manchus almost derail the rest of the Republicans' plan, Lien Wha raises all $100,000 by herself, her life and happiness sold to the highest bidder, Fen Sha (Warner Oland, Fu Manchu himself). This is awful, and gets worse, for as I said, agents of the Qing are everywhere.
I also said that the film's goal isn't so much to tell a story about the Chinese Revolution, and while that's a lot of Chinese revolutionary activity to not be "about" Chinese revolutionary activity, it's significantly more concerned in using the set-dressing while veering away from anything like "historical chronicle." In the first instance, of course, what it wants to do is use its giant collection of Chinese stereotypes to indulge in the kind of stilted formal courtship rituals that wouldn't be momentarily plausible to its audience otherwise, while still inviting us to see barely-veiled beneath the stereotypes something sweet and lacking in any fundamental distinction from two European-American teens (and Hayes and Navarro aren't teens, either) trying to make love under the watchful eye of a conservative but loving dad (it's an anachronism to describe it thus, but Stone's participation means that I keep thinking of this phase of the story as basically an Andy Hardy movie but with a Chinese girl); and this is obviously deeply othering, but at least trying to pose questions about common humanity at the same time. In the second instance, however, it's to establish a milieu where an economically-coerced marriage, Ju Dou-style, remains a possibility, while using the Chinese Revolution to explain how an affectionate father might still wind up selling his daughter out from under the man she loves, and using filial piety to explain how that daughter might dutifully go along with it anyway. And this pushes the dinky teen love story it's tried to rescue from essentializing exoticism right back into a mythicized realm. In its extremely attenuated way, but possibly still purposefully, it's the Hua Mulan story, as scrambled into the productive mix of sexism and anti-sexism that defines just about any MGM melodrama.
And I don't know—it works? The movie requires Brown to occupy a niche both quite familiar and shockingly new, one more story about a woman who's basically a prostitute, but obliged by his screenplay to take it into an even archer mode; and so, with a prince and everything, he pursues it in the terms of a fairy tale. The Brown movie I think it most resembles, then, beyond specific plot points or even emotional registers, is Flesh and the Devil, but even that film's fairy tale of adultery is as much down to the pictorial treatment and Greta Garbo at her most iconic as it is to the story it tells; and while the full richness of that silent film's pictorial treatment is not recapitulated here, Cedric Gibbons's physical production for The Son-Daughter's Chinatown is gratifyingly big and sprawling, and Brown and cinematographer Oliver Marsh do a whole lot with shadowy expanses, differentiating very clearly between the cozy abode of the Dongs' apartment and the harshly top-lit dungeons of Manchu lairs (and I believe "grungy horror-inflected torture chambers" to be genuinely unique in Brown's career); they find a splendid use of nearly-pitch darkness when Lien Wha weepily rebuffs Lee in the name of obligation, declaring that she'll close her eyes and he'll be gone, only to be disappointed to discover he is, that's very effective even if I personally would've dollied out into the empty black space to underline it, and that's exactly what Brown would've usually done, too. (Margaret Booth's cutting is usually quite good, but bears several moments of clunk that make me wonder if it wasn't sliced for runtime: there's a clearly-mobile "tracking shot" with Stone that's actively wobbling along behind him, and in the final cut that shot's barely three seconds long.) When it comes, Brown's thriller instincts are about as good as we'll ever see them—the deaths are ghastly in their foreordained fatalism, and Lee's penultimate stumble through an enemy wedding party as a "drunk" is bleakly comic in the way it brings suspense because the "drunken bumbling" isn't even fake, he's severely wounded—and this one climaxes with the single gnarliest act of killing in Brown's career, unusually willing to show violence as a long, drawn-out process, effected with downright exhausting brutality and delivered within the inky dark of a bridal chamber, punctuated almost solely by pinpricks of fire in the eyelighting.
The big difference between this and the rest, of course, is how completely Lien Wha transcends the ambiguous, emotionally-pinioned state that Brown's other women are almost invariably trapped in; it's all the more remarkable that this comes from Hayes, whose physicality and screen persona are not in any way built to visually communicate any aggressive sexuality, let alone a capacity for violence. Hayes is doing a lot of ethnic artifice, but it's ever in pursuit of something more like universal maidenhood, and in the early 30s this kind of giggly girl practically too shy to leave her room was, indeed, her go-to move. It's always cute, but here, she's using it incredibly well to position Lien Wha as a figure that necessarily always takes you by surprise, moving her across profound changes that, even so, don't even quite register as changes, but the natural requirements of her archetype, presently delivered within deeply implausible accoutrements, which in turn, I suppose, are apt to focus attention upon the pure elemental feelings of love, duty, and vengeance she exists to serve. The most spectacular sequence in this thriller isn't even action: it's the stunning centerpiece of the blushing virgin who's transformed herself into the breathless auctioneer of her own body, Brown and Booth cutting sharply around a single master shot of Hayes maintaining her stereotyped daintiness even as she bounds around the room, practically leaping at each suitor and all but openly mocking anyone too cheap to pay her price; and making matters all the more fraught is Stone there in the background, stewing in at least three different kinds of shame that eventually turns into weird pride. There's every possibility that even with great craftsmen, that with another actress this sinks into pure caricature—and maybe it still does, so if Hayes and Navarro's romantic nothings make you gag from the cod-Sinicisms at play, you're not wrong. Hayes ultimately isn't even swimming against that current, but at least swimming with it for a better purpose than so many similar things had.