Repping an important addition to fast-fading history of audeville, “The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam” doesn’t answer all of its own questions but raises a lot of interesting ones along the way. Ann Marie Fleming’s first feature-length docu (she’s best known for experimental shorts) examines the mysterious life of her own great-grandfather in playful and personal ways, combining animation, archival shots and interviews with people who knew the influential Chinese magician and acrobat. Results might profitably be tightened to a more generally accessible tube hour, although it’s sure to generate interest at Asia-minded fests as-is.
Long Tack Sam (a simplified version of his real name) was the most successful “Oriental” stage magical in a now-forgotten age when many music-hall tricksters pretended to be Chinese, with some of their signature efforts lasting into the Ed Sullivan era.
Sam was also a ceaseless globetrotter who worked on Broadway with George Burns and the Marx Bros. and was a huge hit in Europe — especially in Vienna, where he married a high-society dame and sired two daughters who would be become part of a family act that was forever on the road. One daughter, the helmer’s grandmother, is glimpsed only briefly on tape, and passed away before project took off.
Fleming never met the handsome, eternally boyish fellow, who kept working until suddenly losing steam in the 1950s, and her connection to him remains tangential; scenes of her talking to relatives and, more generically, driving between interview locations, don’t add much to the mix. And some of her narration is needlessly precious, given the strength of the material.
Most creative elements include cleverly animated stills and posters from the Vaudeville circuit, and cartoon segs illustrating the various, and conflicting, myths of Sam’s Chinese childhood and beginnings in the magic game. Pic makes a solid argument for the notion that showbiz was a multicultural affair long before the term was coined.