Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Forbidden colours… The Red Lantern (1919), Costas Fotopoulos, Kennington Bioscope

“East is East, and West is West… and never the twain shall meet.”

Anna May Wong makes a brief and almost impossible to spot, film debut in a film in which a Russian and an American play the two Asian leads. The Red Lantern is “of its time” and yet it is not unsympathetic to these characters whose lives are limited by Caucasian prejudice. The eye make-up is jarring and makes for awkward viewing but whilst attitudes have shifted there were those even at the time who found this unacceptable… in a time when Sessue Hayakawa was a bona fide star. But this is about love and prejudice and whether the lines quoted from Kipling should still be true some twenty years after the Boxer Rebellion led to the deaths of over 30,000 in Peking.

The film features Alla Nazimova in dual roles as Mahlee the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Sir Philip Sackville (Frank Currier) and half-sister to his pure English rose Blanche. Nazimova proves again her ability as the most stylised protean performer of the time and you’d scarcely recognise her as her own sister – blonde wig and a lighter touch – vs the taught angularity of Mahlee.

Alla Nazimova, also known as Naz (natch).
The Boxer Rebellion was not old news at this point as the Great War ground out its last days, and issues of self-determination drove the post-war agenda. China had been the subject of many international hands and the “allies” opposing the uprising had been a mix of British, American, German and Japanese who by the time of this film had assumed the lead role.

June Mathis’ screen play was based on Edith Wherry’s novel, written in 1911 and described in The Spectator review on release as an extra-ordinarily “vivid” account of missionary life and as “… a statement of existing conditions it is of the very highest interest.”

In this context it’s fascinating that Noah Beery’s Doctor Sam Wang is not an out and out baddie; firstly, he’s a Doctor, committed to heling and secondly, he too is “Eurasian” – mixed race – and has been humiliated by his attempts to integrate in the West. He gets involved in the uprising as he wants to earn his place in the East… he’s also a bit too fresh with Mahlee, just to push him into “bad guy” territory, behaviourally. As the book reviewer noted, the two best realised characters are Mahlee and Wang.

Another Beery baddie? Also the father of Noah Beery Junior of the Rockford Files!
Mahlee herself is got at for not having had her feet bound – the express wishes of Sackville as he abandoned her as a baby, little realising it would mark her as an outcast. So much so that when her grandmother is dying she asks her to cut her feet so that she may be accepted into heaven by the gods (tough gods!). But, nor can she truly find a place with the Christian Europeans, even as she works as a nurse in the Mission.

“Hush, child! You are like a cat treading on my heart. You have the foreign devils’ fear of death… my time is near and I am not afraid.”

She falls for Andrew Templeton (Darrell Foss), the son of the mission leader Reverend Alex Templeton (Winter Hall), but the son's admiration is tempered by her mixed race as indeed is that of his father and mother; as much as they like and admire Mahlee, she is not for their son.

Naz and Darrell Foss
Things become even more pronounced when the Stackville’s arrive and Andrew is automatically drawn to the Caucasian version of the woman he has felt such an uncomfortably strong attraction for. This is not good news and naturally Wang plays the rejection as another reason for Mahlee to help the Boxer rebellion by pretending to be the Queen of the Red Lantern.

Again, it’s of interest that the story doesn’t leave it there and there is still a chance for the Westerners to redeem themselves by accepting Mahlee for who she is and not how she was made but no… they can’t even manage that and so it is that Mahlee joins the revolt. What else has she got left and, despite her efforts to save them and repeated offers of friendship they just can’t get over her skin colour… even her love and even her father.

The imperliasts aren't budging!
So, by now we’re rooting for the Boxers… and so – probably - were many of the audience in 1919 which is an extraordinary thing.

Veteran Albert Capellani directs… and there are some excellent crowd scenes and luscious mise-en-scene: it’s an epic and I’m not surprised it was one of the biggest films of the year and established Nazimova as: ”The star of a thousand moods… in a drama of a thousand delights.” I wasn’t counting and that may well have been hyperbole but there were many delights…

Costas Fotopoulos accompanied and, sight unseen, did a marvellous job matching the dramatic and emotional pace of a film that does lead its audience along a twisted path to the denouement.

Now THAT. Is a hat.
Illegal drug frenzy at South London Silent Film Speakeasy!!

Before all this we were treated to Coke Enneyday (Douglas Fairbanks) and his opioid adventures trying to break up a gang of evil-doers using inflatable fish to smuggle. Lovely Billie Love is caught up in all of this and I especially liked the moment when one of the – Chinese – henchmen trapped her and said he could now do what he wanted with her… she beats him up and ties him up in his arms.

Anita Loos probably added the Girl Power and Todd Browning (you know, him!) summoned all the rest coming down from one bad trip on Venice Beach. Maaaann!

John Sweeney played along, as sober as a Judge m’lud! He had to be: Doug takes no prisoners and in amidst the fun drugs, he clearly forgot to take his worming tablets.

The men in a boat. 1910.
There was also some beautiful colour footage of the Italian Lake Garda taken in 1910 using the innovative British Kinemacolor process which, as the Bioscope’s expert projectionist, Dave Locke, explained, used a spinning disc, with red, green and clear plastic to synchronise with film shot using tinted stock. The result was simply stunning and “colour fringing” aside, when someone moved a little too fast for the camera to follow, it was something to behold.

If you travel down to Brighton and Hove, you can still see the Kinemacolor sign on the side of the building where it was developed.

One of the most remarkable shorts ever shown at the Bioscope or, indeed, anywhere else.

The Red Lantern was the recent Belgian restoration and was screened on 35mm. It is avialable from the Belgian Cinematek as an extraordinary extras-laden DVD with a 200 page book which tells you all you could possible imagine about Naz, the Boxer background and the making of this film. Highly recommended!


  1. Is that a Mishima reference I detect in the title? ;)

    I love Nazimova and this DVD release really is exemplary. I appreciate the care the Cinematek took in presenting a racially insensitive film in a thoughtful and nuanced way, providing a lot of contextual information and partnering with Belgian-Asian associations.
    I always meant to write up The Red Lantern for the blog! Perhaps I'll rewatch soon and see if I feel inspired.
    Thanks for the review!

    1. I could fib but it's filtered through David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto! The extras are superb on the DVD and it really does help place the film in context. A brave choice for Nazimova at the time and she's the film's hero at any point with the Brits simply hateful by the end. As usual! Thanks for reading! Paul

  2. As co-founder of the Alla Nazimova Society, I am *delighted* to come across this review and hope to see "The Red Lantern" soon. So few of Nazzy's films have survived.

    1. And they're all so different and vivid performances from what I've seen: Salome, Camille and this one. What a creative intelligence she had and I wishe there was more. I really appreciate your comments and I couldn't recommend this DVD set more highly! I've just bookmarked your website and look forward to finding out more. Best wishes, Paul