22 January 2007 | Igenlode Wordsmith
What were they thinking of?
The most memorable things about "Tiger Bay" are, first of all, that Anna May Wong and most of the minor character actors are more than capable of making the two romantic leads looks like a pair of amateurs -- even allowing for the fact that Letty and Michael are intended to be callow roles -- and secondly, the totally wrong ending. I can only assume that this was imposed at the censors' behest: from the audience point of view, we have been watching Olaf and his gang commit every offence up to and including murder, but as soon as one of them gets what he so richly deserves, then and only then do the authorities -- and, apparently, the script -- react with moral outrage. The moment when the worm finally turns and Lui Chang is prepared to outface blackmail and strike back is the one we have been waiting for with increasing impatience throughout, conditioned by modern movie conventions. For this vigilante act alone amongst all the villainy of the film to be condemned (a leading character cannot, presumably, be seen to get away with a crime) subsequently comes across with all the disbelief of a slap in the face: Bruce Lee never had to put up with anything like this.
Up until this point the film is actually not bad; I couldn't help wondering where on earth Ealing Studios assembled such a polyglot, polychrome cast in 1933! Anna May Wong, although not cast as the romantic lead, more or less carries the picture, as appropriate to the star with her name above the titles. She is notably assisted by Margaret Yorke as the voluble English manageress, in a part that at first appears to be mere comedy relief but turns out to be a central part of Lui's surrogate 'family'. Other supporting roles including those of the villains are also well-played, and I was gratified to find that my instincts were correct and that 'Whistling Rufus' was indeed more than he seemed.
Sadly, the young hero and heroine do not fare so well, coming across as improbably stiff and stagy, and completely unrelated to their environment. Letty is admittedly supposed to be sheltered, but she appears to have no sense of the realities of Tiger Bay at all, and gives the impression of having wandered out of a different production altogether, and one with a somewhat different standard of acting at that. Victor Garland as the male lead, Michael, is not quite so bad, but he still appears to regard the whole thing as a frightfully good lark without any sense of genuine engagement.
I wouldn't totally write this film off, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend it; worth seeing if you get the chance, but not really worth wasting any effort over. (Incidentally, I was surprised to read in one source that "Tiger Bay" had to be cleansed of all mention of drunks and prostitutes, since both feature prominently in the finished product, and are indeed vital to the plot...)