UW News

December 23, 2014

Foreign power demands apology for insulting film — in 1930, that is

UW News

"Welcome Danger," the 1929 film starring Harold Lloyd, sparked a severe reaction from the Chinese American community and from China's government.

“Welcome Danger,” the 1929 film starring Harold Lloyd, sparked a severe reaction from the Chinese American community and from China’s government.

Cancel all screenings of that insulting movie you made, then burn all the prints, and formally apologize — and don’t do it again.

Demands from North Korea, perhaps, about Sony Pictures’ controversial James Franco-Seth Rogen film “The Interview”?

No, that’s off by about 85 years. It was the Chinese Nationalist government’s reaction to a film called “Welcome Danger” featuring the famously bespectacled silent screen star Harold Lloyd, released in 1929.

The scene is from “Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space,” a 2014 book co-edited by Jennifer Bean, UW associate professor of comparative literature and head of the Cinema and Media Studies Program. The chapter, titled “The Crisscrossed Stare,” was written by Yiman Wang of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In “Welcome Danger,” Lloyd’s first talkie, Wang wrote, the protagonist “experiences a series of dangerous encounters with a menagerie of exotic and shady Chinese characters who stereotypically wear queues and traffic in opium.” Lloyd prevails over the “treacherous” Chinese in this romantic comedy, which did good business in the United States and Europe.

In China, however, the film sparked a protest “that quickly snowballed into a campaign against ‘China-humiliating’ films” after Hong Shen, a U.S.-trained dramatist, rose during a Feb. 22, 1930, screening at Shanghai’s Grand Theater to strenuously object. Shen said the film offended Chinese dignity and urged audience members to demand their money back.

Shen was detained for hours by the Shanghai police, who told him the film was just a farce that shouldn’t be taken seriously. He replied, “You Westerners may find it funny. How can we Chinese, in sympathy with the overseas Chinese, possibly enjoy your humor?”

"Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space," edited by the UW's Jennifer Bean, with Anupama Kapse and Laura Horak.

“Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space,” edited by the UW’s Jennifer Bean, with Anupama Kapse and Laura Horak.Indiana University Press

The government’s Film Censorship Committee in Shanghai ordered newspaper advertising for the film to cease and the two theaters that showed the movie to “apologize to the public, discontinue and burn the film prints,” submit subsequent films for censorship “and, finally, stop showing any Lloyd films in the future,” Wang wrote. The protest continued until both Shanghai theaters apologized and agreed to the censorship terms.

The Nationalist government’s propaganda wing contacted the Chinese consul in the U.S., demanding a personal apology from Lloyd as well, but he at first resisted.

“Why, all countries have bad men, but that doesn’t mean a whole race is bad,” Lloyd said. “We’ve shown bad Americans, too, but think pretty well of our countrymen as a lot. If we start apologizing, who’ll we have left to poke fun at?”

Wang wrote that Lloyd finally did offer “sincere apologies,” however, and “reassured Chinese authorities of his admiration for the Chinese people, civilization and culture.”

The ban was lifted, and Lloyd’s films soon returned to Chinese screens — except “Welcome Danger,” which was never again shown in China.