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Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)
DirectorWalter Forde
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayEdward Knoblock
 Sidney Gilliat
 L. Dugarde Peach
PhotographyMutz Greenbaum
Music & songsFrederick Norton

Cast: Fritz Kortner (Abu Hassan); George Robey (Ali Baba); Anna May Wong (Zahrat); John Garrick (Nur-Al-Din); Pearl Argyle (Marjanah)

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Ali Baba, a poor labourer, stumbles across hidden treasure belonging to the Forty Thieves and reinvents himself as a rich merchant. Meanwhile, the leader of the thieves, Abu Hassan, posing as Chinese emissary Chu Chin Chow, has an evil plan to recover his loot and ruin Bagdad.

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This second film outing for the popular British stage musical stars Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as the treacherous slave girl Zahrat, with Austrian-born Fritz Kortner, a recent emigré from Nazi Germany, as the eponymous Chu Chin Chow/Abu Hassan and music hall comedian George Robey as Ali Baba. While this 1934 production was hardly a career-defining moment for any of the cast (the first two were already international stars), as a British representation of the Hollywood musical genre it is a minor classic. It features opulent sets, exquisite costumes and lush Busby Berkeley-style dance sequences. But the darker side of this film is the generalised presentation of the East as a land of uninhibited sexuality, decadence and greed. Six years later, the more family-friendly Thief of Bagdad (d. Ludwig Berger/Michael Powell/Tim Whelan, 1940) captured the charm and magic of Old Araby without compromising the theme of the duality of innocence and experience.

Chu-Chin-Chow's story derives from the Arabian Nights (A Thousand and One Nights) collection of short stories. However, among the several 'enhancements' are two interesting plot inventions. The Chinese merchant, who happens to be visiting Bagdad, adds a layer of political intrigue and is also a way of drawing on a particular stereotype of the Chinese villain popular in early British and American films and literature (notably with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu). The fact that Chu-Chin-Chow isn't Chinese but someone masquerading as Chinese is irrelevant, because Abu Hassan only has to portray the sneer, evil intentions and cruelty to reinforce the type in popular imagination. Structurally, the character's story gives the film tension, scope and forward momentum leading from battle to crisis and culminating in the final, spectacular court fight. It also at a stroke implicates the whole of the East in this particular vision.

The second narrative invention is the slave auction. This extravagant and extended scene underscores the decadence of the cinematic story. Zahrat is not just confident in her sexual appeal; the conspirators, slave and slave owner use it to signal each other.

This is not to suggest that Chu-Chin-Chow is unremittingly offensive or without merit. The atmosphere of intrigue is admirably captured by cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum (another German exile), who makes the most of the interplay of light and shadows, and Anna May Wong is compulsive viewing. It is just a little crude in its screen representation.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. The fountain dance (2:33)
2. The plot revealed (2:53)
3. The plot foiled (2:11)
4. Slaves at the wheel (1:55)
5. The lovers (2:26)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)
Forde, Walter (1898-1984)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Wilcox, Herbert (1890-1977)
Wong, Anna May (1905-1961)
British-Chinese Cinema
Musical Comedy in the 1930s