[1 November 2013]
On demand from Warner Archives is this double-feature of two curious B movies made by David O. Selznick’s RKO in 1932. Both are about small multi-ethnic communities that must turn to violence in order to survive a peril from outside their cozy little environment, and as such may be seen possibly as warnings of the rising threat from fascist or militarist expansions in both Europe and Asia.
The first and better film, Men of America, opens with a montage of the settling of the West via bits of stock footage: stagecoaches, Indian attacks, etc. Now the area is settled and the superannuated warriors, both white man and Indian, are nostalgic old duffers who sit around in the general store trading war stories. It’s a farming community, and the farmers include heavily-accented Italian and Chinese immigrants, all working the land and raising families amid good-natured ethnic jokes to underline the trope of the “melting pot”.
But it still turns out to be a country for old men, for the thrust of the story is that when gangsters on the lam hide out nearby, these aged coots are ready to take up arms and defend themselves as well or better than any of these soft, civilized, citified, sissified whippersnappers of the younger generation. That includes our hero (William Boyd), who’s almost the victim of mob justice due to misunderstanding. One Italian farmer transcends his jolly stereotyping in a dramatic scene when he tells an Italian gangster that he’s bringing shame on his people.
Roar of the Dragon foreshadows Fort Apache and other films about a beseiged group of people defending a building against the horde of attackers. Based partly (and very obviously) on a play by the industrious Howard Estabrook and partly on a story co-written by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), this takes place in a Manchuria hotel, and the attackers are “Tartar bandits” led by a Russian (C. Henry Gordon) taking advantage of the fact that Chinese troops are off fighting the Japanese. This topic of the day wasn’t much discussed in contemporary Hollywood, so it’s interesting to find it even as a mere plot device or backdrop in a movie with shaky logic.
The hard-drinking, cynical hero is Richard Dix, and the (extremely) beautiful damaged-goods heroine (the bandit’s reluctant “girlfriend”) is Danish actress Gwili Andre, made up strikingly like Marlene Dietrich with a Garbo-ish accent. A bearded Jewish merchant (Arthur Stone) risks his life and meets a terrible fate. Two of Hollywood’s giddiest comic characters are around doing their act: Zasu Pitts and Edward Everett Horton, the latter wearing the most makeup. The pressure-cooker events are such that Horton transforms before our eyes into a machine-gun-wielding ball of fire. (It seems to be a Gatling gun or a rotary cannon, though I’m no expert.) Zasu remains dithery, unfortunately; it would have been a metamorphosis worth seeing had she rolled up her sleeves and grabbed a tommy gun. “Oh dear! How do steer this thing?”