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A Year with Kate: Dragon Seed (1944)

Episode 20 of 52 of Anne Marie's chronological look at Katharine Hepburn's career.

In which Katharine Hepburn dons yellow face for the war effort.

Did you celebrate Kate’s birthday on Monday? Early in my Hepburn idolatry, I used to bemoan the fact that I missed sharing her birthday by just two days. This year, however, I was excited. “My birthday is on a Wednesday this year,” I thought gleefully to myself. “I can celebrate both our birthdays with A Year With Kate!” Turns out the joke was on us. Happy Birthday, Kate and Anne Marie. Let’s talk about racism.

When you are a fan of the Studio System Era, you learn to live with certain uncomfortable truths about Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. Films were overtly racist, sexist, and homophobic in ways that thankfully would never be tolerated now. As a modern viewer, how do you make peace with it? The answer, at least for me, has been to acknowledge (though not forgive) the various forms of bigotry that run rampant through these films. However, my attempt at benevolent righteousness stalls when confronted with Katharine Hepburn in all her yellowface shame and glory in Dragon Seed. This is a movie that is not only overtly racist with its cast of white actors in “Oriental” makeup, but--more dangerously--subtly racist in its attitudes towards both the evil Japanese soldiers and the good Chinese farmers. Dragon Seed is proof that good intentions do not make up for terrible bigotry. 

[More after the jump if you dare...]

Dragon Seed was chock full of good intentions. It was intended to be Oscar bait, following the successful adaptation of The Good Earth by Pulitzer Prize-winner Pearl S. Buck, which had netted two Oscars in 1937. It was a war film, rallying Americans to protect their Chinese allies in the Pacific theater. The story was well-intentioned, too: A family of peasant farmers in 1930s China are invaded by the Japanese and fight to regain their freedom. However, when Walter Huston as the patriarch appears to intone his first speech of contraction-less English, it’s clear that these Chinese men (to borrow a line from Mel Brooks) are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. You know... morons.

It’s a painfully familiar stereotype: The Noble Savage, simple and pure. Wearing absurd eye prosthetics and eyeliner, white actors play “Oriental” with big quotation marks around their performances. These aren’t human characters; they’re slant-eyed puppets. Even Kate is guilty. She plays Jade Tan, a character who absurdly straddles the gap between naive Chinese peasant stereotype and strong-willed Katharine Hepburn heroine. Jade wants to own a book! But she doesn’t know what kind of book. She wants to support the war! But she doesn’t understand the war. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that Kate’s eye prosthetics freeze the top half of her face and cover her eyes. The result doesn’t convey “innocent Chinese farmer” so much as “plastic surgery horror story.”

When the Japanese arrive, it’s immediately evident that they are the Brutal Savages, here to destroy the innocence of the simple Chinese farmers. That’s not a metaphor. The first time the Japanese soldiers appear on screen, they are tracking a young mother and her two children. As the soldiers advance, the young mother stands and runs, but not before the Japanese soldiers get an appreciative eyeful. They slowly advance on her, grinning like cartoon devils. The camera pans away as the woman screams. Later, her husband carries her partially exposed body back to the farm; her clothes have been torn to shreds. This may be the closest to explicit rape a 40s Hays Code movie ever got. When we go to war, we have to find a way to demonize the enemy. However, I can’t think of one movie made during WWII where German soldiers gang rape a young girl.

A grinning caricature and some Asian extras for ambiance

Dragon Seed is a travesty not just because it casts white actors, but because it has those actors play “Oriental” characters. Nowadays, we have to contend with fewer cases of yellowface, but the explanations for yellowface during WWII would sound painfully familiar to any minority actors trying to find work today: audiences want to see stars in the lead roles, they can’t play the part convincingly, they’re not quite “right.” In the case of Dragon Seed, Asian actors were too human for the overblown caricatures being portrayed. Though we’ve moved past yellowface for the most part, we still haven’t overcome the more subtle versions racism in media. We should keep watching movies like Dragon Seed, if only because they make us uncomfortable and aware.

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Keeper Of The Flame, and Stage Door Canteen.

Next Week: Without Love (1945) - In which Katharine Hepburn wears a fish bowl on her head for science.

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Reader Comments (27)

Yellow face is just as offensive as black face.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

First of all Happy Birthday Anne Marie! Thanks for all the effort you put into the series, it's one of my favorite things on the Film Experience, even when the film is painful as it is today.

Well as I mentioned yesterday this film was on my mind because I was trying to think of something positive to say about it.

Unfortunately all I could come up with is; What a cast! Too bad they're trapped in this dog of a film! I watched this hoping that Kate would rise above it as Luise Rainer did in The Good Earth. No such luck. Even taking into account the script deficiencies she's terrible. It's tough to see quality performers such as Henry Travers, Walter Huston and two of my favorite character actresses Agnes Moorehead and Aline MacMahon so ill used. But as you say it was all done with good intentions so we'll just mark it off to that, move on and forget this wretched thing exists. Sadly I still think Spitfire is worse.

Thank goodness next week's is a half way decent film

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

3rtful - Agreed.

joel6 - Thank you! I agree, it's a great cast in theory. But what a waste! I cringed whenever Agnes Moorehead appeared. Her character was the worst in terms of racist stereotypes.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Happy Birthday! My birthday is actually ON Hepburn's which is super cool (although, honestly, I wish I had your birthday because that means I would share with Sofia Coppola!) This series is so good and so much fun to read. I think you bring up really interesting points about the rampant racism in old Hollywood. I LOVE old movies, but this aspect of them really bothers me. My family is Polynesian and it was always amazing to me growing up that all these black and white films had Pacific Islanders that didn't look ANYTHING like my relatives! Some of those movies I can still enjoy parts of, unlike this film. I don't think I'll ever watch it again. Just unbelievable offensive. (although I feel like, as you say, they're TRYING to make a sympathetic depiction but I can't decide if that just makes it worse!)

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

Aline MacMahon scored her only Oscar nomination thanks to her motherly role

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

The Japanese did commit some atrocities against the Chinese. Would it also be racist if a Chinese film was made about the war, and showed the Japanese in the same way? Or would this be classed as alright? Just a question really.

I obviously do agree that they could have used asian actors instead of caucasians, such as the brilliant Anna Mae Wong.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobMiles

RobMiles - It's a question I've been thinking about a lot. The problem I have isn't so much that the film villainizes the Japanese (it's a war movie like you said, so it's unfortunately to be expected); it's that it demonizes them in such a specific way. The Japanese characters in the film fall into a racist stereotype about Asian men being lustful, barbaric, and dangerous that had been perpetuated in Hollywood as far back as Broken Blossoms in 1919. (See also: The Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon) I can't remember a WWII film that shows German soldiers gang raping a woman in the way implied in Dragon Seed.

Agreed on Anna Mae Wong! The fact that she was neither in this nor The Good Earth feels uncomfortably like Lena Horne being passed over for the role of Julie in Show Boat because she was black.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

ack. SHOWBOAT. that makes me so crazy. Ava Gardner is so beautiful but if you can't sing the part and you're also the wrong race...

i really was going to watch Dragon Seed to play along this time (out of morbid curiosity) but the sickness took over.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Happy Birthday Cate Blanchett!

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Happy Birthday, Anne Marie!

I love old movies, but both the overt and subtle racism shown by the filmmakers is so hurtful in general and to the enjoyment of the movies. I remember the last time I saw Holiday Inn, and both Fred Astaire, who I admire greatly, and Bing Crosby were in blackface. It really ruined the whole thing for me. It's still shocking to think that even these wonderful artists didn't know this was wrong, even then.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Hannahlily -- If I remember correctly, I think The Mutiny on the Bounty (the one with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton) had actual Polynesians playing the Tahitian characters. But I can't think of many more Old Hollywood films that do.

Brookesboy -- I saw Holiday Inn earlier this year, and I don't think Fred Astaire was ever in blackface. I think it was just Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds. (Though that's certainly bad enough.)

The first time I remember being perplexed about white actors playing Asians was when I saw Dr. No. There were some actual Asians in the film, but I don't think any of them had speaking roles. I am fairly certain that Dr. No himself and Miss Taro were played by white actors. Of course, the James Bond films, particularly the old ones, had plenty to feel uncomfortable about. Didn't Bond practically force himself on a woman at the spa in Thunderball?

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercash

Nathaniel-About Ava Gardner and Show Boat, as you say she was the wrong race but she could sing and did record the songs for the film.

MGM for whatever inexplicable reason decided to dub her which infuriated Ava, a pissed off Ava was apparently something any sane person wanted to avoid, and led to a huge disenchantment with Metro since she felt that she had really pored herself into the role. From that point on her relationship with the studio was very contentious.

Anyway because of legal reasons stemming from her name being on the album cover her interpretations of the songs had to be the ones included on the soundtrack of the film. Is she Judy Garland or Lena Horne? No, but she has a warm, lovely voice that suited the songs well, better than the singer that dubbed her, and her performance of the tragic Julie is beautiful.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

cash--Maybe I'm remembering it wrong, I sure hope so. Thanks for letting me know.

joel--I adore Ava Gardner's performance as Julie. That last closeup of her always rips my heart out. Wasn't the character of Julie supposed to be biracial? It might not be without issue but I guess that's why Ava's casting doesn't bother me that much.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I love old movies, but both the overt and subtle racism shown by the filmmakers is so hurtful in general and to the enjoyment of the movies. I remember the last time I saw Holiday Inn, and both Fred Astaire, who I admire greatly, and Bing Crosby were in blackface. It really ruined the whole thing for me. It's still shocking to think that even these wonderful artists didn't know this was wrong, even then.

They were republicans. I doubt they had much concern for the feelings of non-white classes. From what I've read Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan were huge racists. Specially Brennan being quoted celebratory about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Thanks Cash! I just looked it up (because it's been AGES since I've seen that movie) and although I'm not 100% sure it certainly seems like you are right! My biggest observation, though, are how many actors from that cast are just listed as simply "Able-Bodied Seaman" which I find much more amusing than I should (it's such a specific and descriptive term. Why not just "seaman" or "sailor"?) Still, I've seen plenty of people like Gene Tierney and Dorothy Lamour and even Esther Williams as Polynesians!

I've always really liked Ava Gardner in Show Boat. Would have loved to see what Lena Horne could have done with the role, and Gardner was DEFINITELY not the perfect choice, but I was certainly moved by her performance (and, yes, that last scene!) I have an old CD somewhere that has her versions of the songs from the movie and I agree that she does a better job than the lady who dubbed her. Her voice is more earthy and emotional, although less polished. The racial ramifications of her casting are troubling, though.

And the blackface is why I don't watch Holiday Inn anymore. It would be practically a perfect film for me without that scene, but it's fluffy and I want my fluffy movies to make me happy and not uncomfortable.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

I agree with the story about Ava Gardner. I've seen snippets of her singing in her real voice for Showboat and she sounded great. At least as good as, say, Nicole Kidman (yes I went there). I'm pretty sure that Metro must have dubbed her on purpose just to "punish" her. The studio heads were a bunch of control freaks in those days.

But I swear I've seen Lena Horne in Showboat. Was there an earlier version? I remember it being in black and white. With Irene Dunne maybe? Can that even be right or did I dream it or something? As much as I love Lena Horne, I'm pretty sure they would not have cast her for boxoffice reasons, namely that if you couldn't easily cut her out of the movie, then it wouldn't play in the South. Awful, but I'm pretty sure it's one of the main reasons. It's always about money in Hollywood, or at least mostly. :-)

Okay, now getting back to Dragon Seed. I have never been able to get through this, and no, it's not because of the racism and "oriental" drag, it's just because it was so painfully boring. Anne Marie mentioned the bad makeup but I also have to say the wigs look a bit terrifying. In that snippet of Kate burning up the place, that almost looks like real hair, but surely they didn't dye Kate's red hair black and put it up in that bizarre Andrews Sisters style? And Kate using her usual uppercrusty faux British voice is just too ridiculous.

And yet, why doesn't Luise Rainer as O-Lan offend as much? I guess because it's a much better movie and a much better performance. And also a few years earlier. But I think it's mostly because Luise Rainer didn't really have a fixed star look and personality. She was kind of a blank slate. Heck, I bet half the people watching her really did think she was Chinese. I know my relatives in Utah at the time would have been fooled because they probably had never seen any "real" Asian people in Box Elder County Utah. :-)

God, I hate this movie. The main reason being having to see Kate the Great doing this. This one and My Geisha with Shirley MacLaine, are two big WTF were they thinking.

Maybe now yellow and black face are red lines than can't be crossed, but Hollywood is still embarrasingly racist.

(Congrats for this series, it's so much fun to read).

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

I saw the end of this on TCM a few weeks ago and thought it was a very effective piece of cinematic propaganda- of course now the cast seems more ridiculous than racist- but you are right some of these classic films do have some cringe worthy moment- just look at Mickey and Judy in black face. But I think it's important to see old films in the context of the time they were made.

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

This is what I love about TFE: We start out talking Katharine Hepburn and we end up on Ava Gardner and Lena Horne. :)

Dave, the clip of Lena Horne you're thinking of comes from Till The Clouds Roll By, a Jerome Kern bio-musical. She performs "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and it damn near breaks your heart. I have nothing against Ava Gardner's performance, but Lena Horne sounds achingly beautiful when she sings Julie's part. (Rumor is Ava Gardner trained by singing to recordings of Lena Horne.)

You can find Horne's performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omb2kItC-JY

May 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Happy birthday, Anne Marie!

Great writeup as always. But even the presence of the great and forever undervalued Aline MacMahon can't quite tempt me to watch this movie.

Though I must confess teenage me totally ate up Luise Rainer and The Good Earth. (Paul Muni, not so much.)

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

The 1940s really were the decade of offensive ethnic casting: Take Gale Sondergaard in Anna and the King of Siam, or, the worst example in my opinion, Flora Robson in Saratoga Trunk. And all of them got Oscar-nominated...

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

Hepburn in yellow face is her most awful face ever

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

goran-I think the reason Luise Rainer as O-Lan is more effective than all the others is because she really seemed to understand her character and was able to interpret her in a way that was relatable and came through on screen. Most of the others who attempted these characters let the makeup, stock gestures and expressions do most of the acting for them. They might not have thought so at the time but it's how it reads now.

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Paging Gale Sondergaard.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I agree with your assessment of this film and others made during the Golden Age that were desperately offensive to minorities, women and gays. But there is one film about the Nazi invasion of Norway, The Edge of Darkness (1943), with Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, where it is implied that Sheridan's character is raped by Nazi soldiers. Not as explicit as the rapes in Dragon Seed, however.

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterOldMovieLvr

Re the Show Boat comments. The audience is not not supposed to know that Julie is anything but white, until it is revealed as a surprise during the show. The characters in the show, as well as the audience, are supposed to take it for granted that she is white. Therefore it made sense to have her played by a white woman. She has been played by black singers more recently, but then everyone knows the plot by now. I don't believe it would have made a lot of sense for Lena Horne to have played Julie in the film, unless it was believable that Lena could easily pass for white and that people in the story (not to mention the film audience) would be utterly shocked to discover she was black. Remember, besides, that this story takes place in the South, in the 1800's. And no one would even wonder about a woman who looks like Lena being black? Finally, I think Julie is supposed to have "some Negro blood" as they say in the script, i. e., she's mostly white.

Other than that, it's a little bit stupid to complain about any production of Show Boat since this show did a great deal to point out the stupidity of racism, and was ground breaking in that way, back in the 1920s when it was first presented. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics, later went on to write South Pacific and a little song called "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" which some of you may have heard of.

As for Dragon Seed, I have to agree the Japanese soldiers were depicted as grinning caricatures, and yes, this was unnecessary (and ineffective, dramatically, as well) - though the fact that, in real life, they went after Chinese peasants and raped and murdered them, is highly accurate.. The Japanese invasion of China was nothing but horrific atrocities. When things like this happen today, people fully understand the horror. But, somehow, since it's in the past, they don't seem to have much sympathy for the victims and, oddly, feel bad that the perpetrators of these horrors aren't depicted with fairness. I have to shake my head at that.

"The problem I have isn't so much that the film villainizes the Japanese (it's a war movie like you said, so it's unfortunately to be expected); it's that it demonizes them in such a specific way. The Japanese characters in the film fall into a racist stereotype about Asian men being lustful, barbaric, and dangerous that had been perpetuated in Hollywood as far back as Broken Blossoms in 1919."

It's "unfortunately" to be expected that a war movie "villainizes" the Japanese? Please, please read some history before you make embarrassing statements like this. Or at least read the book, Dragon Seed, for starters.

The Japanese characters in the film are all Japanese soldiers, who, under orders from their government, and on their own, were absolutely evil to Chinese civilians in the late 1930s, the time period of the film.

Finally, I'm not sure that white actors appearing in "yellowface" for the purpose of commemorating the heroism of the people in question is "racist." It was the custom, then (partly because there were few Asian actors available to play complex leads in Hollywood - and no, Anna May Wong was not right for every part of every Asian woman in every film). It would not be the custom today, but times change. Gone With The Wind has been done onstage in Japan, and was quite a big hit there - with an all-Asian cast. Why didn't they cast Caucasians? Were they racists? If a white American were to attend that play, would the person be horrified at Asians in "whiteface"? Or would they accept it? So why can't the opposite be accepted?

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDon Smith

The Japanese army was horrible and committed many many rapes in 1930s China. In Dragon Seed the old woman and the wife of number two son are brutally raped. No visuals, just off-camera screaming. But if that does not make you want to kill Japanese soldiers nothing will.

We were in a fight to the death with an evil, fascist regime in 1944. This movie showed the tip of the iceberg of what the japanese did. They still won't admit it to this day.

Yes, it is embarrassing that caucasians played the Asian people. But that was the style of movies then. The dialog was corny and much of the acting was wooden. But those rape scenes captured the atrocities in a way that needed to be told to movie audiences.

Our sacrifices on Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Okinawa were not in vain. We stopped the evil ones and the Imperial Japanese Army raped and killed no more after September 1945. Thanks dad.

January 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

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