'Mr Wu' was originally a West End stage play at the Strand Theatre starring the Canadian actor Matheson Lang, who subsequently starred in a 1919 British film version ... which shows Lang in elaborate mandarin drag as Wu Li Chang, sporting a very unconvincing makeup job on his Occidental features. Matheson Lang remained linked to this role for the rest of his life, so much so that he titled his memoir 'Mr Wu Looks Back'. Although the play is now very nearly forgotten, it still lingers in one remnant of Britain's culture. To this day, British comedians continue to do a piece of business in which a bizarre-looking individual is greeted with the catchphrase "Mister Wu! How DO you DOOO?" And there's also George Formby's song, "Mr Wu's a Window-Washer Now".
The MGM film 'Mr Wu', starring Lon Chaney in two different roles (and very convincing Oriental makeup), is actually a remake of Lang's vehicle, filmed on a much more impressive budget with elaborate sets.
The 1930 MGM film 'Wu Li Chang' is a very odd fish indeed. In the early days of talkies, before soundtrack dubbing was perfected, it was common practice for the Hollywood studios to film foreign-language versions of their movies for exhibition in non-anglophone markets. Some of these alternative versions are very enjoyable: Universal's Spanish-language version of 'Dracula' (filmed concurrently to the Bela Lugosi version, with the same costumes and sets but a different cast) is deemed superior to Lugosi's version. Greta Garbo's German-language version of 'Anna Christie' (with the same sets as the English-language version, but with Garbo wearing a sexier costume) is considered the better (and more honest) of her two portrayals.
'Wu Li Chang' is MGM's Spanish-language version of 'Mr Wu', though it's not clear why this production was ever made. As the Chaney version was a silent, it had played in Spanish-language cinemas (with Spanish intertitles) only three years previous to this remake. While the Chaney production boasted sumptuous sets, they were evidently no longer in existence when 'Wu Li Chang' was made, as the sets in this film are much less impressive. (Some of the costumes from Chaney's version appear to have been recycled, though.) All of the characters in this story are either Chinese or British, yet are portrayed in 'Wu Li Chang' by obviously Latino actors. Fair enough that MGM wanted to make a movie for Spanish-language exhibition circuits, but why ever did Irving Thalberg choose this particular vehicle?
The plot of 'Wu Li Chang' is similar to that of Chaney's version, with a few omissions -- notably the ancient Chinese patriarch -- and a few changes that seem entirely arbitrary. A major character in the earlier version, a Scotsman named Muir, is here changed to an Englishman named Holman (played by a Latino). The male romantic lead, previously an Englishman named Basil Gregory, is still ostensibly British here, but his forename is oddly changed to Alfredo.
In the lead role as mandarin Wu, Ernesto Vilches wears unconvincing makeup with Sellotaped eyelids. He gives a very emotional performance, far less restrained than Lon Chaney's or Matheson Lang's. This is a deeply histrionic film. Whereas the two silent versions were replete with stoic Orientals and stiff-upper-lipped Brits, everyone here is in hot-blooded Latin mode. This may be not so much due to the presence of a Latino cast, but rather because this film was made for Spanish-language audiences, who may have preferred a less restrained sort of theatrics.
The high point of Chaney's version occurs when Wu's daughter Nang Ping (having disgraced herself by falling in love with Basil Gregory) permits her father to kill her by ritual sacrifice in order to preserve the honour of the ancient house of Wu. A barrier falls between Wu's altar and the camera, and the camera tracks impassively away from the deed. In 'Wu Li Chang', the camera merely cuts away from the fatal act. In an earlier scene, I spotted a microphone boom's shadow.
The best performance here is given by Marcela Nivón, as the proper English matron who offers her own life to save the life of her son Basil, I mean Alfredo. When Wu Li Chang declines her bargain, she kills him with his own ritual sword. As Spanish is not my first language, I shan't rate this film. I did enjoy it as an interesting variant on Lon Chaney's version, but there's no question that the Chaney production -- for many different reasons, not least Chaney's two startling portrayals -- is the better of the two.
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