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Even in 1932, it was a bit difficult to accept Edward G. Robinson as a hatchet-wielding Chinese hit man. Now, the idea seems both hilarious and a little offensive. Those who can manage to limit their guffaws will find in The Hatchet Man (1932) an interesting twist on Robinson’s usual characters.
The film springs from the notoriety of the Tong wars. Tongs were associations that formed among the newly arrived immigrants of America’s Chinatown. As with other such organizations that claimed to protect immigrants, the Tongs became criminal in nature. Everyone in Chinatown had to pay fees to the Tong association, which provided “protection.” Their enforcers were the “boo how doy” or, as they became known in the English-language press, the hatchet men. Their blades filed to razor sharpness, the hatchet men left their death-dealing instruments in the skulls of anyone who crossed the Tong. In the 1870’s and 1880’s rival gangs of hatchet men would go after one another in the streets, events that became known through widespread newspaper coverage as “Tong wars.”
In a way, putting Edward G. Robinson in a film about hatchet men makes sense. Warner Brothers had purchased the David Belasco – Achmed Abdullah play The Honorable Mr. Wong about the Tong wars. Tongs were like the Chinese version of gangsters, right? So who else to put in the lead but Warner Brothers’ leading gangster star, famous for his portrayal of Little Caesar (1931)?
The story has Robinson as Wong Low Get, the most highly respected hatchet man of his Tong. Having sworn total allegiance, he cannot turn down an order, even one to kill his best friend Sun Yat Sen (J. Carroll Naish). His friend forgives him in advance of his execution, begging only that Wong raise his daughter Toya San (Loretta Young) as his own. Wong does as he has sworn but as she grows up he falls in love with her. She marries him out of a sense of obligation but a handsome gangster, Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton) gets her to leave Wong, disgracing him and leading to a shocking turn of events.
As was typical of the time, almost no Asian actors appear in the cast of a film set completely among Chinese characters. Makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity. Rather than cast the film with all Asian actors, which would have then meant no star names to attract American audiences, studios simply eliminated most of the Asian actors from the cast.
William A. Wellman (The Public Enemy, 1931, The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943) was then directing six films a year for Warner Brothers and brought both a polish and speed to his movies, making them superior entertainments for their time. Made during the few years before strict enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, The Hatchet Man has elements that would not be allowed later such as adultery, narcotics and a somewhat graphic use of a flying hatchet.
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: J. Grubb Alexander, play by Achmed Abdullah and David Belasco
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Wong Low Get), Loretta Young (Sun Toya San), Dudley Digges (Nog Hong Fah), Leslie Fenton (Harry En Hai), Edmund Breese (Yu Chang), Tully Marshall (Long Sen Yat), J. Carrol Naish (Sun Yat Ming).
by Brian Cady