Thursday, March 01, 2018

Mascot of the Month: Anna May Wong

Never before have I lifted my Mascot directly from another source, but I am today. Because... well I admire Anna May Wong in many ways and TCM has a great bio of her - and her movies are showing this Sunday on TCM.

A Very Young Miss Wong
from 1934
The beautiful and talented Anna May Wong (1905-1961) made history as the first Chinese-American Hollywood star and the first Chinese-American actress to gain international recognition. Despite her relatively short life, she had a long career that encompassed silent and sound film, stage, television and radio. Without the limitations imposed by racism, she might have enjoyed even more success and fame. Nevertheless, TCM celebrates Wong's achievements with a night featuring four of her films from the 1920s and '30s.

Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents and began performing bits in silent films at the early age of 14. Within a couple of years, she was receiving screen credits in such films as Bits of Life (1921), acting opposite Lon Chaney, who appeared in stereotypical "yellowface." Wong's breakthrough performance came in The Toll of the Sea (1922), playing Lotus Flower in this adaptation of Madame Butterfly, and she achieved international stardom after appearing with Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Chaney appeared again as Chinese in the title role of Mr. Wu (1927, also Silent Sunday Night), with Wong in a supporting role as the friend of the Chaney character's daughter (Renée Adorée). When the friend becomes pregnant by an Englishman, ancient law demands that she be killed by her father. Chaney's elaborate makeup is of special interest, as is the updated musical soundtrack with a score composed, produced, edited and mixed by Maria Newman, who also conducts the Viklarbo Chamber Symphony. The restoration featuring this score was first seen on TCM in 2000.

Piccadilly (1929), another silent, was filmed by British International Pictures during one of Wong's sojourns abroad, and directed by Ewald André Dupont. The film offers one of her best showcases and demonstrates what Hollywood missed in the way of a sensual and dynamic leading lady. Her performance in this film has been compared to that of Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks in some of their vehicles. Wong plays Shosho, a dishwasher at the Piccadilly Club, a London nightspot where she becomes an unexpected sensation as a dancer. Along with Wong's dazzling performance, there are early bits by Charles Laughton and Cyril Ritchard. The 2004 restoration includes a musical score by Neil Brand. 

Brawell Fletcher and Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon directed by Lloyd Corrigan 1931

Daughter of the Dragon (1931), a Paramount release, stars Warner Oland as Dr. Fu Manchu, top-billed Wong as his unwitting daughter and Sessue Hayakawa as a young man who wants the daughter to help him in foiling Manchu's plots. The melodrama again casts Wong as an exotic dancer, and she further demonstrates her star appeal despite the potboiler aspects of the story.

Shanghai Express (1932), also released through Paramount, is a Marlene Dietrich vehicle directed by Josef von Sternberg that emerges as perhaps their best and most entertaining collaboration. Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, an adventuress living by her wits on the coast of China during the country's 1931 civil war. Wong is her Chinese sister-in-sin and a defender of the Republic of China. The men in their lives include Clive Brook and Oland. The film won an Oscar for Lee Garmes' shimmering cinematography, with additional nominations for Best Picture and Director.

From Shanghai Express
Wong grew frustrated by the dwindling range of roles she was being offered in the U.S., where the Asian parts routinely went to Myrna Loy or other Caucasian actresses in "Oriental drag." She frequently traveled to Europe in the late 1920s and early '30s, finding more rewarding stage and film work there. In Hollywood, one of her biggest disappointments was the refusal of MGM to cast her as O-Lan in the 1937 film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, a role that went to Austrian actress Luise Rainer.

In the 1930s and '40s Wong appeared in several low-budget films, doing her best to ensure that her Chinese characters were seen in a positive light. She moved into television in the 1950s before returning to film and playing Lana Turner's housekeeper in Portrait in Black (1960). She was planning for a role in the film version of Flower Drum Song (1961) when she died in 1961 at the age of 56. Her legacy remains strong - especially in the Asian-American arts community, where annual awards are presented in her name in the fields of movies and fashion.

by Roger Fristoe

Another site that has a beautiful tribute to Anna May Wong is The Red List.

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