“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, a stylish tale about miscegenation, fornication, and filicide. In the title role, Lon Chaney, with his usual genius for make-up and characterization, uses at least four of his 1,000 faces to portray two Wu’s 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 “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 daughter (Gertrude Olmstead) raped or her son killed.
This is really a morbid little story (from a play by Henry Maurice Vernon and Harold Owen), but it is beautifully done. John Arnold’s cinematography is stunning, while director William Nigh set up and composed each shot like a painting. It’s truly unfortunate that Mr. Wu wasn’t filmed in two-strip Technicolor. Color would have given Richard Day and Cedric Gibbons’ marvelous art direction even more dazzle.
Even more unfortunate 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.
Yet, thanks to Lon Chaney and to its sumptuous production values, Mr. Wu is a must-see.
© Danny Fortune
Mr. Wu (1927). Dir.: William Nigh. Scr.: Lorna Moon; from Henry Maurice Vernon and Harold Owen’s play. Titles: Lotta Woods. Cast: Lon Chaney, Louise Dresser, Renée Adorée, Ralph Forbes, Gertrude Olmstead, Holmes Herbert, Mrs. Wong Wing, Claude King, Anna May Wong.