[This is a translation. The original source: Zhang Wei 张伟 "Fan-peng-ke he Yuegong Baohe de fengbo" 范朋克和月宫宝盒的风波 (Fairbanks and the 'Palace Treasure Chest' Uproar). Dazhong Dianying (Popular Cinema) no.12 (2004):43]
Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) was one of America's most prominent figures of the silent film era, and served as host of the first Oscar Awards presentation. Fairbanks made nearly 100 films during his lifetime, of which "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Three Musketeers" (1921), "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), "The Black Pirate" (1926) and "The Iron Mask" (1929) are representative. His image in his films was always that of a righteous hero brimming with youthful spirit and vitality, an image that made audiences deeply fond of him, and spread his influence throughout the world. In his Histoire Générale du Cinéma, Georges Sadoul wrote of Fairbanks that "he conquered audiences with his mastery of various athletic skills and his constant smile and optimism. To audiences, he was symbolic of a young America marching forward. He was no ordinary actor: audiences saw that same vitality in all the various characters he portrayed".
Normally, a world-class star of this magnitude at the peak of his popularity would visit China and be warmly welcomed there, but the situation was actually not that simple. One day in December, 1929, a wireless message went out from a passenger ship at sea, with a query indicating some concern on the part of the sender: "We hear that some people object to our films as insulting to Chinese, making it detrimental for us to stop over in Shanghai. Please advise." The senders were two world-famous American film stars on a round-the-world tour: Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford.
The recipient was the United Artists film company's Shanghai representative. We do not know the text of the representative's response, but in the end the Fairbanks couple put their apprehensions to rest, and docked in Shanghai on December 9, 1929. Actually, before embarking on their world tour the couple had already planned to visit this exotic Asian metropolis that lured so many people. What they didn't anticipate, however, was that when this information was revealed in the news media it would touch off a fierce controversy in Shanghai. The focus of the controversy was "The Thief of Bagdad," a 1924 starring vehicle for Fairbanks, and a film that many Chinese people felt reflected unfavorably on them.
"The Thief of Bagdad" was released in China under the title "Yuegong Baohe" 月宫宝盒 (The Palace Treasure Chest). In its story, a thief sneaks into the Caliph of Bagdad's palace intent on stealing the treasures supplied as tribute by other nations, but when he sees the Caliph's daughter, the princess, he is so overcome by her beauty that he leaves, taking with him one of her embroidered shoes. The thief disguises himself as a prince in order to seek the princess's hand in marriage, and her love so transforms him that he sets out on a quest for a treasure which will win her. His quest takes him to many dangerous places, including a valley of fire, battle with fierce animals, and into a crystal palace, at last finding the treasure and returning to gain love and wealth. Obviously, this was a totally fanciful and romantic movie. When it was publicly exhibited in Japan in 1925, one critic rated it as "number one among excellent and entertaining movies." China imported the film in 1926, retitling it "The Palace Treasure Chest" and first exhibiting it at the Shanghai Theater, with the same reaction. On March 10, 1927, it opened at the newly-constructed Peking Theater in Shanghai. The advance publicity went all out, with playbills proclaiming in large characters that the film had "a cast of more than 10,000, huge creatures as towering as buildings, a smoke-spewing dragon, a horse which flies above the clouds [and] carries a man through thick fog." The movie played for two weeks, and was considered a big success. But soon, some in the media began to raise objections, feeling there were scenes in the movie which were insulting to the Chinese people. When Fairbanks and Pickford visited China in 1929, the issue came up again, touching off quite a controversy. The Shanghai film colony divided into two camps, those opposed to the visit and those welcoming it, while the press seemed to be about evenly split as well. The reemergence of the dispute created a dilemma for Fairbanks and Pickford while they were already at sea, leaving them no alternative but to send the wireless message mentioned above.
Really, if we closely reexamine the foreign films of that time, it is easy to find pigtail-wearing, mandarin jacketed Chinese, especially in crime scenes or scenes set among the lower levels of society. There are profound historical reasons for this, and naturally these really are gut issues the Chinese people find it difficult to tolerate. But there is another aspect to the issue: how do we correct the prejudices of others in a positive manner? Lu Xun's approach is worthy of our consideration. He said, "Do our own critical analysis of these things, recognizing that some points are true, and change our image through our own hard work without seeking the forgiveness or praise of others to prove what the Chinese people are really like." It was precisely this thinking that inspired Shanghai to open wide the door for Fairbanks in February, 1931, when he made his second visit to the city. This time, he was warmly welcomed and lavishly entertained by prominent Chinese from all segments of the community, treatment which touched and disturbed him at the same time.
Fairbanks's second visit to China gave him a deeper understanding of the country, as well as guilty feelings about those parts of his earlier films which were hurtful to the Chinese people. At the conclusion of his first China visit, Fairbanks emotionally told a Chinese friend that, "Besides exceeding my expectations, the impression I have drawn from my China visit is that upon my return I must do all I can to relate what I have learned to others who have not visited the Orient, and clear up their misconceptions!" During his second visit, Fairbanks was greeted very warmly by Mei Lanfang, and told him very sincerely, "Mr. Mei, although I have visited China before, I really did not know much about it. This time, I have a deeper understanding. There were some things in my past movies that were disrespectful to the people of your great country. I am just an actor, but one who has at times been a writer and a director, and I cannot avoid my responsibility in this. I hope through your connections you can convey my apologies to the Chinese people."
Douglas Fairbanks basically retired from the screen after sound came in, and died of a heart attack on December 12, 1939. In the history of Sino-American cultural exchange, Fairbanks wrote a page packed with significance, and from this gained the respect of the Chinese people and a permanent place in their hearts. In their later years, Mei Lanfang and Hu Die both wrote warm tributes to Fairbanks in their memoirs, recalling their deep affection for the American star, and their appreciation at having had him as a friend.
Editor's note: This identical title was given to "Cabin
in the Sky" (1943), when it was released in China after World War II. At that time, "Thief" was retitled
"Bageda Qiezei" 巴格达窃贼, a direct translation of
the original English.
Douglas Fairbanks with personnel of the Mingxing (Star) Film Studio, China's largest, during his first visit in 1929. Mary Pickford accompanied him on the visit, but is not in the photo. Mingxing's leading figures are in the first row: Hu Die, the studio's top actress, is to Fairbank's immediate right, with writer-director Zheng Zhengqiu to his immediate left. First generation director Zhang Shichuan is to Hu Die's right, leaning on the pillar. (Click on picture for larger image.)