The following clip is from On With the Show (万紫千红, also known as Myriad of Colors), a Chinese film made in Shanghai in 1943 during the period of total Japanese occupation. I talk a lot about lost films on this blog, but it is no exaggeration to say that On With the Show comes from the darkest of Chinese cinema's "lost continents". Those film workers who chose to remain and continue making movies in Shanghai during the occupation era (1941-45) were accused of treason by both the Communists and the Nationalists. Such was the shame and fear of retribution that many of them would never admit — even many years later — of ever taking part. I don't have the time right now to elaborate further, but for those who are interested, let me recommend Poshek Fu's Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas, a meticulously researched study that rescues this fascinating period from historical amnesia.
And now, On With the Show. This Hollywood-style musical was directed by Fang Peilin, who rose to fame with the box-office hit Girl in Disguise (1936), a cross-dressing gender-bender that spawned three sequels and can rightly be considered the spiritual ancestor of Hong Kong's He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994). And the leading lady of On With the Show is none other than the magnificent Li Lihua — only 19 years old at the time but already one of Shanghai's top stars.
As an extra treat, I've also transcribed a contemporaneous — and deliciously wry — review of the film written in English by renowned Chinese writer Eileen Chang for The XXth Century, a monthly journal published by the cosmopolitan Klaus Mehnert (and financed by the German Foreign Office) from 1941 to 1945.
Without further ado, here is Li Lihua performing "The Cake Song" with the Takarazuka dancers...
ON THE SCREEN
On With the Show. In the leading parts: Li Li-hwa, Yen Djuen, and Wang Tan-feng.
Much of the box-office appeal of On With the Show depends on its promises of sophisticated sensuality; yet the film is curiously naïve. Li Li-hwa (her photograph appeared in Vol. IV, p. 141, of this magazine) takes the part of a beautiful and oratorical waitress in a restaurant picturesquely old-fashioned in the European style. Making her first appearance on a cart loaded with hay and farm produce, Li Li-hwa sings and recklessly throws apples to street children. With her songs, her charms, and the aid of the Takarazuka dancers, she finally raises enough funds to found an orphanage.
Justifying the entertainment by the worthy cause of charity is one of those usual attempts to assuage the demand for an immediate purpose in art. However, On With the Show fails to please everybody all round. Mosquito papers, by far the most favored reading matter among certain urban sets, have contributors who suspect that they do not like On With the Show because of its moralizing. They cannot help complaining that Li Li-hwa shows her famous legs only once, and then half buried in furs.
In Chinese eyes, the Takarazuka dances are expressive only of the splendor of youth, health and intelligent discipline. To the average Chinese, the fascination of ballet lies chiefly in its difficulty. They also find the traditional Japanese dances hard to understand on the screen without the help of the symphonic colors of costumes and background. But on the other hand the audience laughs heartily at the practical jokes the hero and heroine play on each other — Li Li-hwa fries some bad eggs for her admirer and he sends her an empty cup of ice cream. Also well received are the Chinese Laurel and Hardy who mess about in the restaurant kitchen. On With the Show is a success with the public in spite of its banal situations, its structural weakness, and its apparent clashing of adult and infantile interests. The last-mentioned shortcoming may be disregarded, because modern Chinese of all ages are like children in their fondness for birthday cakes, with or without dancers swirling around one as in the charity performance in On With the Show. The whole picture is modeled on the Hollywood series of Gold Diggers and The Big Broadcast and is meant to "feed the eyes with ice cream and seat the heart in a sofa" [NOTE] — to quote the phrase a Chinese critic once applied to these American extravaganzas.
— Eileen Chang, from The XXth Century, Vol. V, No. 4 (October 1943). Original scan available here.
The Eileen Chang review is courtesy of the Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa, which has generously scanned and made available on their website PDFs of the entire run of The XXth Century. Fans of Eileen Chang will want to root around the site for her other English-language essays and film reviews. A great big thanks to the Hamilton Library! Open access = cultural preservation.