Friday, October 7, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Mask of the Dragon (1951)

Finishing up a tour of duty in Korea, Lt. Dan Oliver (Richard Emory) pays a visit to the humble curio shop of Chen Koo (Eddie Lee), where he’s asked to take a jade dragon back with him to the States and deliver it to antiques collector Professor Kim Ho (Jack Reitzen).  (Asked why he just doesn’t mail the darn thing, Chen Koo gripes that the mail service is unreliable, what with a “police action” going on and all.)  Oliver reasons he could always use a little extra chicken feed in his pocket, and so he agrees to the deal—making certain that the package containing the artifact is sent in care of Ginny O’Donnell (Sheila Ryan) in L.A.

Back in the U.S.A., Dan calls Ginny’s boyfriend—Phil Ramsey (Richard Travis), who also happens to be Oliver’s partner in a detective agency (as well as an old war buddy).  (If that isn’t enough, Ginny coincidentally works as a lab technician for the L.A. police force, because movies are magic, ma chere.)  While on the phone with Philsie, Dan gets a knife in the back from a pair of hoods (Karl “Killer” Davis, Sid Melton) most anxious to acquire the precious dragon of jade.  Since Dan has been murdered—and someone’s responsible!—Phil takes it upon himself to solve the killing, because “When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it.  It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him.  He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”  (I learned that from Dashiell Hammett.)

The Newfield/Neufeld brothers, the masterminds behind Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951), reunite a few members from the cast of that stellar film (it says here) in Mask of the Dragon (1951), a “Spartan Production” from the independent B-picture studio of Robert L. Lippert.  (As my ClassicFlix colleague and proprietor of In the Balcony Cliff Weimer remarks: “Probably filmed in the same afternoon.”)  Richard Travis, Sheila Ryan, Sid Melton, Lyle Talbot, Richard Emory, Dee Tatum, Margia Dean—the whole Hee Haw gang is here, though playing completely different characters, of course.  Friend Cliff’s assessment is that Dragon is the better film “because it’s so silly.”  It certainly is silly, but that does not make it better.  (Its running time is shorter, if that helps any.)

You’ll speculate that both were shot at the same time because the same “police laboratory” set is used for both films and Dragon also avails itself of the Mighty Wurlitzer stylings of Bert Shefter (on loan from Mutual Radio).  But actor Travis gives it away when he tells Tatum in one scene: “Fingerprints don’t lie…”  What’s amazing to me about this movie is that even though it runs just 53 minutes (it’s very short) they still had to pad it; there are a couple of musical numbers (western standards Red River Valley and Cindy) performed by Curt Barrett and the Trailsmen.  I was all prepared to make a snarky joke about how this western music group remained justifiably obscure but a glance at the (always reliable) IMDb reveals that they appeared in a trio of Johnny Mack Brown Monogram oaters between 1946 and 1947 (Drifting Along, The Gentleman from Texas, and Raiders of the South).  I can state without hesitation that Dragon was their cinematic swan song…though we may be hearing from them again on B-Western Wednesdays.  They’re introduced, by the way, by legendary emcee and announcer Johnny Grant, the unofficial “Mayor of Hollywood,” and until his death in 2008 the man who officiated the ceremonies on The Hollywood Walk of Fame.  (Grant does a commercial in Dragon for Chanticleer Alarm Clocks: “It crows on you.”)

There’s a lot of comic relief in Mask of the Dragon, which admittedly makes it a little less painful to watch than Fingerprints (did I mention it’s also shorter?).  We have Brother Sid Melton, Lippert’s resident “good luck charm,” to thank for this; Sid really lets loose with some funny ad-libs, most of which are delivered in “yellow face” as the barker outside The Jade Lotus, the antique shop run by master villain Kim Ho.  “Come see Chiang Kai-shek and his brother, Cancelled Shek!” Melton beckons.  (I also like the joke about “Mah Jongg and Pa Jongg and all the little Jonggs.”)  Dragon also features an actor—well, professional wrestler is more accurate—who goes by “Mr. Moto.”  (I swear I am not making this up.)  If you’re not a particularly discerning movie viewer, you might enjoy Dragon—though I will warn you up front (although you’ve probably caught on by now) there’s nothing “noir” about it in the slightest.

From the moment Oliver sashayed into Chen Koo’s establishment, I thought: “He’s going to haul something back to the U.S., and it’s going to contain a buttload of narcotics.”  Well, it turns out I was wrong—a newspaper headline just before Mask of the Dragon calls it a day gives authorities a back-pat for breaking up a ring smuggling contraband uranium.  But I was wrong only in the sense that this is how the Breen Office insisted the picture to end; originally both the dragon and the eight “Immortals” figurines contained opium…naturally, they feared that sort of plot development would warp impressionable young minds.  (You could argue that only a warped mind would see where that was headed in the first place…and I wouldn’t put up much of a defense.)

"Confucius say 'No refunds, suckers!'"
As the fifty-three minutes that was Mask of the Dragon thankfully comes to a close, Travis’ character breaks “the fourth wall” and says to the audience: “Confucius say: when hero catch crook...time for picture to end.”  Ivan say: “Bad movie like dead fish—cannot stand the test of time.”  (Okay, I’m paraphrasing Charlie Chan here…but I think it’s appropriate.)

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