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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Anything but Movie Classics

September 04, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The yellow brick road to fairness and enlightenment remains potholed.

Credit television, at least, with being an equal-opportunity stigmatizer, witness next Tuesday's debut of the Fox comedy series "Costello," whose setting is a South Boston bar where nearly every white patron wearing a blue collar is boorish, insensitive and incapable of expressing any thought deeper than duh!

The better news is that much of television has sought mightily to exorcise its demon stereotypes. In commercials and entertainment programs, that means many fewer insulting caricatures of females and minorities, as TV executives continue to heed special-interest pressure groups that wield pocketbook power.

Yet ugly stereotypes still survive in an area of TV that, unlike major network prime time, is virtually unmonitored when it comes to presenting twisted images that may be offensive.

Antique movies.

Great fun, sometimes greater grief.

Although it's often unfair to measure the past by today's standards, in this case it's inevitable because these sins of history continue to resonate and gain even wider exposure through modern technology.

In August, for example, cable's AMC channel ran a two-day Charlie Chan festival--a dozen 20th Century Fox movies made between 1935 and 1942, starring non-Asians Warner Oland and Sidney Toler as the Chinese-born Honolulu police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers.

Charlie (who was also retooled for a brief syndicated TV series in the late '50s) was a brilliant, deceptively genial and patient sleuth famous for his humorous partnerships with his many sons and for having a Confucius-style saying for every occasion. Such as: "Insignificant molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain."

Talk about your stereotypes. Whether played by Oland or Toler, the man was a walking fortune cookie.

I must tell you, however, that Charlie Chan films are as big a hoot as anything on TV, unambitious yet high-yielding entertainment offering escape from the crushing burdens of the real world.

But that's one white guy's opinion.

Many Asian Americans have held a different view through the years, finding this depiction of Charlie Chan, however imposing he is as a crime-solver, pretty much of a cartoonish slur that brands them, too.

Arguably even more repugnant are those old Tarzan flicks that AMC runs regularly, mostly Johnny Weissmuller's campy MGM batch from the '30s and '40s whose tubby Africans are mindless, drum-pounding, ooga-booga savages just several IQ points better than the crocodiles that eye them hungrily from the jungle rivers. And naturally these Africans are utterly hapless without Caucasian leadership, that great white hope coming in the person either of Tarzan or the inevitable villainous jungle travelers who exploit their childlike innocence.

The Nerve! They Put Up a Fight

Then on Wednesday, AMC ran "Green Hell," a 1940 Universal release with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett and George Sanders heading a credible cast playing white adventurers looking for Inca treasure somewhere in South America, presumably Peru. And wouldn't you know it, those selfish snots, the Incas, had the nerve to put up a fight in the jungle, nastily resorting to poisonous arrows and blowgun darts. The only things missing were Pygmy Inca headhunters.

"Fun to watch, despite unconvincing jungle sets," reports one movies-on-TV guide. "Hokey but entertaining," says another.

"Unconvincing" and "hokey" hardly capture the injustice.

Late in the movie, the courageous Fairbanks and his companions are holed up in a little house in the jungle, awaiting another mad thrust by anonymous hordes of attacking Incas while being short on ammo and time but not platitudes about the lives back home they left to pursue the noble cause of blasting Indians and stealing gold.

"It must be spring in Devonshire now," says the stiff-upper-lipping Sanders, dreamily.

And here come the Incas who, like their African counterparts in Tarzan films and Native American cousins in old westerns, aren't brainy enough even to be smart fighters. They launch a shrewd frontal assault, happy to accept epic losses just to fry a few whites, the dehumanizing message being that the Indians' lives have less value than those of their enemy.

The Alamo ambience is pervasive. "That sure made hamburgers outta them buzzards," says Tex, one of the outnumbered defenders, after lobbing an explosive at the surging Incas. Then in a grand gesture that only a well-bred Englishman could manage, Sanders says "cheerio" to his friends and leaves them so he can confront the attackers alone with his revolver.

White greed never enters this equation, just white bravery. Ignoring that the early Incas had a highly developed civilization, the familiar message in this cultural mishmash is the one delivered by many old westerns as high on the food chain as John Ford's "Stagecoach," that the only good Indian is a dead Indian.

But wait! Just when it seems the defenders have had it, friendly Incas arrive on cue and attack the bad Incas from behind, allowing the brave little party of treasure hunters to escape with Fairbanks, who by now has arrows fanning out from his body like peacock feathers.

The final scene has them dining in formal evening clothes beneath a crystal chandelier, raising their brandy glasses in triumphant toast "to adventure!"

Plus ethnic arrogance and making hamburger of buzzards.

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