Her story is more dream than nightmare, but that's why it's fiction.
The World of Suzie Wong was the definition of a polarizing film, generally liked by audiences, but often reviled by social observers. For the former group it was just entertainment, a risqué Cinderella fantasy. For the latter group, it was an exercise in cinematic irresponsibility. Few filmmakers have been interested in exploring the human trafficking, physical and psychological abuse, drugs, and destroyed futures that predominate prostitution, but that's no surprise—filmmaking is about moneymaking, and who'd normally go see a movie that was such a downer? While it's true that 2015's Tangerine was acclaimed, it was also shot on three iPhones. Its director has moved on to bigger budgets because he wants to make money too. So let's first of all accept Suzie Wong for what it is: a mainstream film exploring the idea of a rare type of prostitute—the one clearly destined for a better life.
The idea isn't actually so outlandish. Our personal experience has taught us that there are all kinds of hookers. In Brazil, some do it for two weeks bracketing Carnival and make more money than they do working their regular jobs the rest of the year. They don't consider themselves to be prostitutes. They consider themselves to be modern-minded and smart. When PSGP worked at Playboy he was aware of models (anecdotally) and porn actresses (definitely) who did it when they had money troubles. There are plenty of men who'll pay to sleep with his favorite centerfold or porn star, and the money she earns is all hers—none goes to an agent or grifter boyfriend. Models were occasionally invited to certain Middle Eastern oil states and were paid many thousands of dollars per week just to attend swank social occasions and be friendly. The friendliest—interpret that how you wish—would be welcome to stay for months and earn gifts, while the less friendly ones quickly would be shipped out. The point is there are all types.
So while people who hate Suzie Wong are correct that a depiction of prostitution that doesn't explore the typical reality reinforces a false narrative about what is a dirty and dangerous job, the movie is simply a piece of entertainment—and has the right to be. It's no more about real prostitution than Raiders of the Lost Ark is about real archaeology. You'll have to gloss over its imperialist ethnic snobbery too. But if you choose to cross the disbelief suspension bridge, it's a pretty entertaining flick, a drama about an American artist in Hong Kong played by William Holden who meets a local prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, asks her to model for him, and over the course of their increasingly fruitful artistic collaboration finds himself drawn to her. Kwan makes no secret of the fact that she immediately has feelings for Holden, but he resists—not forever, obviously. At that point the difficult question of whether they can actually make a life together—or should even try—is what the plot explores.
Suzie Wong's gimmick of a hooker's love completing a man who's lonely or adrift has been used in films such as Irma la Douce, Night Shift, and Pretty Woman, and audiences responded favorably because, at their core, all those films are romances. But there's more to Suzie Wong than just its sooty Cinderella aspects. At a time of still-rigid ideas about female purity, it asked male viewers to consider the possibility that the number of men a woman sleeps with is immaterial. So in that sense it's a forward thinking film—something usually forgotten by its critics. The source novel by Richard Mason is probably more nuanced, but we haven't read it. We do know, however, that he wrote it after staying at the Luk Kwok Hotel in Hong Kong, which was a brothel. So maybe he learned a little something that gave his book—and the film—a bit more verité than people generally suspect. When you include its great exteriors and sets, and Kwan herself in a starmaking role, the result is exotic, emotional, and at times uplifting. The World of Suzie Wong premiered in the U.S. today in 1960. See more promo images here and here.
From Hong Kong with love (at a price).
Nancy Kwan poses in costume as the title character of her hit 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, which is about a romance between an American painter in Hong Kong and a local “yum yum girl”—i.e. a prostitute. This shot is excellent, we think. Kwan made numerous movies in Hollywood, including 1961's Flower Drum Song and 1968's The Wrecking Crew, but Suzie Wong remains her legacy, a subject of much debate due to its sex trade subject matter, and a source of interesting memomorabilia, such as here and here. Maybe we'll talk about the movie later.
The tabloid media was like a pack of animals and Mansfield was the meal.
We never realized this before, but the editors of Whisper really had it in for Jayne Mansfield. We mean more than usual for a vicious tabloid. Most of the issues we have contain highly negative stories about her, such as this one published in 1962 that calls her and husband Mickey Hargitay “the biggest pair of boobs in the business.” Geez, what did she do to them? Piss in their grits? Dropkick their Corgis? Obviously, the biggest boobs thing is a play on words referencing Mansfield's bust, but they're referencing her personality when they talk about her “false façade” and “up-front ways.” Regardless of whether Whisper approved of Mansfield, it couldn't stop featuring her—a fact the magazine acknowledged. We'll see her in these pages again.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Whisper, the amazing Señor Fidel Castro makes one of his regular appearances. Like Mansfield, the magazine couldn't stop writing about him. According to the editors, the Beard had launched a plot to addict American youth to drugs. We call Castro amazing because according to various mid-century tabloids he was simultaneously training Viet Cong soldiers in Cuba, funneling arms to U.S. inner cities, assassinating JFK, planning to overthrow the Catholic Church, raping teenaged girls, and helping East Germany revive the Third Reich. Talk about great time management skills. If only we were half as organized.
Did drugs flow from Cuba to the U.S.? It's an accusation that has come up numerous times over the years. Considering that since at least 1950 drugs were flowing into the U.S. from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Afghanistan, Thailand, et al—it would be astonishing if drugs didn't also originate from or transit through Cuba. With what degree of official approval we'll probably never know. Heads of state are notoriously insulated. In fact, the only one we can think of offhand who was definitively tied to drug dealing was Panama's former strongman Manuel Noriega, who was doing it with the full knowledge of the CIA, but we can probably safely assume he wasn't the first national leader to peddle drugs.
Whisper isn't aiming for investigative journalism in its Castro piece. That would require actual work. Its story is 90% lollipop, 10% stick. But the ratio of fiction to fact is meaningless as long as the writing fits the brief: focus obsessively on the sensational, the frightening, and the infuriating. That's why we call mid-century tabloids the cable news channels of yesteryear. Though people were doubtless highly agitated about what they read in these quasi-journalistic outlets, the passage of decades makes them harmless fun for us to explore. Maybe one day a future website—or whatever passes for one ages from now—will be able to make jokes about the things agitating us. Let's hope so. We have a bunch of scans below, and more tabloids than we can count inside the website. Look here.
With special guests the Slaymates of the year.
Today we have some beautiful rarities, a set of door panel posters made for the 1968 Dean Martin spy movie spoof The Wrecking Crew. Martin played the wise-cracking and woman-loving Matt Helm, a character created by novelist Donald Hamilton. There have been a lot of loveable drunks in cinema, but Martin certainly was one of the most popular. Boozy Matt Helm was a perfect role for him, and the first film became the launching point for a series that stretched to four entries.The Wrecking Crew was the last film, coming after 1966's The Silencers and Murderer's Row, and 1967's The Ambushers. The movies were populated by a group of women known as “Slaymates,” and the actresses on the posters below are posing as members of that deadly cadre. They are, top to bottom, Sharon Tate, Elke Sommer, Nancy Kwan, Tina Louise, and a fifth woman no other website seems able to identify, but who we're pretty sure is Kenya Coburn.These posters are 51 x 152 centimeters in size, or 20 x 60 for you folks who measure in inches, and they caught our eye mainly because of Tate. There's been renewed interest in her, including portrayals in two 2019 films—The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Quentin Tarantino's new effort Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Her poster is definitely one of the nicest pieces of Tate memorabilia we've seen.
We glanced at The Silencers a while back and found it just a little too dumb to consider slogging through the series, but maybe we'll have another go at it. We're sort of newly interested in Tate too, and since The Wrecking Crew was her next-to-last screen role, we want to have a look. Allegedly, Dean Martin quit this highly successful franchise because it felt wrong to go on with it after the Tate–LaBianca murders in August 1969. From what we've read about the era, Martin was far from the only person who felt as if that event changed everything. These days Tate's death makes anything she's in seem ironic and portentous, even, we suspect, a piece of fluff like The Wrecking Crew.
Suzie Wong gets with the program.
When we watched The World of Suzie Wong several years ago we were aware that it had been a pretty big hit. It's no surprise, then, that we keep running across memorabilia from the film. Here we have a promotional pamphlet from Hong Kong, with a very cool cover of the prostitute title character, who was played by Nancy Kwan. Yes, it's faded as hell, but we kind of like that. These Hong Kong items are often in terrible shape, but there's such a thing as beautiful squalor. Is it the humidity that did this? Check out this other Suzie Wong item we shared way back, made with better paper, and seemingly stored with better care. We have scans of a few deteriorated but still interesting interior pages below, and if you read Chinese, all the better.
We may talk about The World of Suzie Wong a bit later. We watched it without the Pulp Intl. girlfriends, and we imagine they would have hated it—as any contemporary woman would, when it comes to romanticizing prostitution. Additionally, since PI-2 is Filipina, we suspect she'd have a particularly incisive perspective. Yes, the Philippines are a long way from Hong Kong, but considering how encompassing attitudes were in mid-century Hollywood toward Asian women, we think she's well qualified to comment on a set-in-Hong Kong movie. In any case, it's a discussion for another day, perhaps. Scans below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—First Helicopter Flight
In Berlin, Germany, in a sports stadium, Ewald Rohlfs takes the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 on its first flight. It is the first fully-controllable helicopter, featuring two counter rotating rotors mounted on the chassis of a training aircraft. Only two are ever produced, and neither survive today.
1963—John F. Kennedy Visits Berlin
22 months after East Germany erects the Berlin Wall as a barrier to prevent movement between East and West Berlin, John F. Kennedy visits West Berlin and speaks the famous words "Ich bin ein Berliner." Suggestions that Kennedy misspoke and in reality called himself a jelly donut are untrue.
2009—Farrah Fawcett Dies
American actress Farrah Fawcett, who started as a model but became famous after one season playing detective Jill Munroe on the television show Charlie's Angels
after a long battle with cancer.
1938—Chicora Meteor Lands
In the U.S., above Chicora, Pennsylvania, a meteor estimated to have weighed 450 metric tons explodes in the upper atmosphere and scatters fragments across the sky. Only four small pieces are ever discovered, but scientists estimate that the meteor, with an explosive power of about three kilotons of TNT, would have killed everyone for miles around if it had detonated in the city.
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