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The Moonstone

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The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.

The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.

The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.


But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.

In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.


So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.

The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.

On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.


Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.

And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.

Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.

And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.


According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.

But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.

John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.


The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.

Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.

In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.


Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.

The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.

Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.

Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern

Mr. India

There is a particular style of courtship presented in Bollywood movies that can be a bit of a tough go-around for Western viewers trying to dabble in that cinema. This courtship begins, predictably, with boy meeting girl. But while boy is immediately smitten by girl, girl loathes boy — because she is either A) a stuck-up rich girl who cannot see beyond boy’s modest circumstances, or B) a virtuous village girl who cannot see past boy’s frivolous and free-spending ways. In either case, boy does not give up, and instead strives to make himself a near constant presence in girl’s life, popping up with a new, even more spirited attempt to ingratiate himself whenever she least expects it. Finally, by dint of boy’s persistence and omnipresence, girl’s resistance is worn down and she has no choice but to look past her prejudices and see the kind, tender and – above all – mother worshiping heart that beats within boy. Love blossoms.

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The Mummy

Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.

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Macbeth

So this is what a Playboy-produced film used to look like. You know, back before they modeled themselves after their brainless FHM style spawns and were still at the very least attempting to inject some cutting edge material in between the shots of naked women with badly feathered 1970s hair. I know the joke is old and tired, but you know there used to even be something worth reading in that magazine. Not so much these days, from what I can tell. I have many vices, but Playboy ceased to be one of them round about the time it forsook that dapper jet-set lifestyle and became just another frat boy publication. And Playboy films? Don’t even get me started. Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. They’re awful erotic thrillers, which I know seems like a silly criticism to level at Playboy films until you consider for a moment that there, for a brief spell in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner decided to throw the Playboy name and money at Roman Polanski’s stylish, intelligent, and grim adaptation of one of Shakespeare bloodiest plays.

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Magic Blade

Chor Yuen’s mind-blowing Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.

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Mambo Girl

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This classic from the vaults of Hong Kong’s illustrious Cathay Studios begins with a shot of Golden Age screen icon Grace Chang shaking her bon-bon to a Latin-flavored mambo number while wearing cute, checkered capri pants. It’s already one of the best movies ever made in my book, as anything that gives us Grace Chang in classic 1950s form-fitting fashion is an ace. Not that I’m one to judge a movie solely on the merits of its leading lady’s rump nor on its inclusion of what is still, in my opinion, the paramount of women’s pant technology. You know me. I’m a classic guy with classic tastes, and while booty shorts and flares may be alright for some of you, I’ll take the more demure and alluring look of capri pants, a nice cocktail dress, or one of those cheongsam dresses any day over the vulgar obviousness or careless sloppiness of today’s fashion. But that’s just me, and like I said, you can’t judge a movie purely on it’s willingness to cater to my retro taste in both male and female fashion or my longing for a return to the days when we wore clothing that actually fit us.

Luckily, the film that follows the rump-shaking opening is a wonderful, breezy affair from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It was a time when the silver screen was ruled by the likes of Linda Lin Dai and the subject of this particular movie, Grace Chang. Grace was the reigning queen of Cathay Studios, one of the greatest and most respected studios in the history of Asian film. Few and far between were the films that didn’t feature Grace singing, dancing, and flashing her million dollar smile at the camera. She was the total package – a wonderful singer, a unique beauty, and an utterly captivating actress. Unfortunately, the bulk of her work – and indeed the bulk of Cathay’s films in general – were unknown outside of Asia. They disappeared after their initial theatrical runs, and only a few ever showed up on any home video format. When the rare film did make it to video or DVD, it was almost always without subtitles. Thus, some of the most important films and names in Hong Kong’s impressive cinematic history remained virtually unknown to new viewers.

In 2003, however, fortune smiled on fans of classic cinema from around the globe when Panorama Entertainment inked a deal to release a slew of old Cathay films on DVD complete with English subtitles. Though the deal was less trumpeted than Celestial’s similar deal to tap the hitherto hidden history of the Shaw Bros. Studio for home consumption, it was certainly no less historic or important. And while the fact that most of the Cathay films are dramas, musicals, and comedies in black and white means that western Hong Kong film fans (traditionally very action film oriented) will be paying less attention to them than to the Shaw Bros. releases, any film buff worth his or her salt knows that just because a film isn’t in color and doesn’t feature a shirtless Ti Lung getting stabbed in the belly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. For fans of filmmaking from the glorious decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tapping of the Cathay well is a glorious event.

It’s fitting that Panorama’s Cathay releases are hitting the shelves the same time as the Shaw Bros. releases. They were, of course, the primary competition for the Shaws (and both studios shared some major stars, including the impish Peter Chan Ho and the regal Linda Lin Dai), and their history is similar to that of the Shaw Bros. Like Shaw, Cathay had its roots in Southeast Asia. Studio founder Loke Wan Tho began making films in the late 1930’s when his family began establishing theaters in Singapore. As was often the case at the time, companies who made movies usually also owned their own theater chains (a practice that is coming somewhat back into vogue with the establishment of UA theaters in America. It never really went out of vogue in Asia). Loke’s theaters were state-of -the-art, and after the close of World War II he cemented a deal to distribute British Rank films in South Asia. In the 1950’s, Loke moved the business to Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot, and formed MP & GI, which would later change its name to Cathay.

As with the Shaw Studios, Cathay was keen on seeking out and developing new talent, then signing them to exclusive contracts. While the Shaws initially had a good balance of male and female superstars that, during the 1970s, eventually became primarily male-dominated thanks to the popularity of Shaw kungfu films, Cathay was always a woman’s world that was known for a stunning array of actresses who easily overshadowed their male counterparts at nearly every moment. Cathay built its success around a core group of female stars that included Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh Feng, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, and of course Grace Chang, among others. Cathay films and stars were highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and the studio exhibited a consistently high quality in the vast majority of what it produced. But, as we all know, nothing gold can stay, especially eras.

By the mid-60’s the studio began to decline. Loke died in a plane crash in 1964, and the Shaw Brothers productions began to eclipse those of Cathay. The Shaws simply had more money to throw into their projects, and they lured away a number of Cathay’s biggest stars, chief among them Linda Lin Dai. By the end of the decade, the Cathay Studio had lost nearly all direction. Whimsical romantic comedies and dramas, especially in black and white, were no longer as popular as they had once been. Cathay was sold to a young upstart studio that would eventually do to the Shaw Bros. what the Shaws ultimately did to Cathay – drive it out of business. That upstart studio was Golden Harvest, the eventual home of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan.

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But there for a while, no one could match Cathay in terms of star power and picture quality. And if your studio has to have a poster girl, you can sure do a heck of a lot worse than Grace Chang. It doesn’t take long to immediately fall in love with her and start putting her name atop your list of favorite actresses. There’s something special about her, something unique. She’s not a classic beauty, but that makes her beauty all the more memorable. Her popularity is, instead, driven by her undeniable charisma and overpowering charm. Where Hollywood (and indeed Hong Kong) was full of sultry sirens and bombshells, Grace Chang was the woman you could always trust to be your friend, to be dependable and friendly and down to earth. You could also count on her to sing you a song. Unlike many actresses who were featured prominently in Hong Kong musicals, Grace could belt out her own tunes.

Grace was born in 1934 in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai. It was there, in what was far and away the mainland’s most cosmopolitan and swinging city, that she trained in Peking Opera. After the tumult of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Grace and her family moved to Hong Kong in 1949. She made her film debut in Seven Sisters (1953) and joined MP & GI in 1955. Her film and singing careers soared after that, and she quickly became one of the top stars of stage and screen. Her singing talent even garnered her an appearance on America’s Dinah Shore Show. She married in 1964, and like most Hong Kong actresses, her marriage heralded her virtual retirement from show business. She still makes occasional appearances though, and she’s left us a tremendous film legacy that new fans are only just now beginning to discover.

Mambo Girl, the first of Panorama’s Cathay DVD releases (and chronologically, the earliest film), is an excellent way to get to know the work of both the studio and Grace Chang. Although for the most part it’s a breezy musical comedy, unlike most films from that particularly light-hearted genre, it has a darker, more serious current running through it that allows it to make a social comment without seeming too heavy-handed. As the story of the making of the film goes, Grace was performing for troops in Taiwan and had them so enthralled with her mambo dancing that they started calling her Mambo Girl. Scriptwriter Yi Wen was then inspired by her popularity to write a quick little film around the name. Another story, as told by Grace herself, maintains that the idea for the film came during an evening at a nightclub where Cathay founder Loke was so impresses with her dancing and singing that he decided a movie should be made. Whichever version of the story is true, the fact remains that someone somewhere saw Grace singing and dancing and simply had to make a movie for her where she could do the same.

Grace stars as Li Kia-ling, the celebrated Mambo Girl as she is known on campus. She’s the all-American (or All-Hong Kong, I suppose) gal who gets good grades, always treats her fellow students with equality and respect, and is a vastly talented singer and dancer. I guess they don’t have students like this anymore. They’ve sort of gone the way of those 1950s scientists who knew everything about history, geology, astronomy, physics, and handling various handguns and rifles. I suppose its students like Grace Change who grow up to be those professional know-it-alls like John Agar, though I have a hard time imagining John Agar busting out the mambo moves. Kia-ling’s life is pretty good. Aside from being the sweetheart of the campus, she has a cool little sister and a father who owns a toy store and, when neighbors come by to ask them to turn down the mambo music, tells the neighbors to take a hike. Rather than being the movie parent who attempts to crush the musical dreams of his child, he encourages her at every step and is just about the coolest movie dad you could hope for. Her father is played by Liu Enjia, probably one of the best male leads at Cathay and one of their only men to not be overshadowed by the ladies. He’s a big, fat jolly guy, after all, and it’s hard to overshadow big, fat jolly guys. He was Cathay’s go-to man whenever they needed a solid father figure, and he’s best known for his roles here and in the successful cross-cultural comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth.

All the boys at school fawn over Kia-ling, chief among them Peter Chan Ho. If you watch enough musicals and comedies from either Cathay or the Shaw Bros., you better get used to Peter Chan Ho. He seems to star in dang near every one of them, and for a relatively average looking guy, he’s managed to romance everyone from Grace Chang to Linda Lin Dai to Cheng Pei-pei. I really wish I had this guy’s agent. Peter’s a ubiquitous fixture in the musical films of the 60s and 70s, and he’s a pretty likable guy who emanates an everyman kind of charm. He’s not always believable in his roles, especially when he plays a lady killer kind of character, but he has a certain underdog charisma about him that, while not nearly as magical as Grace’s, makes you root for the guy. When Peter and the boys aren’t studying, and they rarely seem to study, they’re following Kia-ling around and urging her to sing and dance. You know the scene. It’s been in countless musicals, and in the background is always a guy I simply know as Tennis Racket Lad. If you ever seen a musical comedy set at the beach, a college campus, or a summer resort, then you’ve probably spied the Tennis Racket Lad. He’s the guy in the chorus of nameless friends who, when song and dance breaks out, always has a tennis racket which he pretends to strum like a guitar. I’ve seen Tennis Racket lad in at least a dozen films, and I’m sure he shows up in a dozen more.

Kia-ling’s life is turned upside down when her little sister discovers the older sibling she idolizes is in fact adopted. When she confesses this to her best friend, who also happens to be incredibly jealous of Kia-ling’s popularity with the boys, the girls, the teachers, the janitors, and everyone else in Hong Kong, word gets around to Kia-ling’s friends, and eventually to Kia-ling herself. Although her rival tries to make it a point to insult our darling Mambo Girl, none of her friend seem to care. She’s much too charming, and her adopted parents are so cool anyway. Kia-ling, however, is upset by the revelation and wants to seek out her real mother. Along the way, she will discover the true meaning of family, and there will be many musical numbers.

Running just under the surface is a message about the many Chinese people finding themselves in Hong Kong, especially after the revolution and Mao’s increasingly totalitarian (and deadly) handling of the country. Multitudes of Mainlanders suddenly found themselves separated from their motherland and seeking shelter in the arms of Hong Kong. Seeing parallel between Kia-ling and the Mainland immigrants, between her choice of biological mother or adopted parents versus mother China or the adopted homeland of Hong Kong, doesn’t take a genius. But it does, as I said, lend the film a deeper quality than one usually finds in these sorts of films. Most people, however, are not going to seek out a musical comedy called Mambo Girl in hopes of gleaning insight into the mental state of Chinese people seeking to make new lives for themselves in Hong Kong. For a movie like this, what it has on the surface is just as important, if not more so, than what lies beneath. And the surface of Mambo Girl is a pure delight. Grace’s performance is wonderful, and the music is catchy and enjoyable. As one would guess from the title, much of the music is infused with a Latin vibe, something that was very popular with lots of pop music from the era. Grace’s mambo numbers swing, though the lyrics are just about the squarest things imaginable. I doubt Yma Sumac or other mambo legends belted out words like, “You’re a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school.” Not exactly lyrical spiciness to go with the beat, but the infectious tunes will stick with you regardless of how corny the words may be.

The musical numbers are nothing lavish. They’re fairly well grounded in reality and most take place in nightclubs, sporting fields, or people’s living rooms. The dances aren’t extravagant either, but instead look like something an actual person might do. Well, make that an actual person who knows how to mambo and cha-cha. If I was the “actual” person, it’d look less like a dance and more like some old man having a seizure. The fact that movie embraces these modern dances and modern modes of dress so energetically is also a mark of distinction. Many films of the era reflect old fashioned mores regarding singing and dancing, especially as a way of life. How many movies are there where a woman falls upon hard times and is forced to eek out an existence as a nightclub singer, a profession that garners her much attention but no respect? Kia-ling’s parents, on the other hand, break from tradition by enthusiastically supporting their daughter’s talents and preaching the benefits to mind and body of having some good, clean fun. It is another way in which her adopted parents symbolize the new, modern Hong Kong and new, modern ideas. By contrast, Kia-ling’s real mother is the type of lonely torch-singing forlorn woman we see in so many other movies. A product, if you will, of outdated thinking and ideals.

The supporting cast does their best to keep pace with the leading lady. Liu Enjia is wonderful as her father, Peter Chan Ho is likable as her boyfriend, and Kia-ling’s real mother is suitably tragic in true melodrama form. For an interesting Shaw Bros connection, future Shaw empress Mona Fong (who was one of the major players as a producer at Shaw Bros, and quite possibly as powerful – if not more powerful – than the brothers who lent the studio their name) makes an appearance as a singer in a nightclub Kia-ling visits in search of her real mother. The real shining star among the supporting cast is Kitty Ting Hao as Kia-ling’s younger sister. She’s cute and energetic, and her performance is superb. Tragically, she was one among many of the Cathay stars who had a rocky life and ended it via suicide. She died in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of twenty-seven. Similar sad stories seem to plague far too many of the Cathay women.

Despite that somber footnote, Mambo Girl is an energetic, fun, pluck-at-your-heartstrings musical that will win you over solely with the charm of its leading lady. It’s a refreshing change of pace for people who know Hong Kong cinema primarily through kungfu films and more modern actioners. Mambo Girl takes the conventions of the Hollywood musical and integrates them seamlessly with Hong Kong sensibilities. Ultimately, you can’t feel sad watching the movie, especially when the time rolls around for the big musical mambo finale. Relatively low-key in comparison to other musicals, even other black and white ones, it’s a quality, retro romp that just might have you reaching for the nearest tennis racket.