Other Noteworthy Performances:
Oskar Homolka (Sabotage), Louis Jouvet (The Lower Depths), Charles Winninger (Show Boat), John Barrymore (Romeo and Juliet), Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey), Lionel Barrymore (The Gorgeous Hussy), Claude Rains (Anthony Adverse), Frank Morgan (The Great Ziegfeld), John Carradine (The Prisoner of Shark Island), Jules Berry (The Crime of M. Lange), Peter Lorre (Secret Agent), Georges Metaxa (Swing Time), Victor Moore (Swing Time)
Audiences of movies in the 1930s often knew the movies’ villains were bad because the actors mawkishly mugged for the camera or treated them to Mephistophelian laughs. Today we sense they are caricatures of evil; their wickedness is diluted to fit the tastes and sensibilities of the tastes of the time. We knew Wallace Beery was bad in China Sea (1935), but we also knew he wouldn’t really throw Jean Harlow overboard. There was, after all, a limit. But Akim Tamiroff’s General Yang is less predictable; even today we aren’t sure where his limits might be, or if he has limits at all.
Tamiroff’s icy countenance and deliberate pronunciation immediately tells us that Yang’s rules and ethics do not mesh with the rest of us. He does what he needs to for his own, almost sociopathic, advancement. Whenever he is on screen we are uneasy. There is a moment early in the picture when he picks up Gary Cooper’s pet monkey, smiling at and caressing it. The menace is implied, the threat magnified as he pretends to play with and admire the monkey. We wonder if he would actually kill it, just to prove to Cooper the seriousness of his threat.
The General Died at Dawn is one of those tense, fast-paced adventure movies that require a great villain. General Yang is a Chinese warlord, battling for supremacy in his unstable country. He is opposed by men organizing villagers in his territory against his repression and tyranny. They send an American man named O’Hara (Cooper) to Shanghai with a large stash of money to purchase guns to use against the repressive warlord. O’Hara’s mission however is detected and Yang sets out to intercept him and his money so he can buy the arms himself.
The movie itself is pretty good for an action-adventure movie with plenty of twists and turns (with a pleasantly crabby appearance from William Frawley in a pre-I Love Lucy role). But the movie would not have been nearly as successful with Tamiroff’s performance, much of which isn’t written on the page. Without his convincingly malignant presence much of the film would have fallen flat. With Tamiroff we are left unsure of his capabilities or, more importantly, the direction of the film. His performance leaves us off kilter and makes Gary Cooper’s trials all the more suspenseful.