Java Head / Tiger Bay Review
This particular double-bill, released last June, is more interesting on paper than it is in reality. Part of Optimum’s ongoing Ealing Studios collection, its pair of films date from a time when Ealing was known by the less-than-catchy moniker of Associated Talking Pictures. The focus is the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong who would, on occasion, take a part in the odd British production. First, and most famous, was E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly from 1929 (available in a fine DVD edition from the BFI), which was followed by some German and US features, most notably Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich. By 1934 she was back in the UK making the musical Chu Chin Chow for Gainsborough Pictures and this disc’s offerings for ATP.
Both Java Head and Tiger Bay were shot entirely in the studio, recreating a mid-nineteenth century Bristol for the former and the titular port somewhere in modern day South America. Java Head is a ship faring potboiler told entirely onshore. Romance, smuggling, miscegenation and a long-running family feud all find a place in its slim narrative: pure soap operatics in an 80-minute running time. Tiger Bay, set in a place that houses “all the riffraff of the seven seas”, involves yet more romance, a musical number or two, criminal gangs, kidnapping, a protection racket and a few fistfights. Wong takes a back seat in both, a Chinese bride who stirs up the locals in the former and a tough-talking nightclub owner in the latter despite her name being the only one to appear above the title; it’s the white romantic couples who take the lion’s share of the screen time.
Nevertheless it is Wong who remains the most memorable in either film and it is Wong who remains the most obvious reason for sampling either today. In part this is owing to the bland romantic pairings: Elizabeth Allan (on loan from MGM) and John Loder lack the requisite spark in Java Head, whilst Victor Garland and René Ray, though the cuter couple, get a little lost in Tiger Bay’s nefarious comings-and-goings. However, this reason pales beside the other, namely that it’s fascinating to see a genuine Chinese performer onscreen in a pair of thirties potboilers as opposed to white actors donning the ‘yellow face’ make-up. (This was the era of Warner Oland and Sidney Toler playing Charlie Chan on the big screen, or Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy playing Fu Manchu and daughter, or the Welsh actor Emlyn Williams appearing in a 1936 British remake of D.W. Griffiths’ Broken Blossoms, etc.) Admittedly the attitudes towards her characters and their fates aren’t always progressive - Java Head’s nineteenth century setting seemingly allows for the filmmakers to treat her as nothing more than an exotic stranger - but then the strength of her presence does make them a little easier to swallow. Indeed, we’re definitely dealing with a film star here, even if she deserved much better than these are low-budget flicks.
At least Tiger Bay backs her with a surprising-for-the-time collection of extras from various ethnic backgrounds and without recourse to make-up. They may only be there to act drunk in the distance, provoke a fistfight or perform a little acoustic ditty in a doorway, but the cumulative effect is a rather impressive atmosphere and one that’s certainly more enticing than the lifeless Bristolian streets that Java Head offers up. Tiger Bay is generally better all round with plenty of action and intrigue to up the pace - including a protracted machine gun battle with a body count worthy of an eighties actioner - and the odd snappy piece of dialogue. David Lean also earned one of his earliest credits as co-editor. Java Head, on the other hand, is rather creaky. One scene sees Loder and company head off on a globetrotting journey: the embarking is conveyed entirely with close-up; the various stop-offs resorting to back projection and a forced mention of their whereabouts (Lisbon, California, and so on) in the dialogue. Much of the screenplay is just as strained, particularly whenever Edmund Gwenn’s patriarch is onscreen to deliver yet another nautical-based metaphor: “You’ve been amongst the rocks, haven’t you?” Only Ralph Richardson, in an early role as Loder’s foppish brother, seems to recognise the inherent silliness and has a little fun with the part.
With that said, neither film fully satisfies as a piece of filmmaking. Though more agreeable Tiger Bay is nonetheless flawed and can be as outdated as Java Head in its attitudes when it wants to be. But then it’s because of Wong as to why we’re watching and, whilst she had done much better work previously, that may be enough to see some through. Add to this the fact that Optimum have had the decency to issue the two pictures as a double-bill rather than individual releases and it makes them a little easier to digest. They’re relics, but interesting ones and I’d rather have the opportunity to see them than not.
Given their brisk lengths both Tiger Bay and Java Head fit easily onto a single disc, and a single-layered one at that. There are no additional features and as such the decision doesn’t affect the presentation quality. Both come in their original aspect ratios and original mono soundtracks, and both are generally impressive to look at. The image can be a little grainy at times which results in some onscreen noise, but on the whole the quality is very good with a pleasing level of detail and clarity. Of course some damage remains - plus some shots are little softer than other - but such issues are to be expected, either as a result of age or the low budgets of the productions. The soundtracks fare a bit worse, particularly Java Head’s, though this would appear to be a side-effect of the technology of the time. As such expect some hiss, though don’t expect optional English subtitles to help you out if you are struggling to make out the dialogue and both films come without.