Chinatown Nights (1929)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama, Crime Drama  |   Release Date - Mar 29, 1929 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 88 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

A true transitional film between the silents and the talkies, Chinatown Nights was about a third completed when the decision was made to make it a talking picture. And the results of that decision can be seen throughout the movie -- dialogue that does not remotely sync up with the shots to which it is attached, and, in the case of Florence Vidor, mostly (or entirely) voiced by another actress. And the clunkiness of some of the dialogue scenes, and the line-readings, is sometimes jarring. But when Chinatown Nights works, as in the extended theater/gang assault scene -- which makes fine use of on-screen source music -- the movie does come to life. There's clearly little chemistry between Vidor and leading man Wallace Beery, but he is also very obviously well-suited to the part of the brutal-yet-educated Chinatown gang leader. His presence and the nature of his role gives Chinatown Nights some stature and intensity that Vidor's portrayal mostly misses, and also gives this movie a substantial debt to Jack London's The Sea Wolf, among other antecedents, far beyond its obvious roots in the worst racial stereotypes of its time. Adapted from a story called "Tong War," the movie mostly plays off of the prejudices of its time, to awakwardly gleeful effect, though it also has fun at the expense of audiences that believe such stereotypes. And Warner Oland's performance here as the sinister gang leader Boston Charley could make even the harshest critics of the Charlie Chan films feel far better about the latter character and his portrayal.