Broken China (Educational, 1926)
Bobby (Bobby Vernon) wants to marry Betty (Frances Lee), but Betty comes from a long line of cops and her father forbids her from marrying anyone not on the force. The policeman’s ball is a costume party and Bobby decides to go dressed as a cop in the hopes of melting Betty’s father’s hard heart.
News arrives that Won Lung (Bill Blaisdell), the infamous smuggler, is back in operation in Chinatown. The whole force is called out for a raid. Bobby, in costume, is confused for a real cop and taken along. He finds himself separated from the others and, after some antics, falls quite accidentally into Won Lung’s secret underground hideout. Bobby, again quite accidentally, offends Won Lung and he and his henchmen pursue Bobby around the hideout for ten or twelve minutes. They catch him several times in traps both mechanical and supernatural (their god “Boola Boola” doesn’t much like Bobby either) only to keep losing him.
Eventually, Bobby figures out how to turn their own traps against them. One by one, he delivers the Chinese smugglers into the waiting hands of the police before escorting Won Lung to the back of the police wagon himself. Betty’s father congratulates him and she and Bobby kiss as the film ends.
I first became aware of this film from the TV series The Secret Life of Machines (1988-1993). It pretty frequently used clips from silent films, and a clip from Broken China (1926) was used to illustrate pneumatic elevators (one of the contraptions in Won Lung’s hideout). I had my eye out for it pretty much ever since and finally got my hands on a print several weeks ago.
Now, I don’t normally point out casual racism in films from this era. It comes with the territory, especially in comedy, and you’ve got to look beyond it. But holy good goddamn is this a racist film. Aside from the horrendous Chinese jokes, most of the humor is height-based. Bill Blaisdell is about a foot and a half taller than Bobby Vernon and much of the second half of the picture revolves around watching a shrimp trying and failing to fight a towering giant. The situation is briefly reversed when Blaisdell is crushed into a dwarf by a descending elevator. Bobby is quite cocky until his foe inflates back to his normal proportions. Also, if you dislike puns or double entendre, you will hate this film as almost every title includes one if not both.
Offensiveness aside, most of the film’s attempts at comedy are groan inducing. Some of the wordplay’s not bad (the policeman’s ball, held “in honor of the cop who pinched an old maid in the dark”) and the stick-figure illustrations on the intertitles are cute, but that’s about all I can say to its favor.
My rating: I don’t like it.