Before we leave the first, experimental phase of Chinese film-making, we should take note of what Chinese-made movies dominated domestic screens in those early years. China's fledgling movie industry began making feature-length films in the early 1920s; until then, the dominant genre on Chinese screens was the comedy short, patterned on the popular comedies imported from America, and like the imports, having slapstick situations as a major component. We have already discussed one of the these early comedic shorts, "A Laborer's Love," the oldest surviving Chinese film. But there are others from that era for which we have enough information to sense what they might have been like. One notable early production from the Mingxing studio was this one:
Huaji Dawang You Hu Ji 滑稽大王游沪记 (The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai)
aka: Huaji Dawang You Hua Ji 滑稽大王游华记 (The King of Comedy Visits China)
[Note: names marked with an asterisk are foreign names for which we have only the Chinese transliteration, but not the actual name]
Mingxing. B&W. Silent. 3 reels. Premiered October 5, 1922 at the Embassy. Direction: Zhang Shichuan. Screenplay: Zheng Zhengqiu. Cinematography: Guodaya* (UK). Cast: Richard Bell (the King of Comedy), Zheng Gong (the gentleman), Yu Yuan (his daughter), Zheng Zhegu (the Mingxing studio head), Li Meixian (the accountant), Ruan Rujia (the photographer), Zhou Changbiao (the gymnastics instructor), Zhou Le (the exercise partner), Helen Haifei* (a woman friend), Taolu Taowei* (a woman friend), Zhao Hongying (a servant), Gu Zhensheng (a servant), Gu Lianfang (a servant), Zhang Weitao (the director), Yan Zhongying (the actor playing a young shepherd), Zhou Yuanyuan (the actress), Dong Keyi (a servant).
When the head of the Mingxing film studio reads a newspaper item that the American film star known as "The King of Comedy" will arrive in Shanghai on a sight-seeing visit, he decides to hire a deluxe automobile to meet the ship at the dock and escort the great comic around the city. On the day, however, he arrives to find that every Shanghai studio head is there with the same idea. When the King disembarks, the studio heads line up to welcome him and invite him to their studio. The King of Comedy makes a blindfolded choice, and by chance chooses the Mingxing car, delighting that studio's head. When they arrive at the studio, he visits the set of a film shooting, and meets 11 of the actors there. The next stop is the company's film school where the King watches the students practicing gymnastics and enthusiastically joins them in a comic routine. The visitor asks to visit the countryside, but when the auto breaks down on route, he proceeds on foot, and enters a rural village, where his antics result in angry altercations with local peasants. He seeks refuge in the home of a wealthy country squire. The squire accepts him as an overnight guest and hosts a huge banquet in his honor, at which the King of Comedy keeps everyone present in stitches. Meanwhile, concern over the King's whereabouts and safety has spread throughout Shanghai, and the Mingxing company places a newspaper ad soliciting the public's help in finding him, offering a substantial reward for useful information. A man who wants the reward makes himself up to resemble the King of Comedy, but when he shows up to claim it, the squire also arrives with the King himself in tow. Confusion erupts over which is real and which the imposter, and during the argument the King seizes the opportunity to return to the ship and embark for home in the company of two ladies who had arrived on the ship with him.
While the title character was never named as such, it was obvious "the King of Comedy" was Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was enormously popular in China, and respect and admiration for his comic genius exists there to this day. Chaplin was portrayed by Richard Bell, a British expatriate well-known in Shanghai for his impressions of Chaplin at social events, and surviving stills from the film show that in the "Little Tramp" costume he did resemble Chaplin, although apparently somewhat taller than the original.
[right, the "King" gets the VIP tour]
This is a famous film in China's cinematic history, and it is truly unfortunate it has not survived. Not only would it give us another example of early Chinese comedy to go with the same year's "Laborer's Love," but it might have provided interesting glimpses of later Mingxing stars: the studio found uncredited roles for all its film school students at the time, and some of these may have gone on to stardom. Of the credited acting roles, the last-named is interesting: Dong Keyi, acting the part of a servant, went on to become one of China's legendary cinematographers.