The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam

A documentary by Ann Marie Fleming featuring Long Tack Sam. Unrated.

An important addition to the fast-fading history of the vaudeville world that dominated popular culture a century ago, 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.

This first feature-length documentary from Vancouver veteran Ann Marie Fleming (best known for experimental shorts and features) examines the mysterious journey of her own great-grandfather in a playful and personal fashion, combining animation, archival shots, and interviews with people who knew the influential Chinese magician and acrobat.

Long Tack Sam, born in 1885 in Shangdong province, was the most successful "Oriental" stage magician 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 Brothers and was a huge hit in Europe--especially Vienna, where he married a high-society dame and sired two daughters who would become part of a family act that was forever on the road.

One daughter, the director's grandmother, is glimpsed only briefly on tape, and passed away before project took off. Fleming never met the handsome, eternally boyish-looking Long Tack Sam, 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.

The film's most creative elements include stills and colourful posters from the vaudeville circuit that are cleverly brought to life (with animation by Fleming and Bruce Alcock). Also, cartoon segments illustrate the various, sometimes conflicting, myths of our hero's Chinese childhood and his beginnings in the magic game. On top of its sheer entertainment value, the movie makes a solid argument for the notion that show biz was multicultural long before that term was coined.