THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (1936)
General Yang (Akim Tamiroff) is a kitschy, megalomaniacal warlord who, in spite of his latest successful raid is in bad shape and needs money for arms. He commands loyal troops ready to kill themselves for Yang. A man who accidentally spilled tea on the General was about to blow out his (the soldier's) brains out for losing face -- a clever scene that prepares us for events at the end.
The film is no classic like its director's earlier "All Quiet On The Western Front" but it stands way above routine. Plot and visuals are quite wild in that bizarre Southern California way which reconstructs imaginary Chinas in studios. The baroque exoticism, the male-female relationships, the solid tempo, make this a real movie-movie.
Odets wrote with brio and tough-guy and wise-guy lines where romance with a big R alternates with disenchantment. He added in-jokes, as when Cooper, named O'Hara, meets on the train a corrupt colleague played by the real writer John O'Hara.
The cast is good to watch. The performers have presence, both the glamorous stars and the efficient character actors. This makes up for some phony Chinese faces and accents, although Tamiroff's Chinese sounds genuine to non-Chinese speakers. The film has great atmosphere, with chiaroscuro, angles, shadows, given top photography by Victor Milner and excellent special effects by Gordon Jennings. Much music is used. It underlines the events and is not without humor rither, as. for instance, when we hear the song "I'll be glad when you're dead you rascal you." The sound recording is very clear.
There are some delirious, fantastic passages, as well as wonderfully corny bits, yet the movie seems conceived as a serious effort rather than as camp. The picture's last words are spoken by the sage Mr. Wu (played by Dudley Digges) when he sums up Yang: "He was a talented man but very, very corrupt."
Tamiroff, who keeps stealing the show delivers the most flmaboyant (and perhaps tghe best) performance of his long career. He was nominated for the first-ever Oscar for a supporting role. Also nominated were Photography and Score. (Edwin Jahiel)