Friday, November 4, 2011

‘Chu Chin Chow’: A Musical Museum-Piece

Oscar Ashe and Frederic Norton's musical retelling of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” Chu Chin Chow, made into a 1934 British film by Walter Forde, doesn’t withstand the test of time. If anything, the movie version of this 1916 London stage show — now available on DVD — illustrates how the musical has changed over the decades.  

In the years of Chu Chin Chow’s success, the musical comedy was a relatively undemanding form.  In both Britain and America, popular musical shows used rather thin, breezy plots that served primarily as a vehicle for the songs — pop hits which were expected to be sung in concerts and over the radio long after the show had finished its theatrical run.  So entrenched was this tradition of the musical theatre, that very few shows before World War II strove to develop more substantial stories, and those that did have become enduring classics to postwar audiences: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat (1927), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Pal Joey (1940).  The stage musical that changed the form into one that regularly developed the story on a level equal to the songs was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s phenomenally successful Oklahoma! (1943).  Regrettably, Chu Chin Chow is not part of this more demanding evolution of the musical.  

Instead of employing its musical numbers to advance plot and character, Chu Chin Chow sings about rather arbitrary subjects not directly related to story progression, and then distracts the viewer with its Arabian Nights-style pageantry.  The musical’s lack of cohesiveness is exemplified by its very title.  If a narrative is titled Chu Chin Chow, after one of its characters, the audience would reasonably expect that character to be significant in some way, whether as the protagonist or as a thematic presence throughout the story (such as James Joyce’s Ulysses). But who is Chu Chin Chow?  He’s the murder victim of the musical’s main antagonist, Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner), and whose identity the bad guy then adopts for only part of the narrative.  (I’m led to believe by the DVD’s supplemental materials that the character of Chu Chin Chow was somewhat larger in the stage show than in the film, but hardly more significant.)  Not only that, but the musical’s Chinese title misleadingly suggests that the story is set in East Asia, rather than in the Middle East.  This would be like Rodgers and Hammerstein titling their Oklahoma-set musical “South Philly.” 

Fritz Kortner and Anna May Wong in ‘Chu Chin Chow’ (1934)

When Chu Chin Chow was re-released in 1953, the film’s distributor chopped out all the musical numbers and rechristened it Ali Baba Nights (this truncated version is included on the DVD), a less deceptive title.  This should surprise no one.  With the arguable exception of the numbers sung between the romantic leads, Nur-al-din Baba (John Garrick) and Marjanah (Pearl Argyle), the songs are intrusions onto the story.  For example, “The Cobbler's Song” is a relatively long number given to a character whose function in the story is minimal; the song comes off as an extensive digression.  As for Ali Baba (George Robey), he’s given very few numbers, and his central showpiece, “Anytime’s Kissing Time,” is sung for polygamous reasons to a woman who is not his wife — not something that will endear him to the audience. 

In fact, the seemingly arbitrary use of non-germane songs by minor characters emphasizes Chu Chin Chow’s lack of focus.  What is the central narrative thread?  Who is the main character?  Is it Ali Baba?  He begins the film as its most active character but then grows rather inactive by its conclusion.  Is it Nur-al-din and Marjanah?  They play a major role in the climax but have comparatively little impact upon the story until then.  Is it Abu Hasan?  Although Kortner plays the role with over-the-top gusto, Hasan is a hard character to like, and the narrative is too light and airy to demand that the audience plumb the dark depths of identifying with a bad guy.  The movie’s razzle-dazzle Arabian Nights spectacle may distract us momentarily from these questions, but it can’t rescue a movie sadly in need of a stronger narrative arc. 

With all this going against the movie, the only reason to watch Chu Chin Chow is to behold Anna May Wong’s performance as Zahrat, the slave who begins as Hasan’s spy and lover, but who ends the story with different loyalties.  The movie is an all-too-rare chance to see the underutilized Chinese American actress in a prominent role, perhaps the film’s most important character.  But even Wong’s admirable efforts aren’t enough to reclaim Chu Chin Chow for the thoughtful viewer.  In keeping with the film’s flamboyant tone, Wong joins the other actors in chewing the scenery and otherwise exaggerating her emotions; this is disappointing because her best performances are wonders of subtlety and restraint.  Also, despite her centrality to the first half and climax of the movie, Wong spends much of the film’s second half off-screen.  Chu Chin Chow might have made for a more enduring tale if the narrative had made Zahrat the clear protagonist from the start and didn’t waste so much time on Ali Baba and the other characters, who only distract the rambling storyline with expendable tangents. 

As an uncommon chance to savor the screen presence of Anna May Wong in a lavish-for-its-time British musical extravaganza, Chu Chin Chow holds some modest rewards.  But the film is, first and foremost, an artifact of the kind of musical that stronger and more story-driven Broadway offerings surpassed long ago. 

DVD trailer for ‘Chu Chin Chow’

The above review was originally written for in 2004.

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