Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sam Fuller, Nat Cole, and China Gate

By Chet Williamson

To say that Worcester-born filmmaker Sam Fuller was a maverick director in the world of cinema is just stating the obvious. He was a pistol, or more like, a revolver. To give you a taste of his style, in his autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, check out Fuller’s advice to others: “Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them. Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story. Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent."

Indifferent, he was not. Fuller was an in-your-face filmmaker whose work you either chew-up and savored, or spit out and kept walking. One of the more controversial films in his oeuvre – and there were many – is China Gate, a difficult piece, concerning a difficult subject, in a difficult time and world.

The subject: A dark tale set in the Far East. Fuller, a grunt-dog during WWII, is a little heavy-handed with anti-Communist sentiment politically, but he pulls no punches.

Here’s his take: “There were enough hot topics used in this adventure love story to push everybody's buttons. Communism and colonialism. Racism and tolerance. Black market in capitalism. Abandonment and infidelity.

The yarn was set in Indochina in 1954, before it became Vietnam. Ruled by the French as one of the other colonies, the country is under siege by the Communist supported revolutionaries, led by Ho Chi Minh. Russia and China are pumping in supplies and ammunition. Angie Dickinson plays Lea, nicknamed “Lucky Legs, a half-caste resorts to smuggling to feed her five-year-old son. Since she's part Chinese and knows her way through the jungle, she accepts the assignment of leading a bomb squad a French legionnaires behind enemy lines to destroy the Communists’ main munitions dump. The French, however, must first promise Lea that they’ll arrange for her boy's evacuation to America.”

The film has both delighted and confounded critics since its release in 1957. Here’s celebrated critic Dave Kehr’s thoughts on China Gate: As a director Samuel Fuller placed his political convictions front and center in his films, and yet his work is also fraught — or rather, animated — by contradictions and moral paradoxes …. Surely one of the earliest Hollywood films to concern itself with the war in Indochina, this preview of coming attractions for America’s involvement in Vietnam is centered on a typically conflicted Fuller hero: Gene Barry as a Korean War veteran named Brock, who has turned mercenary to join the French forces fighting the Viet Minh. He volunteers for a mission, led by a French Foreign Legion officer, to destroy Soviet-stocked ammunition dumps on the border of Mao’s China. The dangerous, upstream expedition is further complicated by the fact that the unit’s guide will be a Eurasian bar girl known far and wide as Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson, in an early leading role). Lucky Legs happens to be Brock’s estranged wife and the mother of his young son — a child Brock rejected at birth because of his Asian features.”

Cole in character
For the purpose of this venue, let’s set aside the topic of politics and focus on jazz and Worcester. In a stroke of luck or maybe genius, Fuller cast Nat Cole in the role of Goldie, one of the film’s soldiers of fortune.

Kehr comments: Passionately, urgently anti-racist — the supporting cast includes the singer Nat “King” Cole as a black soldier at a time when African-Americans were still more likely to be portrayed in combat films as cooks or truck drivers — the film features Caucasian actors in its two most prominent Asian roles. Appearing with Ms. Dickinson is Lee Van Cleef as a cruel and cynical Viet Minh officer, who offers to take Lucky Legs with him if his appointment to a Moscow military school comes through.

Before getting deeper into the casting of Cole, here’s a quick bio-snapshot in Fuller’s own words: “I was born Samuel Michael Fuller on August 12, 1912, in Worcester Mass, the son of Rebecca Baum from Poland and Benjamin Rabinovitch from Russia. My parents had already changed the surname from Rabinovitch to a more American-sounding Fuller, probably inspired by Dr. Benjamin Fuller who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 ….

Young Sam

In Worcester, we lived in a small house on [5] Mott Street, near Holy Cross Church. One of my earliest memories was of those church bells at Holy Cross. I was laid up in bed with a bad cold in a high fever. The bells started ringing like crazy. I heard loud voices in the street. Through my bedroom window, I could see it was snowing outside. I got up and opened the window to listen to the exuberant tolling. It was November 11th. People down in the street was shouting that the Great War was over … .”

Fuller also lived at 83 Penn Avenue and 21 Waverly Street in Worcester and went to Ledge Street School, which was located off Water Street before being leveled to make way for the 290 expressway. He was one of seven children and he and his brother Ving, were amateur cartoonists and voracious readers of the local papers, especially the Worcester Telegram and Worcester Evening Post. Both papers ran comic strips daily.

Paperboys hawking their wares in downtown Worcester

Like my brother Ving,” Fuller recalled, “I had a knack for drawing when I was a kid. Then he was always more skilled but I love creating my own silly cartoons. That's how I fell in love with newspapers.”

As a child, Fuller earned extra money hawking those same local tabs on downtown-Worcester street corners. Very often people would grab a paper and throw a quarter at me, telling me to keep the change. How I looked forward to Sunday mornings on the street corner in Worcester. I’d take all of my earnings home and give it to my mother. She was so proud of me.”

Fuller also recalled having fond memories of the Hotel Bancroft on Franklin Street. Telegram staff reporter, Jack Tubert reported that in his day, “the hotel would invite all the newsboys into the lobby at Christmastime for a party. High point of the fun, Fuller recalled, was ‘when they’d release a live rabbit for the newsboys to catch. One year I caught it …. That was the thrill of a lifetime.”

Fuller was only 11 when he his father died. His mother packed up the family and moved to New York City and the rest is well-documented history. It should be noted that before heading to Hollywood, Fuller began working in the world of newspapers. While still a teenager he was hired at the Graphic, becoming one of the youngest crime reporters in the City, introducing the cub to the nightmarish-noir-underworld and, as the cliché states, its “naked-streets.” Fuller said, the gig also taught him how to “write without adjectives.”


Now, back to China Gate. The casting of Cole was not a conscious decision. It was more like an improbable twist of fate. Fuller says, “When I think of China Gate, I always think of the Goldie character. I'd given Goldie a soldiering background very much like my own. Zanuck liked the role, too, and asked me about who I had in mind to play the part. I said I wanted a man's man, but a guy with a warm, tender-looking face. I picked up an album on top of a pile next to Darrell's record player. If my soldier was black, he’d look just like the guy on the album cover, Nat King Cole.”

The incredulous [Darrell] Zanuck just laughed and said, “Sammy, Cole's a big star. We paid him seventy-five grand just to sing a title song. He's the most popular singer in the country. Do you have any idea how much he'd ask for appearing in your picture?”

Fuller said, “I shook my head. Immersed in my scripts, I was often naive about financial considerations and popular trends. The cigar in my mouth almost dropped when Darrell said, ‘Cole probably makes in a couple of weeks the entire budget for your film.’”

Fuller was undeterred, determined to enlisted Cole for the part. “I was infatuated with that face on the album cover, so I persisted,” he said. “A dinner was arranged so that I could meet Nat and his exquisite wife, Maria. They were both moved by my story for China Gate. I told Nat point-blank that I didn't write the part for the black actor. I needed Goldie to be diametrically opposite to Brock, the bigot who rejects his own child because of the little boys slanted eyes. Nat agreed to do the picture right away and asked for a minimum fee for his appearance.”

As Fuller said, when he thinks of China Gate, he thinks of Goldie. He wrote and directed the film, so he was obviously close to it. Maybe, too much so.

At the tail end of the decade, my mother passed away,” Fuller says. “Martha [his wife] had told me she couldn't have children, so I put the idea out of my mind. But, did I? I thought of my scripts as my children, pondering over them like an anxious father. Not having a kid of my own must have weighed on me. Buried with my other frustrations, it probably doomed my marriage to Martha. In one of the crucial scenes in China Gate, I wrote a speech for Goldie, letting my anxiety rise to the surface.

Here is the speech: “I always wanted a kid, Brock. My wife was told we couldn't have one. We put in papers to adopt one when my wife got sick. Eaten up inside, not being able to have one. Just eaten up. I watched her go down 75 pounds. She died feeling sorry for me. That's how much she knew I wanted a kid. When I learned you walked on yours … Let me tell you something, Brock. I've belted through two wars and I'm coming out of this one. You know why? Cause I've got a reason. I'll get my release when they know why I want out. I'll tell you one thing. Lucky Legs is going through hell for your son. And if something happens to her on this job, he’ll still get to the States, even if I have to crawl always with him on my back. (Reflecting) I've always wanted a son, Brock. Especially a five-year-old one.”

Cole and Barry 

As you would imagine, having Cole in a film, he would sing. Fuller says that was never his intention. “Cole wasn't supposed to sing on screen or off,” he said. “But young Victor Young had written the title tuned for the picture before his untimely death. When I played Victor’s music for Nat, he said he'd love to sing it to Lea's little boy on camera. I wasn't crazy about the idea at first. But after Harold Adamson wrote some lyrics and I heard that velvet voice croon the song, I couldn't resist.”

Victor Young

Cole’s first scene in the film opens with him cleaning his gun, sitting next to the child. As the camera pans down into his face, he sings these lyrics:

China Gate
China Gate
Many dreams and many hearts,
You separate.

Like two arms,
Open wide,
Some you welcome in,
And some must stay outside.

Bowl of rice
Bitter tea,
Is this all the good earth
has to offer me?

Will I find
peace of mind?
Does my true love wait
Behind the China Gate?

In describing the shot Fuller says, “We followed Nat with a camera on a boom crane high above the set as he walked in singing through the bombed-out village. I wanted his voice to seem like a nightingale flying safely above all the destruction.”

Fuller says, believe it or not, he actually suggested to Cole that he sing the song poorly. “After all,” he notes, “his character is a soldier of fortune who probably sings off key in the shower.”

Sammy, I can’t sing badly!” Nat told Fuller. “What would my fans say? And what would people in the profession think if I sang off key?”

He was right, of course,” Fuller added. “After we'd finished the picture, Nat invited Martha and me over to his place for dinner … . Nat King Cole brought out the loving child in everybody. I certainly fell in love with the guy. Nat’s gone now, but I'm still in love with him. People are never gone as long as they are loved. With its highly stylized characters, China Gate may seem like a cartoon today. However, the picture didn't shy away from the conflict of ideologies that was struggling for future power. Nor did it waver in condemning racism.”

Ultimately, beyond the setting of the madness of war, at the heart of China Gate, is the issue racism and the American psyche.

My tale is full of human foible and confusion,” Fuller said. “I deliberately wanted that confusion …. I want a picture to make a plea for understanding intolerance, the keys to coexistence between couples, between peoples, between nations. I pray that democracy is not like the bubbles that Nat and I blew in the air in the 50's, dreams that fade and died. It's up to the people of this tiny planet Earth just to think in more humane, more global terms if our children are to have a future with no more goddamn wars.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also Thank you.


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