“City Scenes” and Musical Comedy in ’30s Shanghai: Thin slate

It is perhaps not surprising that the film musical (“musical comedy”) is an orphaned genre in China’s pre-Revolutionary cinematic output. Mainland film historians even in these post-ideological times, when re-delving for “firsts” of any stripe is in vogue, seem to agree on but one example of a film conceived and through-executed with this Hollywood template in mind, which is the hard-to-decipher City Scenes (dushi fengguang), a (maverick) Diantong Studios production first shown on Oct. 8, 1935, at the 金城大戏院.

Yet, given the centrality of “Shanghai Chinese” mores as a subject for film-making in general, and the narcissistic curiosity of first-run cinema-goers to see how others saw them, the avoidance of light-hearted romantic comedy as a PR topos is a bit surprising. Socio-economic hypertropy and the (never resolved) disjunction between (white) foreign vs Chinese nouveaux riches in matters social and cultural offered an obvious subject for literary spoofing, as was eventually to manifest in Fortress Besieged (Weicheng, 1947). Then too the slapstick stock-comic pair or menage demonstrated popularity even before sound made their repartee “audible”, and by 1937 the Wang Laowu series starring 王次龙(1907—1941)provided proof that the serio-comic “routine” had a profitable place in Chinese “talkies” too. Even the animated cartoon had established itself as a money-making sideshow in the hands of the Wan brothers, whose work is actually displayed as an internal (pre) commentary on the film’s plot.

Director Yuan Muzhi himself needs scrutiny on this matter, since City Scenes was his conception. There is much to suggest that he was of two minds about the venture into farce, even as the script was being written, then rewritten.
For one thing, the chaotic narrative of Shanghai nightlife advertisements that kicks off the “dark” Malu tianshi is already visible in the opening minutes of City Scenes. Given that Malu Tianshi was conceived as an urban noir drama with a dark ending, the reusability of the opening sequence from the supposedly comic “City Scenes” suggests that both films have a common pursuit: the use of slapstick silliness or ridicule to deepen a tale of moral decay and despair. The fascination with an advertisement driven urban consumer economy and with the gap between trademark logo on the one hand and experienced commodity reality on the other indeed haunts both films, and sets up an appearance/reality dialogue that remains as it were onstage throughout both movies.

Moreover, the influence of Hollywood comedy, while certainly noticeable, has little or nothing to do with the American “musical comedy” of the mid-thirties, which was still dominated by the dance-show/fashion show “spectacular” pioneered offscreen by Siegfeld and then re-created onscreen by Warner Brothers in its 42nd Street “series” (Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and “Fashions of 1934”) and MGM in its rival Broadway Melody series. In which “comedy” figured as a backstage courtship narrative filled with misunderstandings and mesalliances nevertheless somehow resolved into a “happy ending” as the show finally gets produced. (The formula which in turn was ridiculed in Singing in the Rain).

Rather, it is slapstick goofery that provides the comic edge.

Onto which is grafted a layer of social satire much more cutting and ominous than anything to be found in pre-WWII Hollywood. About the only place in the film where social satire is in fact cleverly amusing is in short Mickey-Mouse derivative cartoon (19:10-20:30) which presents the storyline’s improbably (un) matches lovers to themselves as they sit awaiting an unnamed by surely foreign feature film.

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