Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway’s 1944 film Dragon Seed is strange and thought-provoking. Well, perhaps it’s more strange than thought-provoking. Let’s put it this way: once you see the actors in their respective roles, you quickly realize that you are in for a long and arduous 148 minutes. The film, which was made at the height of World War II, was adapted from the novel by Pearl S. Buck. The story focuses on a conservative Chinese peasant family. At the head of the (they’re supposed to be Chinese but they’re all completely non-Chinese looking) family is patriarch Ling Tan (Walter Huston) and his wife (Aline MacMahon) who are fretting about their sons- Lao Ta (Robert Bice) who is married to the beautiful Orchid (Frances Rafferty); Lao Sun (Hurd Hatfield), who is still single and reckless; and Lao Er (Turnham Bey) who is married to the headstrong, free-spirited Jade (Katharine Hepburn). Jade soon comes to the forefront of the film as we see her as a well-read peasant woman who yearns to break free of the old-fashioned ways that keep women like her in their place. Soon the family’s quaint quasi-Chinese village is invaded by the Japanese army. As the surviving family members scatter into the hills, the unlucky ones are killed in the seige. The family members who remain in occupied China, including Jade, her husband, and their new baby, return from the hills to fight the Japanese using the family’s farm as a home base. As the plot veers off into more ludicrous directions, patriarch Ling Tan must accept that he has to destroy his land and sacrifice his present gains in order to ensure the future of Jade, Lao Er, and his new grandson. While Jade and Lao Er rejoin the resistance fighters in the hills in order to restore peace to China, they leave their son “the seed of the dragon” in the loving arms of his grandparents. Dragon Seed is an overwrought mess of a film. By today’s standards, this well-meaning, heroine-based film is seen as nothing more than shockingly racist- and that’s just in terms of it’s casting alone. The Chinese family consists primarily of caucasian actors who look absolutely ridiculous in their “Asian” make-up and wardrobe. The poor casting choices greatly detract from the authenticity of the film’s attempt at historical storytelling and obliterate what could have been a somewhat adequate, albeit overlong film.
Dragon Seed received a shocking two Academy Award nominations in 1944. The first went to Sidney Wagner for his work on the film’s Black and White Cinematography. The second nomination went to Aline MacMahon, nominee, (146), for her role as Jade’s disapproving and tradition-oriented mother-in-law. While MacMahon struggles with the machinations of her role of Ling’s wife, it’s hard not to stare at her while she’s onscreen. But can this be credited to MacMahon’s attempt at breaking out of her flimsy role by imbuing her character with facial tics and verbal sputterings or is it merely the imprint of the ghastly makeup and garish costumes? Unfortunately, as with the rest of the cast, I think it’s the latter. MacMahon lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress to Ethel Barrymore in None But the Lonely Heart.