For those too young to know this history or those wanting to take a walk down memory lane, here are the 25 “yellow face” film performances (so no David Carradine in Kung Fu unless the long-rumored film version gets made) that have arguably had the most impact on our cultural landscape.
15 | The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Henry Silva as Chunjin
John Frankenheimer’s thriller still holds up and the talented cast — led by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury — has never been better. The film’s flaw? Silva as the Korean spy determined to keep Sinatra’s army officer from uncovering the Communist brainwashing conspiracy that has turned one of his own men into a political assassin. The mano-a-mano fight between Sinatra and Silva may have been one of the first times that karate was seen in a Hollywood production, but its lack of verisimilitude undermines what’s otherwise a very chilling take on Cold War politics.
14 | Sayonara (1957)
Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura
As a Latino actor with a social conscience, Montalban does his best to make his character three-dimensional, but there’s only so much any actor can do with a supporting role that’s wallowing in stereotypes. Following in Hollywood’s long tradition of feminizing Asian men, Nakamura is a Kabuki actor who specializes in playing female roles, acting as a counterpart to the alpha Caucasian males played by stars Marlon Brando and Red Buttons. The film is not without its merits, though, best represented by the late Miyoshi Umeki’s Oscar-winning performance as a doomed Japanese war bride.
13 | The Mr. Moto film series (1937-1939)
Peter Lorre as Mr. Kentaro Moto
Starting with 1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto, Lorre made eight films as the Japanese adventurer who was a cross between Charlie Chan and Indiana Jones. Overall, the series was more entertaining than the Chan films that were also hugely popular at the same time. Whether searching for Genghis Khan’s treasure or escaping from the daunting Devil’s Island, Lorre attacked the role with tongue-in-cheek fun, which helped offset some of the stereotypes. The character made a brief comeback in 1965’s The Return of Mr. Moto with Henry Silva, but hasn’t been heard from since.
12 | 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Tony Randall as Dr. Lao
How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you appreciate Randall’s talent, since he plays multiple roles starting with the titular character — a mysterious Chinese man who oversees a bizarre circus filled with mythical beasts, including the snake-haired Medusa and the Abominable Snowman (all played by Randall). Employing the standard mix of “Oriental” mysticism and sage wisdom (“Every time you pick up a grain of sand, you hold the universe in the palm of your hands”), this movie tries to create a sense of child-like magic but is constantly undermined by its tired stereotyping.
11 | Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (1942)
Harold Huber as Ito Takimura
This film isn’t higher on the list because it’s largely been forgotten, but it may be the worst example of “yellow face” (almost all the Asian characters are played by Caucasians) and possibly the most racist thing to come out of Hollywood regarding Asians. It’s 1941, and L.A. cop Michael Steele (Preston Foster) finds that Little Tokyo is a hotbed of espionage where almost every single Japanese American, led by Harold Huber’s seemingly innocent community leader Mr. Takimura, is a spy. A bad film that existed solely to justify the internment of 120,000 Americans.
Next week: The top 10.