In Chinese culture, live theater performances are attended by all classes of society. This short shows a performance of "The Rainbow Pass," a tale of a wife who challenges her husband's murderer to combat.
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With inspiration from Pearl Buck, the film asks the question why the Chinese civilization outlasted Greece and Rome. It posits an answer: veneration of the land, the "good earth," as exemplified in annual village tributes to Shennong, the god of agriculture. We visit one such festival as farm families pour into town to eat and celebrate. An essential part of the day is a theater production: we watch stylized players, stage managers dressed in black, and simple props tell a story of patriotism, death, and a widow's plan at Rainbow Pass. For our benefit, the players speak English. Written by
Hollywood short subjects were (and still are) all over the place in content and purpose. Some of them stylishly show off rising directors and specialty subjects, some openly give background on the making of coming major attractions, some do so more indirectly. Promos for other films that don't appear to be plugs but which stand on their own as entertainment or education on other subjects can be more effective promotions than hard sell. One hopes THE RAINBOW PASS was as effective for its real covert purpose as it is as a stylish (if sloppy) tour of Chinese "theatre culture."
THE RAINBOW PASS was fairly transparently made to promote MGM's big (ultimately Oscar winning) release of the same year, THE GOOD EARTH, from the novel by Pearl S. Buck (cited in THE RAINBOW PASS as a "major expert" on China). They scrupulously avoid mention of the bigger picture, but they freely refer to the Chinese people's gratitude to "the good earth" and the supposed annual festival honoring that gratitude by carrying a statue of the "god of the harvest" to a theatre for a performance.
The acting (all filmed on U.S. locations) is as first rate as the non-roles permit with one spectacular exception, and the atmosphere as lush as a studio system can make it. The smoke filled small town "Chinese theatre" with its stylized presentations and cabaret style food service and full family attendance is credibly presented and explained. The one offense to credibility is the distorted presentation (for supposed comic effect?) of the black clad "stagehands" who work in the open in Chinese theatre as they do in Japanese Kabuki in THE RAINBOW PASS (the Chinese "play-within-the-movie").
The stagehand in the short is NOT fully clad in black as he would be in even the *poorest* Chinese theatre - his face and pale arms are bare to emphasize for the studio underestimated, presumed biased, 1937 Western movie audience the "unusualness" of the Eastern conceit. Even worse, the supposed stagehand smokes all through the performance making it even harder to ignore his presence.
In reality, fairly presented, the Eastern conceit works beautifully (see the "Welcome To Kanagawa" number in the filmed Broadway performance of PACIFIC OVERTURES - done kabuki style and broadcast over Tokyo television in 1976), but by choosing to make fun of the conceit in this film short, they turn what was intended as an appreciation of another culture (as well as appetizer for the studio's big China based film) into something of a put-down of that culture.
It's a real loss and a pity, but what remains is still well worth a look for those who can look past a bit of studio hack-dom, going for the cheap laugh in exotic settings to the rest of the worthwhile atmosphere.
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