Monday, May 31, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Dragon Seed (1944)

Heavy-handed sentiment and political messages never make for a great movie, and terms like “Important Film”, “World War II Propaganda”, and “Interesting Failure” come to mind when Dragon Seed (1944) is mentioned, but it’s no less a fascinating experiment. Based on the Pearl S. Buck novel, it’s the story of Ling-Tan (Walter Huston) and his family, the simile-and metaphor-spouting denizens of a Chinese village and the impact the Sino-Japanese War has on them.

Putting aside the whole controversy of westerners playing Asians, Kate gives an unremarkable performance even though the role of Jade was an opportunity for her to spout her independent, proto-feminist beliefs as well as a chance to publicize the Chinese war effort. The Chinese portrayed here would later be Communists and not exactly a United States ally, but that would be the case with the Soviet Union, too; it’s funny how politics work: your ally becomes your enemy and your enemy becomes…okay, you get the idea.

Still, this was 1944 and World War II was well under way. The war in China had been raging full on since 1937 (or 1931 if you count the conflict in Manchuria), when this film takes place, and China was suffering massive casualties while under siege from Imperial Japan since 1937. Hollywood tends to act years after the fact, just as they did in the production of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), though the republican faction in Spain had long since been vanquished by Franco’s forces. With Dragon Seed, at least the struggle continued in China and perhaps the film could bring attention to this ally in the East. There was great sympathy for China and the Soviet Union during the war, and when watching Dragon Seed it’s best to keep that context in mind. The film is interesting more for its historical context than its dramatic power. It is also regrettable that the westerners portraying Asians is a distraction, even to those of us who dwell among the anointed ones flowing over with much wisdom. Sorry, I’ve been watching Dragon Seed

Katharine Hepburn receives top billing as Jade, the curious and free-thinking wife of Ling-Tan’s middle son Lao (Turhan Bey) and who wants to stand up to the invading Japanese. Or to be more specific it’s Katharine Hepburn playing herself in Asian-style makeup. You have to give Kate a ton of credit for trying vastly different roles; in our previous Hepburn performance review, she played a boy (in disguise). Jade longs to become educated and is interested in world events, especially the Japanese invasion. Hepburn’s first scene is at a propaganda film showing with what is probably a communist political officer narrating a newsreel of Japanese atrocities and is imploring the complacent Chinese farmers to act.

Hepburn is unremarkable in the role though she earnestly tries to become the character; but it just doesn’t work. She’s alternately coy, evasive, and downright flaky! There are some genuinely bizarre facial expressions, too which I found to be distracting. Jade is supposed to be shy in her admissions in wanting to be “of the new” and the modern and she’s full of so many deep, meaningful thoughts: “My thoughts are like a chain and one is fast to the other.” See? Jade is complex! She contains multitudes! Unfortunately, Kate delivers much of her dialogue as if she were in an opium-induced trance. I’d love to know what Hepburn did to prepare for this movie.

Dragon Seed, despite some manipulative yet effective scenes, is more a historical curiosity, one that was borne of public conscience and war aims rather than cinematic achievement. It was perhaps more important for Katharine Hepburn to be associated with this film’s purpose—the support of China—than it was to give a memorable performance. She lent her name and her presence to the project but she’s off the screen for long stretches, one as long as thirty minutes. Much of that time in the film is spent on showing the Japanese pillaging and destroying and being evil. It’s easy to rail against the depiction of the Japanese in the film, but this was after all the same campaign that brought The Rape of Nanking.

Dragon Seed airs on Turner Classic Movies June 23 @ 6am EST.


  1. You know, the only successful case of a Westerner playing a Chinese man I can think of is that of Luis de Funès in one of his ‘Gendarme’ movies (if my memory serves me right), that is, it only works as a comical gig.

  2. My family has always been quite interested in historical items, and so am I. Therefore classic films were always kind of living history to me.

    Frankly I'm not a real movie-fan. I came from classic jazz of the 20s and early 30s and orientated later to 30s commercial music. Classic movies made it possible to get deeper into those years, which is truly wonderful.

    The historical and political issues of my blog have mostly been a flop. Whereas one of my newest issues, "Let'em Kiss in Our Imagination" got me even more followers. I'm quite green as a blogger but have already seen, that most classic movie fans like above all items like beauty, clothes and relationships of actors/actresses. But certainly I will issue more historical and political editions in the future nonetheless.

    This case here seems a little bit problematic to me. As producer I would always prefer a real Chinese actress. But maybe I'll change my mind, after having seen the film with Kate. Historically "Dragon Seed" seems to be extremely interesting. I touched the Chinese-Japanese war a bit, while studying Howard Zinn's thoughts about the situations of American workers during the months before Pearl Harbor. Now your article makes me rather curious to go deeper into this ...

    P.S.: There's a discussion going on, about: online DVD 'honey-traps'. A follower of Gingerology reported such a problem, but I think this is a point for the whole blogging Classic Movie 'Family'. Isn't it?

  3. CK

    I think you have it just right. This is always a “making dinner” movie for me – I put it on when moving sauté pans around the stove, readying a table, and stirring something that needs stirring. I am a fierce Katharine Hepburn advocate and both an Agnes Moorehead and Aline MacMahon worshipper, but this puts my top 50 list to the test. All three are on my list, and all three are in this movie -- and I am worrying about what’s in the oven. And I cannot help thinking that Turhan Bey must have accidentally reported to the wrong lot, and had to take off his Sudan costume.


  4. Stella: Haven't seen that but the last unpleasant comedic pseudo-asian performance that I saw was Mickey Rooney's in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

    Clarissa: I completely understand the lack of responses for certain topics--usually the "serious" and "in depth" stuff--that I like doing most, though I understand the need to toss in some fluff once in awhile. However, it isn't lost on me that very few comment these days. Either I'm boring the heck out of everyone else or am so on the money with everything I write that there's simply nothing else to say! ;)

    Gordon: "Dragon Seed" would be helped by a much shorter running's around 2:25 but would've been best served at a 110-minute cooking time....I mean, "running time." :D

    IIRC, Bey was fifteen years Kate's junior! :o

  5. CK

    Lest my initial response seemed frivolous, let me say I was brought up during World War II, later served in the army, and have spent the better part of my life studying the war’s effects, particularly in England. I have many friends there who remember when the bombs were falling. But classic films as living history makes for unsure footing. And I suspect “Dragon Seed” was made as you paint it “to bring attention to this ally from the East”, to show those with whom we were at war in the very worst light, (and with that top notch stable of players -- to make money).

    And although I empathize with one of your commenters in the quest for purity of casting, we both know if Pandro S. Berman at MGM brought Louis B. Mayer the idea of casting a real Chinese actress as the star of “Dragon Seed”, Berman would be soon be doing second unit work at Monogram. MGM had less economic success during the war years than its major rivals because of its limited distribution facilities (Loews had only 135 theatres). Purity of budget was a more likely guidepost. (I know you know this.)

    Nice posting. Surprised more do not comment on your posts. Best.


  6. Dexter, I looked at your sidebar by accident and recognized Jean, then I realized: "Hey, that's my blog!" - This is a very great honor - thank you so much!

    Well, I think you found the right mix between serious depth and easy-reading years ago. Your blog is quite famous in the Classic Movie blog-scene, as I saw.

    I liked your Philadelphia Story nonstop-series - it was quite courageous - causing great depth. But you've got the resources (over 250 followers) to dare such a thing.

  7. Gorden, you're perfectly right. On the other hand, if an old film falsifies something, it's still an historical document about it's time. As a phony travel report of the 18th century still shows the thoughts of that time. And it tells about history of faking.

    I find films like "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942), "The Stranger" (1946), or even "Hometown Story" (1951) hugely interesting! "Hometown Story" seems to be sort of McCarthy-propaganda and that makes it so interesting (although it's not my beloved 30s).

    Gosh, we're awfully deep-in now! Dexter, perhaps you should hang out sort of most beautiful Ginger-dress again: A few people might feel like strangers presently, merely daring to say anything ... :D

  8. Brave viewer to sit through DRAGONSEED for 2+ hours! I just could not do it, and generally enjoy propaganda movies. I just kept wondering how uncomfortable the actors faces were. It's not politically correct to praise such films, but taken in their context they range from downright good to oddball camp. Good: THIS ABOVE ALL, THE 49TH PARALLEL, ALEXANDER NEVSKY
    Oddball Camp: HITLER DEAD OR ALIVE


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