Armchair Cinephile 

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Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Masquerades

In general, I think there are few cooler jobs than digging through studio vaults to create new DVD reissues. Occasionally, though, I don't envy the guys: I can imagine the trepidation with which MGM employees approached their new Charlie Chan Chanthology, which is sure to be a tough sell in some quarters.

Setting aside the fact that the six features here are viewed by Chan fans as second-rate (they were made after the long-running series moved from 20th Century Fox to budget-minded Monogram in the '40s), there's the matter of race, addressed quickly in a blurb at the bottom of the box set's spine: "Created in a time when casting Caucasians in minority roles was considered acceptable, the Charlie Chan films continue to spark debate to this day." Confucius might have said it better, but he couldn't have used fewer words; I'd wager that most contemporary viewers will be at least slightly uncomfortable watching nine hours or so of white guy Sidney Toler running around solving crimes in faux-pidgin syntax.

Cross-casting for race didn't end in the '40s, of course. It's all over the place in '60s films:

Mexico-born Anthony Quinn was considered by studios to have a vague-enough ethnic appearance to play anyone. He was Italian for Fellini, and put ethnicity in the spotlight in the classic film version of Zorba the Greek (Fox). This Oscar magnet allowed Quinn to show his most exuberant side, defying danger and making a serious hit with the ladies. Just don't ask him how to make a yogurt-cucumber sauce. (Decades later, the half-Spanish, half-Italian actor Alfred Molina continues a trend, handling the role in a Broadway revival.)

Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti scoffed when producers suggested he might cast the unmistakably American Burt Lancaster as an Italian prince in The Leopard (Criterion); "Oh no, a cowboy!," he reportedly exclaimed. But he needed the money Lancaster's star power brought with it, and there's no arguing about the result. The performance is a gem in the actor's crown, and the movie - an elegiac portrait of a nation in transition from aristocracy to democracy - is widely considered Visconti's masterpiece. Criterion's recent three-disc set contains both the original Italian cut and an alternative, English-language version made for American release.

Most oddly, the recently reissued The Manchurian Candidate (MGM) features a Korean bad guy played by Henry Silva - an American of Puerto Rican descent, whose stint in Spaghetti Westerns and mob movies would probably have most fans guessing he was Italian. Strangest movie moment of the week: Henry Silva in a kung-fu showdown with Frank Sinatra.

Charlie Chan Chanthology (MGM)

Zorba the Greek (Fox)

The Leopard (Criterion)

The Manchurian Candidate (MGM)

Imitation of Life (Universal)

The Human Stain (Miramax)

The Wedding Banquet (MGM)
Some vintage films are lucky enough to deal with race head-on, so that years later - even when the sentiments have changed - we can at least respect them for trying. Universal's recent release of Imitation of Life packages the 1934 Claudette Colbert film with the 1959 Lana Turner version (the latter directed by Douglas Sirk); the plots vary significantly, but in each film a black housekeeper is troubled when her light-skinned daughter realizes she can pass for white by distancing herself from her roots.

Speaking of which, there's The Human Stain (Miramax), in which a Jewish professor accused of racism has a secret weapon he refuses to employ: He's actually African-American, and has passed himself off as Jewish since leaving home. The movie has a fair bit going for it, not the least some fine acting by Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman, but is hobbled by the very thing that used to be acceptable in the past: Anthony Hopkins, the über-Brit, is cast as the Southern black man who claims he's Jewish. It's a crippling bit of poor casting, made more ironic by the film's subject.

Finally, a movie in which the charade is up-front and everything clicks: Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (MGM) features a gay couple (one American fella, one Taiwanese) who are forced by circumstance to pretend they're just friends. Wai Tung's parents, who assume he's straight, are insisting it's time for a wedding, so he recruits a green-card hunting girl to go through with a sham ceremony. It's a funny, very charming film, Lee's breakthrough before the even more successful Eat Drink Man Woman and his subsequent mainstream hits. It's not the last bit of role-playing in an Ang Lee film - he would later deal with gay cowboys and genetically mutated scientists - but it is easily the sweetest. •


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