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Ah, so! Ah, so what?

Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
27 September 2002



"The Yellow Mask" is based on "The Traitor's Gate" a melodramatic stage thriller by hyper-prolific author Edgar Wallace. It's a messy chop suey. For starters, this is one of those racist "yellow peril" dramas which assumes that there's no crime or perversion which those sinister Chinese are incapable of committing. Worse luck, "The Yellow Mask" can't decide what sort of film it wants to be: it's a thriller, interrupted by bouts of slapstick comedy and operetta-style musical numbers.

The Chinese prince Li-San (played by Warwick Ward with Sellotape on his eyelids) has come to London to steal one of the Crown jewels: a magnificent diamond which, three centuries ago, was the eye in the statue of a Chinese god, who now wants it back. (Surprisingly, the script admits that this diamond only ever got to London in the first place because an Englishman stole it from the Chinese.) Li-San steals the diamond with stereotypical Oriental cunning. While he's about it, he also steals Mary Trayne (Dorothy Seacombe), the innocent fiancee of jut-jawed English guardsman John Carn (Wilfred Temple).

Sam Slipper (with a name like that, you know he's comedy relief) is a Fleet Street newspaper reporter who stows away aboard Li-San's ship, which of course is staffed with a full crew of sinister dacoits and hooded minions. Sam Slipper is played by Lupino Lane. During his Hollywood period, Lupino Lane did some of the most virtuoso (and hilarious) acrobatics in the history of movie comedy: Lane's acrobatic skills even surpassed those of Buster Keaton, and I don't make such comparisons lightly. Here, alas, Lane does some limp slapstick pratfalls in his attempts to escape the sinister Oriental hatchetmen of Li-San. Maybe Lane was getting too old, but his acrobatic abilities here are a pale shadow of his best work.

Meanwhile, Officer Carn has dashed off to rescue his beloved Mary, pausing only to stiffen his upper lip. Carn and Mary get locked up in Li-San's deep dark Oriental dungeon (separate cells: they're only engaged, not married). But the dungeon doors have such lovely Chinese cherry blossoms blooming. So the lovers sing a romantic duet to each other from their dungeon cells. Cue the dream sequence with Peter Ibbetson.

There is, of course, a happy ending ... but it comes out of nowhere. "The Yellow Mask" was directed by Harry Lachman, one of the most underrated directors of 1930s Hollywood. (Lachman spent a year in London, directing this and several other English films.) Lachman does excellent work here, but he's hampered by a ridiculous script and a dull cast. The best performances are given by Lupino Lane and his brother Wallace Lupino ... but their turns here are very inferior to their work elsewhere. I'm trying to think up some clever Chinese fortune-cookie joke to finish up this review ... but, really, "The Yellow Mask" isn't worth the bother.

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