10 April 2006 | stevehaynie
Thin plot -- thick accents.
As long as Bela Lugosi was not playing the part of "Bela Lugosi" he was great. In Shadow of Chinatown he plays Victor Poten, the Eurasian scientist intent on destroying the Chinese people in Chinatown. Poten is hired by Sonya Rokoff, another Eurasian, to put an end to the tourist trade in San Francisco's Chinatown so that a new business cartel can take over the businesses there. Over the fifteen chapters Lugosi went through a few disguises and was given a chance to show his talent for playing different types of characters. His acting still appeared as if he were performing on stage rather than in front of a camera. Serials rarely had perfect lighting or camera angles, but Lugosi was able to look good in Shadow of Chinatown.
Herman Brix was excellent as Martin Andrews. He was always good in the serials that he made. Joan Barclay was not good as Joan Whiting. She overacted in almost every scene. In addition to bad acting, her character was more a nuisance than anything else. As Sonya Rokoff, Luana Walters was much better, though her character should have been stronger. The oddity among the cast was Charles King as Grogan. As many times as King played a tough character he rarely showed a mortal fear. Grogan's weakness when he was around the evil Poten was something unusual for a character played by Charles King.
I have read that heavy accents worked against some actors in the early days of sound film, but I also think that people in North America were more willing to accept certain accents at the same time. Vaudevillians had performed using dialects and brought them to radio and movies. In Shadow of Chinatown, the accents are integral to the characters. The strong Chinese accents of some of the actors may be authentic, but it is also obvious that some of the dialogue and accents are overplayed to the Chinese stereotype. The character Willy Fu always speaks in parables and proverbs, even in emergencies. Willy Fu seemed long winded at all the wrong times.
At a time when white actors would don costumes and wear makeup to appear as another race, Shadow of Chinatown used real Chinese actors. The credits undoubtedly prove this. Victor Poten's gang of thugs dresses in Chinese clothing as they commit their crimes in Chinatown. Whether or not it was an intentional swipe at the practice of using non-Asians as Chinese, there was an early scene in which Willy Fu discovers the fake Chinese and tells Martin Andrews about them. Either way, it is a nice plot element as it strips away a layer of Poten's cover.
The story in Shadow of Chinatown is weak, and the action and suspense are not as good as what was seen in other serials. The best reason to watch this serial is to see Bela Lugosi in a strong role. He is the saving grace of Shadow of Chinatown.