It’s hard not to view Old Hollywood with rose-tinted glasses. When I think of classic, enduring cinema, I think of the whole Marx Brothers oeuvre, The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Wizard of Oz. I think of actors like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and the Hepburn sisters. Except for The Wizard of Oz, the movies of yesteryear relied on snappy dialogue and solid acting rather than special effects. Everything from that era seems classier and cleverer. The problem is that we forget that awful movies were made then just as now. Nostalgia is partly to blame because we’re much more willing to turn a blind eye to the faults of what we loved as kids than what we see today. However, the biggest reason we tend to forget that Hollywood’s Golden Age was also fraught with terrible movies is that the awful films have not survived, because the film reels were recycled for celluloid or they didn’t warrant a conversion to DVD. However, the advent of digital storage has made it easy to preserve old films and sell them in bulk. One such preserved relic culled from the midden of my DVD vault, stored with four other films on a single DVD, which I bought as part of a bargain pack of 50 horror movies, is called Black Dragons.
Black Dragons is about a man named Dr. Melcher, going under the alias of Monsieur Colomb, who kills off a wealthy group of men who have plans to sabotage the war effort; the film takes place in 1942, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He manipulates Mr. Saunders, one of the group of wealthy men, and takes residence in Saunders home, tricking Saunders’s niece Alice and the butler. While the police and wealthy men try to figure out what’s going on, Dr. Melcher kills the wealthy men one by one with a Japanese dagger. In the end, Dr. Melcher dies in a fight with one of the men. With Melcher gone, Saunders is free to explain that each of the wealthy men was actually a Japanese spy in disguise. Dr. Melcher was a Nazi plastic surgeon and he operated on the faces of members of the Black Dragons so they could pass as Americans and sabotage the war effort. The Black Dragons imprisoned Melcher so that he could never reveal the men’s identities. It’s implied that Melcher escaped by replacing his face with that of another prisoner; he happened to have his surgical tools on him when he was imprisoned. He came to America to get revenge and kill the men who wronged him.
I’ll admit that some of my bias against this film has to do with the crappy conversion job they did on this movie. The audio is so fuzzy that it sounds like it’s coming from an old record player, like a victrola, making it challenging to understand the dialogue. However, the plot is still pretty muddy. We don’t know who Dr. Melcher is or why he’s killing the men until the Mr. Saunders provides the flashback that explains everything; the flashback is arguably the only interesting part of the movie. There’s no reason to like the wealthy men and there’s nothing particularly suspenseful about the way Dr. Melcher kills them. It’s just not that interesting a movie in terms of plot.
When your only commendation for a movie is that it’s not as racist as you would expect it to be, you probably don’t have a very good film on your hands. Black Dragons came out mere months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The fear of Japanese spies infiltrating America and obstructing the war effort would have been prevalent at this time, but surprisingly the Japanese men depicted in this film aren’t portrayed as the insidious stereotypes that wartime propaganda would develop. I’ve seen Bugs Bunny cartoons that were more offensive. However, Black Dragons does work to rile the sentiments that would lead to the internment of Japanese Americans. Ignoring the plastic surgery aspect, this is a story about Japanese spies disguised so perfectly that they are indistinguishable from white Americans. Japanese Americans were put in internment camps because people feared they were secretly loyal to the Japan; this is not to mention the acts of violence that were also perpetrated by the fearful. Black Dragons is by no means a hate film, but it does express and potentially incited fears that would lead to hate. I wish I could say the world has changed, but America faced the same prejudices and fears after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center except with citizens of Middle Eastern descent, but particularly Muslims. And though I don’t recall any Black Dragons-esque films, I remember plenty of hateful rhetoric and speculations about where Muslims’ loyalty lies, which unfortunately has abated but not disappeared today.
Black Dragons decided to offend my sensibilities again when characters made a couple of offhand sexist remarks. Dr. Melcher, posing as Monsieur Colomb, tells Alice that when a woman’s mind is playing tricks on her, she should run into the strong arms of a man. When one of the wealthy men is asked if he’s afraid the mysterious killer is going to get him, he replies that, as a busy man, he has no time for feminine emotions. Is it bad of me to find both of the offhand comments hilarious? I know that a historian shouldn’t apply present social mores to the past, but I’m not a historian. Both comments are ridiculous enough to make me laugh, but the sad thing is that the characters said it in such a casual manner because it was accepted as true. This doesn’t bother me as much though because sexism isn’t the point of the film, just a sad attribute of it.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that Dr. Melcher is played by Bela Lugosi. I was amused by the alias Monsieur Colomb because Lugosi speaks in his iconic Hungarian accent. Wouldn’t it tip someone off that he doesn’t sound French? Or that Dracula is going around stabbing people? I was also amused by the flashback showing Dr. Melcher in prison. In the flashback, Lugosi wears a large mustache. The cellmate whose face he steals is just Lugosi in different clothes without a mustache. Needless to say, this is not one of Lugosi’s better roles.