An earlier post about early Chinese censorship of films from the West mentioned that comedy legend Harold Lloyd's popularity among Chinese filmgoers throughout the 1920s was surpassed only by that of Charlie Chaplin's. While Chaplin continued his hold on audiences, Lloyd's marketability in China was severely damaged, if not destroyed, when his first talking picture opened in Shanghai.
《Welcome Danger》(1929) was originally a silent, but Lloyd kept wavering about whether to keep it that way or make it one of the rapidly-growing number of sound movies coming out of Hollywood studios. In addition to repeatedly changing his mind on this, he changed the title several times and the casts twice. At last, two versions - silent and sound - were released, with theaters not yet refitted for sound showing the silent version. Although reviews at the time were somewhat mixed,《Welcome Danger》became one of the comedy genius's highest-grossing films, in large part because of the anticipation at hearing his voice for the first time. Even Lloyd's most avid admirers today rank the "talkie" version as one of his lesser productions, but the restored silent version as outstanding, the principal difference being that the verbal jokes were amateurish, while the sight gags worked well.
The story has Lloyd, a timid botany student, returning to his native San Francisco following the death of his police chief father. He involves himself with the police, insisting on helping them although they don't want his aid, but he keeps plugging and eventually cracks a big Chinatown drug ring. There are a lot of hectic comings and goings and battles in dark Chinatown cellars.
For China release, the movie was retitled《Bupa Si》(不怕死 Unafraid of Death), and given the star's popularity in China, plus the fact Hollywood sound films were playing to packed houses in Shanghai, Lloyd's production studio Paramount booked it into two of the city's largest and finest sound-equipped theaters, the Grand and the Capitol.
Among the Grand Theater audience on the evening of February 22nd was the Mingxing Film Company's writer-director Hong Shen, the American-educated "father of the Chinese screenplay," as well as a respected professor at Fudan and Jinan Universities. Hong had also been one of the returned overseas Chinese students who founded the Great Wall movie studio as a reaction to the portrayal of Chinese in American films. As《Bupa Si》went on, with its depictions of the Chinese gang as evil, vicious and ruthless criminals, practically a race of subhumans, Hong Shen could at last take no more. He left his seat, mounted the theater's stage, and delivered an extemporaneous speech denouncing the movie as a disgrace and insult to the Chinese people.
Many others in the large audience agreed with him, as several hundred of them streamed to the box office to demand refunds. Fearful of the situation getting out of hand, the panicked theater operators called police, who detained Hong Shen for three hours.
Immediately following his release, Hong submitted a protest to the Chinese central government authorities in Nanjing, demanding the film be banned, and all copies which had been shipped to China be publicly burned. His call for a boycott of《Welcome Danger》aroused a strong response among a broad cross-section of the Shanghai public, with prominent figures in education, journalism, culture, drama and movie circles, as well as many ordinary people, flooding the newspapers with letters protesting the exhibition of the movie, including some dark hints at possible violent consequences if the film were not withdrawn.
Eight major Shanghai dramatic associations, including those of the top universities, issued a joint declaration firmly supporting Hong Shen, calling his action a patriotic one. In addition to branding the U.S. movie an insult to the Chinese people, the declaration warned that if a similar event should occur, the masses of the people might rise up and enforce their own ban. This was followed by a similar warning from two advisory agencies of the Shanghai municipal government. In the face of so strong a public protest, the ruling Nationalist Party's Shanghai propaganda bureau and the city of Shanghai jointly announced the film's banning by the Film Censorship Board.
The Grand Theater reacted to this by suing Hong Shen for its loss of income. But when the case came to trial on March 13, Hong Shen exploited the situation by using the courtroom as his forum for a counter-attack, accusing the Grand Theater of abetting U.S. cultural aggression. His impassioned speech in court won the sympathy of the gallery. As news of the trial and the incident which provoked it spread throughout China, Paramount apparently decided it was time to pull back from the confrontation, lest their access to the Chinese market's vast potential suffer permanent harm. In early April, numerous Chinese newspapers carried large ads in which the Grand Theater apologized to Hong Shen, and Paramount expressed its "heartfelt apology" for "daring to insult your honorable country." In addition, the studio promised that every copy of the film that had been shipped to China would be returned to America, and never again be shown in China.
For the Chinese, this was a satisfactory conclusion and a victory in their ongoing struggle against cultural imperialism.