Street Angel (1937)

Pam here, back with a rather unusual movie from China, made in the 1930s. As some of you may know, Chinese movies of the period tended to take a leftist point of view, deplored the Westernization of China, focused on the sufferings of women and the poor, and most of all were very serious, even depressing. If you read other reviews of this movie, you’ll come away with the idea that this one is like that, too. It’s not. Somebody at Mingxing Film Company in 1937 must have been sick and tired of making “meaningful” movies and had a hankering to make a Three Stooges movie, because that’s really what this one is. It’s a Three Stooges movie that has some suffering women and poor people thrown in here and there, and after all, a lot of the Three Stooges movies made in the 1930s had some suffering women and poor people dropping in periodically. So on to our show.

The movie opens in the evil city of Shanghai, where Westernization is rampant and decent Chinese can’t catch a break. We see a procession passing down the street, the centerpiece of which is a lavishly decorated sedan chair. Is it a wedding procession? A quick glance at another review of this movie shows that it is. The procession is accompanied by a truly vile band, made up of Chinese men dressed in what appear to be Western army uniforms. The camera zooms in to show the hero of this movie, Chen, who is having some trouble playing his trumpet. He doesn’t seem all that focused on his music, and in fact he drops out of the procession for a brief chat with a friend. No sooner has he resumed marching when he stops again to chat with a cute girl he spots at a window, but the racket from the band is too loud, and he gives up and marches onward. The procession is long, and clearly the bride’s family is very rich, but when Chen peers into the sedan chair he sees that she is severely cross-eyed, which most reviewers have taken as a commentary on the flawed nature of the upper class. However, I think it was meant to be funny, especially since Chen’s eyes cross as soon as he sees her, and his friend has to give Chen’s head a good shaking before his eyes uncross.

Love the mens' fashions in this movie.

By the way, the cute girl at the window is none other than Hong, the heroine of this movie. She is Suffering. She and her sister, Yun, have fled to Shanghai from the North to escape the Japanese invaders. They’ve been taken in by relatives who don’t treat them kindly. Hong is very young and pretty and has a good singing voice, and her uncle makes her sing in sleazy dives frequented by unsavory men. That’s only the start of her troubles, though – her uncle is planning to sell her to anybody who offers her enough money, and it looks as though a candidate has presented himself. We’ll see that Yun is even worse off, because she’s already been forced into prostitution.


But you may be asking, where are the Three Stooges? Coming right up! Chen has finished his stint with the band and goes to a barbershop where a friend of his works, and here we meet Moe, Larry, and Curly. Curly is bald and flutters his hands the way Curly Howard does, Moe has a thick head of hair styled in a way that resembles Moe Howard’s bowl cut, and Larry – well, it must have been impossible to find a Chinese actor with hair anything like Larry Fine’s, so Larry tends to stay in the background, just like the original Larry does. Chen even refers to them as “three stooges,” although I don’t know if that’s what he actually said, or if the person who provided the subtitles got creative. I wonder if Chinese audiences of the time were familiar with the original Three Stooges, or if whoever made this film was plagiarizing because he knew nobody would know he hadn’t thought up the characters himself?

Too many background characters.

We move to Chen’s home, a tiny room in a shabby part of Shanghai where Chen lives with a friend. Chen displays a photograph of him, his friend, and the three stooges, and one of the stooges wants to caption it “Sharing prosperity and difficulty together.” This leads to a discussion of what characters to use to write “difficulty,” a discussion that was probably hilarious to the Chinese audience but which leaves me completely puzzled as to what’s funny about it.

Ugly dude is not amused.

But remember the cute girl? It seems Chen already knew her, and it also seems she lives next door to him, with her window only a few feet across from his window. She catches his attention by using a mirror to flash light into his room, and he responds with an off-tune blast on his trumpet plus a couple of apples he throws to her. They flirt back and forth, but the byplay is interrupted by a knock on Hong’s door, and now we get to meet Yun, Hong’s unfortunate older sister. Yun doesn’t say a word, but we know instantly that she is Suffering even more than Hong, because of her pallid face, stringy hair, perpetually hunched posture, and spectacular dark circles around her eyes. We learn shortly that Yun’s misery is caused not only by the fact that she is a streetwalker, but because she, too, is in love with Chen, who only has eyes for Hong. Poor Yun is out plying her trade while Hong creeps over the roof to party with Chen, his friend, and the three stooges. More “hilarity” ensues, which I won’t describe because again I don’t see what’s so funny. By the way, in this version of the Three Stooges, “Moe” is just another stooge, and it’s Chen who does the eye-gouging, head-bonking, etc.

She's pretty.

So Yun goes on suffering and Hong and Chen continue to flirt. Soon, though, it’s Hong’s turn to suffer. First, her uncle takes her to a dive where a fat old man gives her a piece of cloth. Hong is delighted, apparently thinking he did it only out of the kindness of his heart, and she rushes to show Chen her present. He’s outraged, grabs the cloth away from her, and throws it out the window. (Of course he doesn’t bother to tell her why he’s so mad – we’d miss a lot of drama if he did.) Poor Hong, who seems to be quite naïve, is baffled and hurt at his response to her pretty new fabric. She leaves, picks up her cloth, and goes back to her room, crying loudly.

Smell my hand.

The estranged lovers continue to suffer apart, but more trouble is coming to Hong. The fat old man wants what he’s bought, and Hong’s aunt and uncle are only too eager to give her to him. What can she do? Yun tells her to ask Chen for help. Hong, apparently not fully grasping her situation, doesn’t want to, but finally she goes, pouting and sulking, to Chen’s room, where of course they make up.

Sad man is sad.

However, this doesn’t really solve Hong’s problem, and Chen and his friend brainstorm to decide what to do. Hong is leaving it all up them, and it doesn’t seem to occur to them to even ask her if she has any ideas. Just then, Chen’s friend spots an article in the newspaper about a prostitute who sued her madam, and he and Chen decide to sue Hong’s aunt and uncle. Next we get an extended sequence in an attorney’s office, and it’s funny, in the same way it was funny when the Beverly Hillbillies interacted with the rich people of Beverly Hills, but it’s possible that it’s meant to show how slick Shanghai attorneys can’t be bothered with helping honest Chinese common people. Anyway, the attorney is no help.

Act, men!

But Chen and his friend have another plan, which is, they’ll take Hong and go someplace far from Hong’s family. Why they didn’t do this in the first place is a good question, but it turns out well for them. They get away with no trouble. Hong celebrates her freedom by getting her pigtails cut, and Chen presents her with a blouse he had made out of the fabric the fat old man gave her, which apparently she took with her during her escape. It’s not clear if Hong and Chen actually get married, but they move in together with Chen’s friend and the Three Stooges, all one big happy family. In fact, Chen’s friend, who has a crush on Yun, tries to talk her into running away and moving in with them, but it seems she can’t stand the thought of seeing Hong and Chen together and prefers to stand out in the rain and Suffer. However, she does finally move in with the others when a policeman tries to arrest her.

Nothing is easy in China.

It seems that whoever made the movie could be serious for only so long and decided he needed a little slapstick to liven things up. The owner of the barbershop where the barber works is going to have to close it when the rent is raised, and this will put a serious dent in the crew’s budget. Chen comes up with the idea of offering a special on haircuts to drum up business, only to notice that most of the men in the neighborhood are bald. It’s just then that the rent collector shows up, and he not only has a full head of hair but a beard as well. He’s unceremoniously hustled in and wrestled into a chair, even though it appears the last thing he wants is a shave and a haircut. He eventually escapes with half his hair and beard gone, and there’s a lot of throwing of things and chasing before he gets out of the barbershop.

Yes, clap, that's funny.

But the movie is almost over, and now things are about to get really serious. Hong’s wicked uncle spotted Chen, and he strongly suspects that Hong is with him. The uncle, the fat old man, and one of the fat old man’s henchmen find out where Chen is living and head there, and it so happens that Hong and Yun are there alone. Yun makes Hong hide in the loft, while she confronts her uncle in a rather drastic manner: she throws a knife at him. Unfortunately for her, she misses, and he picks up the knife and stabs her. He spots the loft and goes up to look for Hong, only to find an open window and a ladder leading down. In the meantime, the fat old man has apparently decided the party is getting too rough for him, and he quietly leaves. The uncle and the henchman figure the fat old man is planning to set them up to take the blame, and they leave, too.

So many bad people here.

The next scene opens with Chen, Hong, the Three Stooges, and Chen’s friend sitting around the table. Chen’s friend tries to rush off to find Yun, who also must have left although she didn’t look capable of going anywhere. Chen at first stops him, saying a prostitute isn’t worth it, but then remembering they’re friends and should stand together, he lets his friend go. Okay, this next part is rather confusing. The attack happened in the home they all share, and we last saw Yun huddled on the floor in the house, her hands pressed to her wound. Chen’s friend has left the house and gone somewhere and found Yun, who seems to be in the exact same position she was just after she was stabbed. I suppose the audience was to assume Yun crept away to some hiding place in case her uncle came back and tried to finish her off, and just happened to fall into the same pose she had been in before. Chen’s friend carries her back to their house, where she shortly expires, mumbling something about, “He’s a good man. He helps poor people,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what we’ve seen, since nobody including Chen has been shown as being of particular help to poor people. Chen’s friend has gone for a doctor but comes back alone just after Yun dies. It seems he didn’t have enough money, and the doctor refused to come.

The end of Yun.

This was an interesting but rather schizophrenic movie. Except for the ending, the tone for most of the movie was light-hearted. Even the part where Hong’s uncle tries to sell her to the fat old man was almost funny, since Hong’s uncle was made up to look so obviously evil as to be a caricature. The parts with Yun seemed to have come from another movie entirely, possibly stuck in to try to hide the fact that the rest of the movie was humorous and thus might have been considered unsuitably frivolous for troubled times. However, even though Yun is miserable, it appears that the cause of her misery is more due to her unrequited love for Chen and her jealousy of Hong, and less because she’s a prostitute. Yun, in fact, is rather odd. She barely talks and mostly communicates with mournful glances and the occasional whisper. She says more in the scene where she’s dying than she does in the rest of the movie. Was there some significance to this? Was her silence supposed to be symbolic of her repression? Or was it just that the actress had problems handling spoken dialogue? China had had sound in movies only for a year or two when this movie was made, and judging from some of the stilted dialogue in American movies made shortly after the coming of sound, probably not all Chinese movie actors were fully up to speed with the ability to speak their parts. In fact, except for those few words, Yun’s portrayal could have been spliced into a silent movie and fit right in, even to her exaggerated makeup.

She's devious at times.

By the way, other reviewers loftily ignore the Three Stooges theme, although a few mention that there’s some humor in the movie. It’s mostly dubbed a “Leftist classic.” I’m sure I missed out on a lot of the humor that didn’t translate well, but it’s still obvious that most of the movie is a comedy. It’s interesting to watch.

The People's Liberation Army Condom Hat Brigade.

Kelby would hit that, she's got great eyebrows.

The End.

Written in June 2017 by Pam Burda.

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