Donegal Dawn

Created by Guy Morton

"You're a white girl -- what are you doing in a place like this?"

Dapper Vancouver, B.C. private eye DONEGAL DAWN is called in by the police commissioner, and reluctantly asked to look into the recent rash of "mysterious deaths" in Vancouver's Chinatown after one of the commissioner's own detectives is murdered in Secrets of Chinatown, a cheapie 1935 cheesie filmed on location.

Meanwhile, Dawn's young partner Robert "Bob" Rand has it bad for Zenobia, a blonde-haired clerk working at Chan Tow Ling's curio shop, despite Dawn's warnings. But when both Robert and Zenobia disappear, Dawn suspects there's more going on than a few tong killings.

Don't expect a lost Canadian classic. This is strictly Grade B: a shaky plot, dubious acting and mostly meandering direction, capped off with enough Yellow Peril and B-movie clichés to make your eyes water. There are opium dens, a damsel in distress, drug dealers, curio shops, chop suey joints and Chinese restaurants, smugglers, secret passages, a sinister cult (the "Order of the Black Robe"), hypnotism, lots of stuffy white folks and scads of skulking, suspicious looking "Orientals." Hell, the rampant racism and xenophobia is so over the top it hurts.

Serious cheese, for sure. But not to be taken seriously. And some of the camera work is impressive, and some of the location shots of old Vancouver are amazing.

HISTORICAL NOTE

Secrets of Chinatown was produced to fulfill restrictions imposed by the British Cinematograph Act of 1927. This legislation decreed that 20 percent of films screened in the UK had to be of British origin. Canada, being part of the British Empire, became a source of quickie low-budget films that England could use to meet this quota.

Ironically, studio Commonwealth Productions, by hiring Hollywood director Fred C. Newmeyer and a cast of American actors, unknowingly disqualified Secrets of Chinatown from entering the British market. After premiering in Victoria, British Columbia on March 8, 1934, the film had to be retitled The Black Robe when the Chinese Consul of Vancouver asked for it to be redrawn, citing its unflattering depiction of citizens of Asian descent.

-- liner notes from a 2015 DVD release

FILMS

  • SECRETS OF CHINATOWN.. Buy the DVD.. Watch it on YouTube
    (aka "The Black Robe")
    (1935, Northern Films/Commonwealth Productions)
    Based on the 1927 novel The Black Robe by Guy Morton
    Screenplay and continuity by Guy Morton
    Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer
    Starring Raymond Lawrence as DONEGAL DAWN
    Also starring Nick Stuart, Lucile Browene, James Flavin, Harry Hewitson, James McGrath, Reginald Hincks

RELATED LINKS

Private Eyes of the West Coast

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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