Mr. Wu movie overview: ‘Genius’ Lon Chaney puts on several of his 1,000 faces in MGM’s sumptuous miscegenation + revenge melodrama
“A maiden defiled must be put to death by the hand of her father,” so reads the “ancient Chinese law” that forms the basis for Mr. Wu, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s stylish 1927 tale about miscegenation, fornication, and filicide. In the title role, Lon Chaney, with his usual genius for make-up and characterization, uses at least three of his 1,000 faces to portray two Wus through three generations.
Old Wu arranges for his grandson to be brought up around Western ways. Years later, that leads to problems when grandson Wu (now an old Wu himself) discovers his only daughter (Renée Adorée) is preggers by a – gasp! – white man (Ralph Forbes).
As a maiden defiled, she must be killed by her father who also has to take revenge against the white man’s whole family. He gives the mother (Louise Dresser) a choice of either having her son killed or her daughter (Gertrude Olmstead) raped.
Great-looking ‘morbid little story’
This is a morbid little story – adapted by Lorna Moon from Henry Maurice Vernon and Harold Owen’s 1913 play – but it is beautifully done.
John Arnold’s cinematography is stunning, while director William Nigh composed each shot like a painting. And it’s truly unfortunate that Mr. Wu wasn’t filmed in two-strip Technicolor, as color would have given Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day’s marvelous art direction even more dazzle.
More unfortunate yet is the horrendous score accompanying the Turner Classic Movies print. The tone-deaf composer thought a loud, screechy clarinet was appropriate for the Oriental theme music.
Still, thanks to Lon Chaney and its sumptuous production values, Mr. Wu remains a must-see.
Mr. Wu (1927)
Director: William Nigh.
Screenplay: Lorna Moon.
Titles: Lotta Woods.
From Henry Maurice Vernon & Harold Owen’s 1913 play.
Cast: Lon Chaney. Louise Dresser. Renée Adorée. Ralph Forbes. Gertrude Olmstead (as Gertrude Olmsted). Holmes Herbert. Mrs. Wong Wing. Claude King. Anna May Wong.
“Mr. Wu Movie: Brilliant Chaney in Morbid Miscegenation Melodrama” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Mr. Wu Movie (1927) Overview” endnotes
Mr. Wu opened in London in 1913. The following year the play had its Broadway debut at Maxine Elliott’s Theater, with former Shakespearean actor Walker Whiteside cast in the title role.
In his mid-20s at the time, future The Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan – billed as Frank Wupperman, a variation of his birth name – played the role of the young Englishman (Ralph Forbes in the 1927 movie version) who seduces the Chinese maiden.
According to Gerald Bordman’s American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1914-1930, Mr. Wu “found more favor on the road than it did in New York.”
Louise Dresser and Lon Chaney Mr. Wu movie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Mr. Wu Movie: Brilliant Chaney in Morbid Miscegenation Melodrama” last updated in September 2021.