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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
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,Dragon Seed

Dragon Seed

Along with Sylvia Scarlett (1935), the 1944 war drama Dragon Seed ranks as the strangest film in Katharine Hepburn's career. Where almost everything about the earlier picture was decades ahead of its time -- from its freewheeling plot to the prevailing gender confusion created by Hepburn's masquerade as a young man -- Dragon Seed managed to be both ahead of its time and behind the times simultaneously; it pointed to new roles for women while also demonstrating an amazing lack of sensitivity on racial issues.

Hepburn had been having trouble finding a suitable screen project to follow Woman of the Year and Keeper of the Flame (both 1942), the first two films teaming her with long time on and off screen partner Spencer Tracy. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer nixed her proposal for a screen version of Eugene O'Neil's three-part epic Mourning Becomes Electra (later played by Rosalind Russell at RKO), and they couldn't get the rights to George Bernard Shaw's witty comedy The Millionairess (Hepburn would play it on stage, while the film version would star Sophia Loren). Nor could they settle on terms for a loan to Paramount to star in Frenchman's Creek (1944), a role that ultimately went to Joan Fontaine.

Then MGM picked up the screen rights to Dragon Seed, Pearl Buck's popular 1942 tale of Chinese peasants fighting off Japanese invaders during World War II. The potentially expensive production appealed to Mayer because of the studio's success with Buck's The Good Earth in 1937. In addition, it gave them another way to support the war effort by paying tribute to one of the U.S.' allies. For Hepburn, although the thought of starring in her first big budget production was daunting (at $3 million, the film's budget was over three times the usual for her), the memory of Luise Rainer's success in the 1937 film was still fresh. In addition, the role of Jade, the peasant woman who leads her village's men in fighting off the invasion, was a rare (for Hollywood) liberated woman who came out on top. Jade is one of the few villagers who can read. She constantly forsakes housework to attend political meetings. When she bears a child, she gives it up so she can join the men in battle. As critic and historian Jeanine Basinger would point out in A Woman's View, "The movie has built into its dialogue and plot developments an actual argument for liberation and certainly a respect for an independent, free woman who knows her mind and acts on it."

But as forward thinking as the film's gender politics may have been, it still presented the sorry spectacle of a cast of western actors made up, not always convincingly, to appear Chinese or Japanese. Only the film's children and extras were played by actual Asians. In addition, the casting offered a veritable dialect soup as Hepburn's New England twang played against on-screen husband Turhan Bey's light Austrian, traitorous uncle Akim Tamiroff's Russian and many of the other actors' stage-trained diction.

Mirroring the casting, MGM threw accuracy to the winds in preparing the production. When Buck visited the set, she was appalled to find Hepburn wearing men's clothing, which the star considered more attractive than the traditional female fashions. Buck also questioned the sets for the village's terraced hills. When she pointed out that a) the hills were not terraced in the region where the story was set and b) terraces like those needed to run horizontal to the ground, not perpendicular, she was told that horizontal terraces were visually boring.

For all that, Hepburn put a great deal of effort into the production. Exteriors were shot in the San Fernando Valley, a 36-mile drive from her home. Because of the heavy makeup she wore in the film, this meant early days that lasted late into the evenings. This wasn't helped by the late nights she put in trying to help Spencer Tracy deal with insomnia while he was filming the equally strenuous war drama The Seventh Cross (1944). Dragon Seed was such a demanding production that director Jack Conway, a specialist in action films and rowdy comedies, collapsed halfway through production. His replacement, Harold S. Bucquet, had worked mostly on low-budget films, including many of MGM's Dr. Kildare features.

Dragon Seed received mixed reviews, though even the best compared it unfavorably to The Good Earth. The worst were quick to complain about the western cast, Hepburn's Bryn Mawr accent and the insultingly ethnic background music. Nonetheless, the film won two Oscar® nominations (for Aline MacMahon's supporting performance as Hepburn's mother-in-law and Sidney Wagner's black-and-white cinematography) and even turned a profit, though nothing to compare with the success of The Good Earth. It would be decades before feminist critics like Basinger re-discovered the film and recommended it to new generations of film fans.

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Jack Conway, Harold S. Bucquet
Screenplay: Marguerite Roberts, Jane Murfin, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Jade), Walter Huston (Ling Tan), Aline MacMahon (Mrs. Ling Tan), Akim Tamiroff (Wu Lien), Turhan Bey (Lao Er), Hurd Hatfield (Lao San), Frances Rafferty (Orchid), Agnes Moorehead (3rd Cousin's Wife), Henry Travers (3rd Cousin), J. Carrol Naish (Japanese Kitchen Overseer), Benson Fong (Student), Philip Ahn (Leader of City People), Lionel Barrymore (Narrator).
BW-148m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller



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