Moments of Movie Wisdom: Respecting Our Fellow Americans in ‘The Big Hangover’ (1950)

Moments of Movie Wisdom: Respecting Our Fellow Americans in ‘The Big Hangover’ (1950)
Dr. Lee (Philip Ahn, L) and David Maldon (Van Johnson), in "The Big Hangover." (Warner Bros.)
Tiffany Brannan

February 10th was Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year. Although the date changes from year to year, it always lands in February, adding bright red and gold decorations to the romantic accents which already grace this month because of St. Valentine’s Day. This date marks the beginning of the Year of the Wood Dragon.

If you look at the most famous actors from the Golden Era of Hollywood, you’ll notice they were predominantly Caucasian. The lack of racial diversity is now a common complaint which liberals make about old movies and television shows. However, there are a few notable instances in movies which feature very dignified minority characters.

Today’s moment of movie wisdom is from “The Big Hangover” (1950). This scene takes place 45 minutes into this 82-minute film. A law student, David Maldon (Van Johnson), who has just joined a prestigious law firm is very disturbed to observe the prejudice displayed by one of its partners, Charles Parkford (Gene Lockhart). The law firm represents an apartment building landlord who resents having an Asian couple, Dr. Lee (Philip Ahn) and his wife, as tenants. Having heard their story from the city attorney, Carl Bellcap (Leon Ames), who is representing them, the young lawyer does his best to help the Chinese couple, much to the displeasure of the older lawyers. In this scene, David bravely confronts Parkford about his disrespectful way of speaking about the Chinese-Americans.

At the beginning of the film, David Maldon has just been accepted into the law firm of Belney, Parkford, Evans and Hughes, since he is the honor student in his law school’s graduating class. However, at a birthday cocktail party for the senior partner, John Belney (Percy Waram), David becomes very intoxicated after one sip of champagne. Mary Belney (Elizabeth Taylor), the lawyer’s daughter, notices this and takes the young man aside because she doesn’t want him to get in trouble. He quickly sobers up and tells her that, while serving in World War II in Europe, he was trapped in a monastery cellar after a bombing and almost drowned in Napoleon brandy. Because of the traumatic experience, even the slightest taste of alcohol inebriates him.

The beautiful young woman is studying psychiatry, so she takes a professional as well as a personal interest in David’s problem. She sets out to cure his embarrassing ailment. As she gets to know him better, she learns that he wanted to become a lawyer because that was the lifelong ambition of his best friend, who died during the war. David faces a serious moral dilemma when he gets caught in the middle of the legal and ethical debacle surrounding the Lees, their bigoted landlord, and the meanspirited Parkford.

Lobby card for "The Big Hangover." (MovieStillsDB)
Lobby card for "The Big Hangover." (MovieStillsDB)

The Scene

One day, David is in Mr. Belney’s office when city attorney Carl Bellcap comes in to confront the firm over the way their client, a development company, has treated a tenant. Dr. Lee, a Chinese doctor from San Francisco, and his wife sublet the apartment from a friend who is currently in Europe. The day after the Lees moved in, the landlord changed the locks while they were out. Mrs. Lee is expecting a baby, and the stressful situation caused complications which necessitated her going to the hospital. Bellcap warns Belney that they will have strong grounds for a lawsuit if Mrs. Lee suffers a miscarriage.

David and Mary go to lunch with Carl to help him make preparations for an alumni dinner that night. At a cafeteria, they are joined by Mrs. Bellcap (Rosemary DeCamp) and Dr. Lee. As David hears more of the doctor’s story, he is moved by the injustice of the whole situation. He vows to help them and accompanies Dr. Lee to the apartment building. The superintendent doesn’t take the young man very seriously, so David calls the development company on behalf of the firm and requests that the Lees be allowed into the apartment.

When David bursts into a meeting of the firm’s senior partners, Parkford has a good time mocking the young man. Parkford is handling the Lee case, and he has no compassion for their situation and very little regard for serving justice. David is smarter than Parkford thinks, though, and the ruthless older man realizes he has been caught in his own deception when he learns that David acted on the goodwill which the firm pretended to have.

David Muldon (Van Johnson) and (Mary Belney (Elizabeth Taylor), in "The Big Hangover." (Warner Bros.)
David Muldon (Van Johnson) and (Mary Belney (Elizabeth Taylor), in "The Big Hangover." (Warner Bros.)

Its Significance

“The Big Hangover” has a higher concentration of lawyers than most films. The characters in the legal profession include the older firm lawyers, most notably Belney and Parkford, city attorney Bellcap, and law student David. Rather than a whitewashed view of the legal profession, this story shows the ideal of the law as well as how often it is corrupted. The firm lawyers enjoy their huge salaries and casually joke about serious matters which are a matter of life and death to common people.
Bellcap is a man of high ideals, yet he flatters the firm lawyers and strives to be in their league. He confesses to David that he had to become a city attorney because he graduated from law school very low in his class. While the honor students end up as prestigious lawyers with opulent lifestyles, the roles of public servants end up being filled by inferior lawyers, who don’t stand a chance of outmaneuvering the corporate attorneys. This situation makes David realize that it’s his calling in life to serve the people, even though it will be much less glamorous.

The Legal Calling

David takes being a lawyer very seriously. He doesn’t just want to do his job; more than that, he wants to fulfill his duty as a public servant. When he learns about Dr. Lee’s situation, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He immediately goes over to the apartment complex and talks to the superintendent, Albert Johnson (Cliff Clark).

When David asks whether Parkford has spoken with him that day, Johnson replies, “You mean about the Chinaman?” David takes offense at this derogatory term and calmly retorts, “A Chinaman is a man born in China. Dr. Lee is an American of Chinese extraction, which puts him on equal footing with you and me, unless one of your ancestors was called Pocahontas, which I doubt.”

This is a very brief moment, but it says so much about David’s strong character. It’s not easy to confront someone’s prejudice or point out that he’s doing the wrong thing. How often do we take the cowardly route of not pointing out unethical behavior to avoid confrontation? As a result, we may lose many opportunities to educate, awaken, and remind people of what our country is and should be. Although Johnson clearly is not happy after this little episode, it’s a powerful reminder of our duty as Americans.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.