By Matthew Sorrento.
I. The Look
Robinson’s legion of fans grew after the actor delivered an intense desperation as Rico Bandello in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). A hood who embraces a Macbethian drive to kill and consume, Rico soon witnesses the betrayal of his sideman, then ponders his own death, muttering “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Unlike James Cagney, Robinson never overcame his typecasting as a gangster, contained by a clichéd voice that’s an exaggeration of the Robinson performance. (Some comedians feign the actor’s memory with a random muttering, followed by “…there, see!” – the final word a whiny, dull note of contempt).
Robinson undoubtedly had a powerful, rapid vocal delivery, of which Billy Wilder made wise use in Double Indemnity (1944). We must note that Robinson’s facial performance – a gift for the screen and less so for Robinson’s first venue, the live theater – bolsters his true legacy. His most powerful look in Indemnity closes the film. Robinson’s Barton Keyes learns that Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry), his side man of another kind (an underling/friend in an insurance claims office) has betrayed him, by helping assist his own lover in a faulty claim involving murder. Robinson offers a look of fatalistic acceptance from face to body, his character’s agony hung like a flag of defeat, and his words, tough-guy facts: “Walter, you’re all washed up.” When lighting his friend’s cigarette, Keyes ends the film with the ultimate sign of their friendship; Robinson’s forlorn delivery may have indicated his own feelings about his career – i.e., the populace’s misunderstanding of it – as much as his character’s.
The lesser known Robinson “look” came a year after Little Caesar: his character, in an adaption of the stageplay The Honorable Mr. Wong, is ordered to execute his loyal friend. The Hatchet Man (directed by The Public Enemy‘s William Wellman and retitled by Warner Bros./First National to fit its tough style) concerns the Tong wars of Chinatown, San Francisco. Set up by Chinese immigrants facing persecution by whites, the Tongs were halls that hosted brotherhoods. With many having bare financial support, Tongs often housed gambling, prostitution, and the opium trade (Dillon 1962).
As a follower of the Buddha and a master with the title weapon, Wong Low Get (Robinson’s role, with a name that regrettably delivers a racist pun on the character’s fate, as in “one gets low”) must follow the code of the Lem Sing Tong. A variation of the hitman role to serve the studio’s taste for gangsters, Wong is ordered to execute his friend, Sun Yat Ming (J. Carrol Naish). Understanding devotion to the code, his friend forgives Wong for the act he must commit, the victim’s only wish that Wong take in his six-year-old daughter, Toya. Wong acts on command, as his emotions veer elsewhere, when Robinson looks upon the personal bond that collectivism will sever. The “hit” has the traction of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart (1958) when ordered to kill his own adopted son by tribal rite: during Okonkwo’s ritualistic dancing, and “containment” through a state of agency, in a step the weapon is aimed toward his son and his death. Honored and accepted even by the victim, Wong’s killing, like Okonkwo’s, results in spiritual decay. A haunted Robinson cocks back his arm, which cuts to Wong’s shadow: the ghostly rendition of his hatchet throw reflects an unsure if swift decision, a sideman departure of yet another kind.
II. “Blood” Stained and Regained
A trait of the pre-code 1930s gangster is a sexual perversion – for Scarface‘s Tony Camonte, it’s his incestuous desire for his sister; for Robinson’s Rico, it’s his latent attraction to his sideman, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who quits the life of crime for a career dancing. Robinson’s prolonged close-up when Joe’s departure occurs, has its own fatalism, if merely a plot device to move Rico to his requite demise. Wong’s promise to Sun shows their bond and a commitment to maintain Toya’s cultural tradition. When she matures, both she and Wong have adopted the culture of the West, an irony that questions the strength of Wong and Toya’s relationship. Darryl Zanuck’s insistence on form offers an astute turn in that the hitman – through his offspring and hence, in spirit – remains with his friend. What reads as perversion from afar becomes fuel for a devotional tale, even if called “delirious” in Bertrand Tavernier’s account.
Though an actual gesture of honor, to the Warner/First National office Wong’s adoption/marriage provides the requisite incestuous strain. Such treatment wasn’t unique to the 1930s, as the 1929 MGM melodrama, Where East is East, shows. Tod Browning’s film, the last of his collaborations with Lon Chaney, features the actor as a Tiger Haynes, a wild animal trapper in the Orient. His wife long gone, he alone raises his daughter, Toyo (Lupe Velez), now of age and engaged to Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes), the son of a circus owner and affiliate of Tiger. On a boat trip, Bobby becomes drawn to Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, as an alluring if hissable vamp), who channels the West’s sexualization of the East. When learning from Tiger that Sylva is Toyo’s mother, Bobby occupies an incestuous triangle that necessitates not only Sylva’s death, but Tiger’s as well, for a resolution involving a killer ape prior to Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). In Wong’s case, the incest curiously doesn’t call for his sacrifice, but only his vengeance. In lieu of Caesar‘s punishment to its title character, Hatchet celebrates honor, while uncomfortably condemning attempts at Asian-American assimilation (Stanfield 2005: 240).
III. System of Trust
According to Herbert Asbury, author of the popular history The Gangs of New York, the Tongs were as “American as chop suey – the latter is said to have been invented by an American dishwasher in a San Francisco restaurant, while the first Tong was organized in the Western gold fields about 1860” (cited in Stanfield 2005: 241).When a dragon flag falls to signal battle between Tongs, in a sweeping crane shot, Wong’s official status as master killer is summoned; his fall from the status comes when his marriage to Toya fails, due to her infidelity with a younger gangster. (He’s charged to protect Chinatown but, essentially, corrupts it.) In Little Caesar, Rico begins with little and aims for big time enterprise. With little knowledge of the details, he knows that the big time is in the city, where dreams become real and are greater than taking a roadside gas station. The path of the real-life hoods on the run, post-Volstead, like Bonnie and Clyde and “Baby Face” Nelson – who, like other popular bandits already at work, hit the roads once booze was legalized again – is inverted in Rico. Like other early 1930s screen gangsters, he rises and falls from power. Wong, interestingly, falls then rises by avenging his dishonored wife.
IV. System of Knowledge
Robinson’s big break came in 1940, the chance to star in a biographical film, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, directed by William Dieterle. (Likely annoyed by the gangster associations in Hatchet that had already typecast him – he takes on an Irish hood in the film – Robinson described Hatchet as one of his “horrible memories” [Robinson 1973: 126]). Though something of an outcast himself, the Jewish-German Dr. Ehrlich broke ground by identifying blood diseases and creating a treatment for syphilis, only to be denied his significance by the Nazis in the 1930s. The role would bring redemption to a Hollywood outcast locked out of lead roles in prestige productions. His casting came after Paul Muni rejected the role, abiding by a personal rule to never play Jews onscreen (though one himself) (Gansberg 2004: 82). Robinson, proud of his heritage which would later make him a target for the HUAC, was thrilled for the role and to honor a great man.
Robinson’s Ehrlich has a system of another kind to navigate: one of knowledge, a community skeptical of his innovations. Working in a clinic in which many are terminal, Ehrlich grows disillusioned with the policies, imagining methods to heal his patients. One commits suicide after learning his diagnosis; hence, Ehrlich, like earlier Robinson roles, deals in death, with no means of escape. As a young doctor, he breaks the rules by abandoning his duties to attend a lecture, where he impresses Dr. Robert Koch (Albert Basserman) and receives a culture to experiment with tuberculosis. He handles the dangerous matter to see how it can be stained and identified and, thus, removed. It slowly infects him, necessitating a retreat to Egypt for recovery. There he treats a boy infected with a snake bite, while the boy’s father is, curiously, not affected by the same snake. This encounter reveals to Erhlich that immunities are possible. He accumulates knowledge much like an investigator, for him an oppositional role he’d later take for Wilder in Double Indemnity.
V. The Most Dangerous Foe
Ehrlich must take on the established scientific community, as his work situates him as a rebel. Robinson’s earlier rebels were more of the fugitive kind. An outsider who invades then tops the criminal networks of 1920s Chicago, Rico Bandello is always prey to the official and unofficial establishment. Ironically, his side man becomes a most severe foe, as his betrayal leaves Rico broken, destitute in a flop house. When “The Man” shoots Rico down, it’s through an oversized advert announcing Joe’s new dancing show. Robinson’s Wong also faces multiple foes. Ironic from the outset, his assassination of a friend is honorable, until Wong must face Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), the loathsome east coast American hood who brings Toya to slavery in China.
Wong, as a resident of Chinatown, is removed from normative culture, in an urban neighborhood orientalized by visiting white people – myths of secret passageways and other elements became part of a theme park-style performance the Chinese would present for tourism (Stanfield 2005: 242). As Toya matures, and she and Wong have adopted Western culture, he now partakes in “official” business in importing/exporting. And yet his assimilation proves futile, after he’s banished for his wife’s dishonorable actions, and left toiling as a farm hand. He must return to his Eastern roots by embracing the hatchet to avenge the crime against Toya. Aligned to an element of the American city, the Chinatown district, he’s a foe to a culture proud of its pluralism though not above racism against Asians.
VI. Embracing the East
During the early twentieth century, Asian art and fashion became a fad. Chinatown grew into a popular (if disrespected) tourist attraction while Asian themes were in demand in popular entertainment by the 1920s. This trend, obviously, created some of the worst orientialism, with “no tickee, no washee” stereotypes of Chinese laundrymen appearing in Roscoe Arbuckle comic shorts of the teens. “Yellowface” makeup and performance became standard coding for American film studios to channel the East, and envision it through a Western lens by having whites in the roles. The style was so omnipotent that New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall found the makeup of the many cliched Asian roles in Hatchet, with passive postures and squinting eyes, to be convincing. (Loretta Young, as Toya, is unrecognizable.) For our purpose, it is worth noting that Robinson chose to avoid full yellowface, in lieu of subtle makeup and facial gestures, to suggest a sympathetic presence beyond his urban Americanism. (Even Muni, in 1937’s The Good Earth, and Walter Huston and Katharine Hepburn, in 1944’s Dragon Seed, wouldn’t be so brave to abandon full yellowface.) One might speculate that the decision resulted from Robinson’s new starpower post-Little Caesar, though a star no lesser than Lon Chaney played in full yellowface as late as 1927 in Mr. Wu (opposite Anna May Wong, to boot!), a style he cultivated in his pre-stardom roles Outside the Law (1920) and Shadows (1922). Robinson sticks to his own persona and thus embraces realism over caricature.
VII. Betrayal, Banishment, Resurrection
After corrupting Chinatown and defaming Wong, Harry is deported to China for opium dealing, and takes Toya with him. When Wong learns from a letter of her bondage (on the surface tired from waiting on customers, though prostitution is implied), he rises from his role, as dispossessed coolie in a field, and reclaims his hatchets out of pawn. The sequence works into a warrior’s resurrection. Still marginalized as a member of Chinatown, Wong sneaks into the streets toward a ship port, on which will commence his journey. On board he shovels coal to wage his trip, each pierce and toss of the black continuing his marginalization to the whites, but actually fuelling his focus and drive to avenge. In China, a cobbler tells Wong that his shoes look as if he is a stranger in many cities. Wong seeks a place where only rich men are welcome, a den of dancing and smoking the pipe of “golden dreams.” An outsider still, he walks towards his mark, arms fixed to his sides, with an inversion of the forlornness he showed for Ming, by reflecting a meek acceptance of his own desire, the antithesis of one following the Buddha. His vengeance comes when proving his skill with the hatchet: his bull’s eye to a dragon’s eye pierces through a wall and into the skull of Harry. It’s removal shakes his head in a mime of life, the dance of death.
Opposed by the establishment in court – where a friend eventually saves him – Ehrlich’s demise is a long time coming for the scientist exposed to infection. His death appears in purity, in contrast to the disease he’s fought throughout his life – a sharp contrast from Rico’s demise, riddled with bullets on the ground. Wong, departing a house of sin with his wife back with him, escapes the vengeance of the Hays Office by not experiencing punishment for his murders. And yet, a coda, spoken by Robinson, notes that the “Buddha will find you no matter where you are on the face of this earth,” and thus his punishment may be due soon.
In Ehrlich’s death bed, Robinson looks diminutive but fresh, a glowing being, like the infant George M. Cohan at the opening of Warner Bros.’ Yankee Doodle Dandy two years later (a biographic film featuring another gangster actor, James Cagney). Erhlich shows all the glory that his discoveries have brought and the hope he will inspire in other doctors after him. His team of scientists with him, they offer him the natural center of the composition, not the domineering focus of Rico. Ehrlich has purified the mind of men by fighting ills of the body – his intellectual pursuit noting that the glory of Robinson’s lost narratives stem from mastery of character.
The Hatchet Man (as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 7) and Dr. Erhlich’s Magic Bullet – in addition to Where East is East and numerous other Lon Chaney films – are available in the US from The Warner Archive.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He has chapters forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film (on service comedies), The New Western (on Alex Cox), and Film, Law, Crime (on the documentary).
Dillon, Richard H. (1962), The Hatchet Men: the Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York: Coward-McCann.
Gansberg, Ian L. (2004), Little Caesar: a Biography of Edward G. Robinson, Lanham: Scarecrow.
Hall, Mordaunt (1932), “The Greeks Had a Word for Them: Edward G. Robinson in a Chinese Tong Story Called ‘The Hatchet Man’”, New York Times, February 4. Accessed 10 January 2014.
Meyers, Jeffrey (2011), John Huston: Courage and Art, New York: Random House.
Robinson, Edward G. (1973), All My Yesterdays: an Autobiography, New York: Hawthorn.
Stanfield, Peter (2005), “‘American as Chop Suey’: Invocations of Gangsters in Chinatown, 1920-1936,” in Lee Grieveson (ed.) (2005), Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.
Tavernier, Bertrand (2004), “William Wellman”, Film Comment, Jan/Feb. Accessed 12 January 2014.
 Robinson’s fame (and looks) later took a hit when John Huston, who directed the actor in Key Largo (1948), related the sight of Robinson in a tub as looking like “a crustacean with its shell off.” The director was actually relating his approach to reveal the interior of a hardened gangster, without his protective façade (Meyers 2011: 151).