INTO THE NEXT STAGE: More ‘Enter the Dragon’ Revelations Arrive on 40th Anniversary

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Maybe it’s just me, but so far in 2013 the public has not been able to escape the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of “Enter the Dragon” in July 1973.

A big part of why “ETD” is still remembered, of course, was the untimely death of its star, Bruce Lee, on July 20, 1973, a mere six days before the movie made its debut in Hollywood — which locked Lee’s legend in action films, the martial arts and as an important pop culture personality, not just among Asian Americans but to nearly everyone worldwide.

As noted in my April 20 ITNS column (read it at http://preview.tinyurl.com/pzb36bm), “ETD” was feted at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on April 17. This was followed on June 11 by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s 40th anniversary Blu-Ray release of “Enter the Dragon.” It has a suggested retail price of $49.99 and contains supplemental material, including the directorial debut of Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, with a 25-minute documentary titled “No Way as Way” that examines her father’s impact on celebrities like boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, actor George Takei and DJ Steve Aoki in their respective fields. This Blu-Ray, incidentally, is supposed to be superior to an earlier Blu-Ray release of “ETD.”

Meantime, a co-worker of mine with a subscription to the magazine tells me that the July-August issue of Playboy has an article by Matthew Polly on the difficulties that had to be overcome in making “Enter the Dragon.” (I guess Playboy really is good for the articles.) Fortunately, the article, sans risqué photos, can be read for free at: http://preview.tinyurl.com/pjhhbpe.

Then, last week, my pal Vic Cook — a TV animation director for Warner Bros. — invited me to the studio’s 40th anniversary screening of “ETD” on its Burbank lot. It was an employees-only event, but as his guest, I was able to attend. (Employees were entitled to a gratis copy of the aforementioned Blu-Ray, and I managed to snag one as a member of the press. Now I have something to watch when I get a player and high-def TV!)

In some ways, it was a reprise of the April AMPAS screening of the “ETD,” with many of the same guests: Producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub, cinematographer Gil Hubbs, “ETD” co-stars Bob Wall and John Saxon, and the aforementioned Shannon Lee, this time with her mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, but with composer Lalo Schifrin absent.

Regarding that AMPAS screening, what I had failed to mention in my April column was that it was in conjunction with a display of kung fu movie posters originally collected by Stephen Chin, a Hollywood writer and producer. I still have yet to see the poster collection, but by attending the June 19 Warners lot screening, I got to hear him wax on about the making of the movie and why he thinks “ETD” still holds up after so many years.

In his lecture before the screening of both “ETD” and “No Way as Way” and his moderation of a panel of all the aforementioned guests, Chin had some interesting, insightful thoughts about the meaning of “ETD” 40 years later.

Chin spoke of what a difficult period 1972-73 was for America and how difficult it was for “Enter the Dragon” to get made. One, it was a Warner Bros. co-production with Golden Harvest, and Warner Bros. budgeted only $250,000 for it — a miserly sum in those days.

Also, even though Lee had his champions within Hollywood, there were those within the studio who simply believed there was no way a martial arts movie — at the time a genre unknown to most in the U.S. — with a Chinese star could be anything more than a regional (i.e., Southeast Asia) hit, with little prospect to do any business in North America.

It was, of course, a game-changer for Warner Bros. that year, and Chin described “ETD” as a movie that created a “true paradigm shift for our business and for our society,” few who were involved in its production realized it at the time.

Forty years on, Chin was astounded when watching it how “insanely fresh” “ETD” still feels. “Not many, many things that we do our business that after 40 years have this kind of currency and power. In a sense, we’re talking about transcendent filmmaking,” he said.

Chin added: “I feel when I watch this movie that we are lucky to have been able to preserve a few moments of this greatness.”

Regarding Lee’s struggles in Hollywood, Chin noted that even among his Hollywood backers, no one thought that Lee (or any Asian American) had a chance to achieve his goal to become a star as big as Steve McQueen, one of the top movie idols of the time.

Chin didn’t attribute it to overt racism or discrimination, however. Rather, it was simply the times, noting that yellowface casting was still prevalent. “Is it really surprising that the role of Caine on ‘Kung Fu’ went to a white guy?” he asked. “I think in the historical context, it’s kind of amazing that Bruce Lee was able to do as much as he did.”

Chin got the biggest laugh of the night when he compared Warner Bros.’ original marketing campaign, where the poster featured an image of Bruce Lee along with three other characters, and that it didn’t really look like him.

Four years later, after it had made its millions, “Enter the Dragon” was re-released and the new poster was simply Bruce Lee’s face, his two hands and the words: “The Greatest Superstar Who Ever Lived: Bruce Lee.”

(Note: If anyone wants to hear the original audio of Stephen Chin, send me an email by the end of the month and I’ll send you the digital audio file.)

Kechinbo Cord-Cutters Dept.: Last column in my exuberance in describing possible savings from cutting the cord to satellite or cable TV and instead using a streaming media box made by Roku or Apple in conjunction with a DTV antenna made by Mohu, I failed to mention the cost of broadband.

It can vary from free, if you happen to be in a municipality that offers free wi-fi to between $20-$50 a month, depending on your provider and the tier of service you purchase.

So, while it ain’t free, it’s worth exploring if you can find savings by getting your TV shows via cable or satellite.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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