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Films at the Gate: The Little Dragon

You’ll see Bruce Lee when we show WAY OF THE DRAGON and THE KID on the lot. In the post below, Film at the Gate curator Jean Lukitsh, introduces us to the young Bruce Lee and the work he put in before becoming an international star. Thanks Jean!

Bruce Lee is undeniably one of the most recognizable movie stars of all time, right up there with Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. His reputation is based almost entirely on a handful of films he made between 1971 and 1973, the year of his death at age 32. But Lee’s career began long before he made the iconic films that propelled him to stardom.

Yee Chau-shui and Bruce Lee in THE KID

Lee was born in 1940 and grew up in the Hong Kong film industry, making almost two dozen films, from JIN MEN NU in 1941, when he was just a baby, to 1960’s THE ORPHAN, as a child actor. In some of these films, he was just a minor supporting actor, but in others he was the star. His first major role came in 1950, with THE KID, an adaptation of a newspaper comic strip. It was directed by Fung Fung, who also played the charismatic gangster who leads Lee’s character, Ah Cheung, into the criminal life, much to the dismay of the kid’s uncle, played by Yee Chau-shui. Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, plays a miserly rich man who oppresses the poor people of the neighborhood. Lee Hoi-chuen (1898-1965) was a Cantonese opera performer who specialized in clown (chou) roles. In addition to his stage work, he also appeared in almost one hundred films, ranging from opera to melodrama to comedy.

Bruce Lee (center) in INFANCY (1951)

Bruce Lee was in demand throughout the 1950s as one of Hong Kong’s top child actors.  He was typically cast in melodramas that preached thrift and discipline to parents or demonstrated the sorry plight of the poor. INFANCY, in 1951, was made for the Grandview Film Company, and took the moralistic approach. Young Bruce played Ngau Tsai, a poor youngster who is indifferent to his studies and drifts into a life of crime. A SON IS BORN (1953), played Tin-sun, an orphan who is bounced around multiple foster homes before finding shelter. In BLAME IT ON FATHER (1953), he played a bully; in AN ORPHAN’s TRAGEDY (1955), he played the son of a man falsely imprisoned. The two-part Grandview production LOVE (1955) featured the Cantonese opera superstars Ma Si-tsang and Hung Sin Nui, with Lee playing Ma’s son. The family is reduced by poverty to performing acrobatics and kung fu in the street.

LOVE was directed by Lee Tit, one of Hong Kong cinema’s most respected Cantonese filmmakers. Lee Tit was also responsible for IN THE FACE OF DEMOLITION (1953), a fine work of socially conscious storytelling. Bruce Lee played the dutiful oldest son of a struggling family undone by poverty. THE ORPHAN (1960) was another film devoted to the hardships of the poor and unfortunate. Lee played Ah Sam, the titular orphan who is gradually forced into a life of crime. After completing THE ORPHAN, Bruce Lee left Hong for the US, and the next phase of his career. When he came back to Hong Kong again, he would make films that would rock the world. But it’s easy to see the foundation for his mature characterizations – the tough, righteous man who makes his own rules – in his early body of work. —Jean Lukitsh

A SON IS BORN (1953). Bruce Lee is center, bottom row.