One of the hoariest theatrical cliches is the show-within-a-show story of the young unknown called on at the last minute to step in for the star who cannot go on, but steps up and gives a truly starmaking performance, often eclipsing the star he or she replaced. ("Kid, you're going out there an unknown, but you've got to come back a star!") But like all cliched situations, it actually happens sometimes: in 1954, veteran musical performer Carol Haney was starring on Broadway in the hit "Pajama Game." Since Haney was renowned for never having missed a performance in her life, a 17-year-old high school student theater intern was employed by the company as Haney's understudy, rather than a more experienced professional. But early in the play's run, the seemingly indestructible Haney broke an ankle, and the understudy had to go on lest the show be cancelled, at huge cost. Her first performance wasn't perfect, but the audience, aware of the circumstances, rose to give her a standing ovation at the end, bolstering her confidence sufficiently that she carried on capably until an experienced replacement could take over. (The gutsy youngster's name was Shirley MacLain; gee, I wonder what ever became of her.)
In China's classical movie era, there was a similar incident.
In our discussion of the 1922 megahit "An Orphan Rescues his Grandfather," we mentioned that in addition to saving a struggling studio, it was the screen debut and starmaking role for its leading lady Wang Hanlun. It was also the initial screen appearance for Zheng Xiaoqiu, the child actor playing her son, who went on to a fine career. After being one of China's first juvenile stars, he matured into leading man roles, then later became a director, specializing in documentaries and educational films. But "Orphan" also marked the first credited role for a bit player called upon at the last moment, and whose performance was the breakthrough to a long, successful movie career, not as a leading man but as Chinese cinema's top villain. His name was Wang Xianzhai.
Wang Xianzhai 王献斋 was born Wang Youyan 王有延 in Harbin, the capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang province, in 1900. Heilongjiang borders on Russia, and with trade and other cross-border contacts, intermarriage is not uncommon, so it is no surprise that the future Wang Xianzhai was of mixed Chinese-Russian heritage. The family moved to Shanghai when the Russo-Japanese war began, and it was there the future actor grew up. He majored in ophthamology at Hujiang University of Medicine in Shanghai, and after graduation, Wang set up his own practice. He loved movies, and since his clinic was near the Mingxing movie studio, the young doctor would often pause on his way to work and watch the actors passing in and out its main gate. [right, Mingxing's main gate around 1922]
One day, film director Zhang Shichuan came into the clinic for a new pair of glasses. When Wang learned who his customer was, and told the director of his fondness for movies, Zhang invited Wang to visit the studio and watch one being made, an invitation readily accepted. After his visit, Wang Xianzhai was hooked: he applied and was accepted for a spot in Mingxing's acting school, and in the year he turned 21, immediately switched professions, abandoning medicine for the screen.
Wang Xianzhai's first two screen appearances were uncredited. In 1922, Mingxing made a comedy short, a fictionalized Charlie Chaplin visit to Shanghai, which used the entire Mingxing acting school's enrollment as uncredited extras. The film is lost, and we don't know what part he played, but this was Wang Xianzhai's first screen appearance. Later that year, he had another uncredited role in《Zhang Xinsheng》," an ill-fated attempt to follow up on that year's major success 《Yan Ruisheng》by dramatizing a true-life murder case, but quickly pulled from theaters because of its graphic scenes of violence.
In 1923, Wang was cast in the small role of a servant in the Mingxing studio's first full-length feature, "An Orphan Rescues his Grandfather." Shortly after filming began, the actor playing the role of chief villain was killed in a weekend horseback riding accident, and Wang was plucked from his minor role to play this vital supporting part. Audiences hailed his portrayal of a sinister, conniving villain, and his career was made, nearly always a villain, but an enormously successful one, the foremost bad guy in Chinese movie history.
By 1925, Wang Xianzhai had moved into leading or major supporting roles, and during the period 1925 to 1931, he made nearly 30 films, including such notable classics as《The Last Conscience》 "In Old Beijing" and China's first sound film, "Songstress Red Peony," drawing critical praise in each. In "Songstress," he was the husband of the title character (played by Hu Die), an abusive scoundrel who squandered his wife's music income and ruined her career. A review at that time evaluated his character's villainy as "so despicable he makes ordinary villains such as robbers seem like very good people in comparison." The noted screenwriter Hong Shen so admired Wang's acting skills that he would often annotate his scripts with a note saying "We really should get Wang Xianzhai for this part."
[above left, in "Songstress Red Peony" a scoundrel husband wants to sell his daughter to a brothel]
Wang made more than 20 movies between 1932 and 1937, and two of his performances in these stand out in particular. The first was "Red Crabapple," in which his character Lu Huairen (Huairen is a homonym for "bad person") runs the gamut of villainy, another wastrel relying on his wife's performing income to support a life of decadence, and running up huge gambling debts, even selling the couple's son to pay them off. He deserts his wife to join a gang of murderous bandits, and eventually winds up facing a firing squad. In the other standout performance, in "Strange Case of the Ancient Pagoda," Wang played a dual role of two brothers. The younger is a gambler who, after embezzling nearly all the family's property to pay his substantial debts, ruining his elder brother financially and making him a homeless person, rapes his sister-in-law,then schemes to murder his brother in an ancient pagoda. Wang Xianzhai's performance was critically praised for making both brothers believable, the innocent and victimized one as well as the sinister and ruthless one.
[right, Wang Xianzhai as the evil younger brother]
Among the many films Wang Xianzhai made during his career, in only two, "The Soul of Yuli" and "New and Old Shanghai" did he portray a positive character. His usual onscreen personas were slick, manipulative, treacherous, and diabolic. He was the personification of "unpardonable evil," in the words of one critic. Wang was also hailed as the "No.1 scoundrel," and the "consummate villain." In Hollywood, they might have billed him as "The Man You Love to Hate." As a critic put it at that time, "When it comes to acting villainous roles, with the utmost emotions and depth of feeling that stirs audiences, only one actor reaches that intensity: Wang Xianzhai." While Wang played almost every type of evildoer in Chinese history, they were not always thugs or criminals: some were businessmen, professionals, intellectuals – but always nasty, conniving and devious. He took acting very seriously and never stopped probing the psychology of his characters, forever seeking ways of making their villainy believable. His characters were never stereotyped, in fact Chinese film historians claim that no two of his villains were alike. The great classical-era director Cheng Bugao wrote of Wang's acting that "evil seemed to be a part of him, not something he was acting but rather something that came from within, from his character's inner nature."
But some movie fans were unable to separate image from reality, and Wang was often cursed by passers-by on the street, while others would even block his way and refuse to let him pass. When this would happen, the actor would just nod and smile deferentially, then get away as quickly as possible. After full-scale war with Japan broke out in 1937, Wang joined with the actress Bai Yang and others to organize the Chinese Filmmakers' Traveling Theatrical Troupe. a company of movie people which gave patriotic and morale-boosting public stage performances in Sichuan province. But even there his screen reputation intruded: at one time, he was involved a lawsuit, and the other side claimed his onscreen characters were so "evil and unprincipled, it proves he is not a good person!" When he heard this, Wang said he didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so he just took a deep breath and kept silent.
[above, a relaxed and off-screen Wang Xianzhai]
While his characters would do and say the most vile, hateful things, in real life Wang Xianzhai was the complete opposite of his on-screen image, a scholarly gentleman who was one of the most popular members of the Shanghai film community. Though famous, he was noted for his modesty and apparently total lack of ego. Out of loyalty to Mingxing for giving him his big break, Wang repeatedly turned down offers to leave the studio for more money. He was also known for his loyalty to his late wife's memory, vowing after her early death to remain single the rest of his days. For over a decade he kept to that vow, raising their daughter as a single parent. Never the healthiest of men, Wang fell ill for a time in the late 1930s, and an actress named Yuan Zhuru 袁竹如 declared her love for him and devoted herself to his care. This so moved Wang Xianzhai that he married her. Studios in the foreign concessions of Shanghai had been permitted to resume operations by then, so the couple returned to Shanghai together, and between 1939 and 1941 Wang made nearly 20 more movies, in all of them displaying his trademark villainy.
In 1942 Wang Xianzhai collapsed on the set while filming, and fell into a coma. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he died, age 41.
The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai
An Orphan Saves his Grandfather
The Poor Children
The Soul of Yuli
The Last Conscience
A Pitiful Girl
A Wife of Shanghai
A Lovelorn Actress
The Good Son (aka A Good Man)
Suspicious Couple (aka The Newlywed's Family)
The Rich Man's Daughter
He Wants a Baby (aka An Elderly Couple)
A Beauty of 16
Who Murdered My Dad?
A Lakeside Dream
Fallen Plum Blossoms, pts.1-3
The Tablet of Blood and Tears
Real and False Daughters
Looking for Marriage
The Girl Detective
The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, pts.2,3
Blood of the Lovers
The Life of the Rich
Confessing her Sins
The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, pts.4-8
Tears and Flowers, pts.1,2
The Burning of Red Lotus Temple, pts.10-16)
Hall of the Broken Zither
Peach Blossom Lake, pts.1,2
Amorous History of the Silver Screen
Songstress Red Peony
In Old Beijing
Such a Paradise, pts.1,2
A Couple Through Life and Death
A Loving Mother
Marriages Through Tears and Laughter, pts.1-6
Romance in Spring
My Sister's Tragic Story
A Brief Life
A Bible for Daughters
The Same Hatred
A Big Family
Downtrodden Peach Blossom
Soul of the Nation
New and Old Shanghai
The Case of the Old Pagoda
A Dream of Heaven and Earth
New Year's Money
Flowers of Society
The Golden Phoenix Hairpin
A Beauty in Troubled Times
A Way of Life
New Twin Sisters
Girl in Jail
Young Hero From the South
Bandit With a Silver Gun