Anna May Wong Did It Right

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

She did well, and quickly. While still at school Anna May got extra work, making her screen debut in Metro's The Red Lantern when she was 14. She appeared in two films by Marshall Neilan, who had directed seven prime Mary Pickford films. In one, Bits of Life, she was the wife of Lon Chaney, playing a Chinaman. In 1922 she got the lead, Lotus Flower, in The Toll of the Sea, directed by Chester M. Franklin and written, after Madame Butterfly, by Hollywood's most famous scenarist, Frances Marion (another important member of the Pickford team). Produced by the Technicolor Company, the film was clearly a test of the new process, and a triumphant one: it revels in botanical beauty, contrasting a riot of floral colors with the smooth ivory shading of Wong's face.

The sea throws a white man, Allen Carver (Kenneth Harlan), onto the rocks near a Chinese village. He is rescued by young Lotus Flower. Elders warn the girl — "His coming bodes no good" — but she falls for him, and he, seemingly, for her. Plot and convention require him to leave the island, and to leave her with child, whom she raises with fantasies that his father will return. He does, four years later, with a Caucasian wife. Lotus Flower sees her duty and hands the child over to his new family, after which she throws herself into the sea that had brought a her double-edged gift. The climax is the standard act of noble renunciation — which bows to convention while showing how it destroys decent people — and not specifically racial. In movies it was frequently imposed on heroic outsiders: not just to mixed-race couples, but to stalwart single moms (Back Street) and heroines of lower station (Stella Dallas).

"She's sweet and charming — different," Carver says of the girl. Wong is: pretty and frittery, quick to blush, an excellent counterfeiter of all the emotions Lotus Flower must endure. When she is heartbroken, fat tears fall from the actress' eyes; it's the money shot in any antique romance, and Wong delivers. She gets little help from Harlan, who is a plank, but the wonderfully poised child actor Baby Moran, as Lotus Flower's son, has a terrific moment with her. Taken from his mother and held by Carver's wife, the boy touches Wong's face, leans in and, with great tenderness, kisses her twice. It would prove to be the most plangent screen kiss in Wong's career.


As satisfying as it may have been to star in a small production, Wong got much more exposure, in several ways, as the Mongol Slave in The Thief of Bagdad. It's not a large part, but next to Fairbanks' it's the most eye-catching — partly because she and he are the only actors showing lots of skin. He's shirtless through most of the movie, she's outfitted in essentially two sashes, one across her chest, the other around her hips. She plays a handmaid to the Caliph's daughter, and becomes a spy for the Mongol Prince. That makes her a villain, unless you root for Mongol solidarity. Whatever, Wong is a luminous presence, fanning her arms in right-angle gestures that seem both Oriental and flapperish. Her best scenes are with Fairbanks, as they connive against each other and radiate contrasting and combined sexiness — a vibrant, erotic star quality. And she's the taller of the two. (In many films, Wong is literally head and shoulders above her fellow actors.)

Wong figured this was the start of something big. The same month The Thief of Bagdad opened, March 1924 (remember, she's just turned 19), she signed a deal creating Anna May Wong Productions, hoping to raise financing for films about Chinese legends. But, as Chan notes, she ran afoul of her new partner, a character named Forrest B. Creighton, and after a law suit or two the company was dissolved. A pity, because no one else in Hollywood was giving Wong meaty roles. She can be spotted in Peter Pan (as a Tiger Lily who shares a long kiss with Betty Bronson as Peter) and, in a larger but subservient part as companion to Renee Adoree, in yellow face, who played the daughter of Lon Chaney in Mr. Wu. In Old San Francisco she was the aide-de-camp to the half-caste villain, played by Warner Oland.

She received publicity writeups in the movie magazines. She was the rumored mistress, over the years, of several prominent film men: Neilan (14 years older, supposedly Wong's lover when she was 15), director Tod Browning (23 years older, when she was 16) and Charles Rosher (Pickford's favorite cinematographer, who was nearly 20 years older, when Wong was 20). A young woman of Wong's sexual appeal was likely to be a gossip magnet — at least here, she was equal to white actresses — but no biographer can say for sure that any of the affairs occurred. Or any others in her globe-trotting life. In meetings with the press, Wong would deflect personal questions, even before they were asked, with a preemptive, smiling comment: It's not true.

Frustrated by small or demeaning parts, Wong sailed for Europe. That would become a familiar itinerary for performers too hot, one way or another, for America. Two of them were black: dancer Josephine Baker, who went to Paris and became a shimmying sensation on night-club stages and movie screens; and Paul Robeson, too huge a figure, talent and threat to be shoehorned into Hollywood dramas, who found his smartest, most congenial roles in four English films of the 30s. Louise Brooks, a Caucasian, had Hollywood supporting roles that didn't please her. It was as Wedekind's vampish Lulu in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box that secured her screen immortality.

Wong was a member of this elite ex-pat fraternity of performers who went East when they realized that Hollywood wouldn't have them like anything on their own terms. What's amazing is that the laundryman's daughter, having dared to incorporate at 19, now saw the chance for maturity as an actress, and a movie star, in Europe. Guess what? She found it.


Five of her films — three of them versions of the same script in German, French and English — she made for the German Richard Eichberg. I haven't seen Song (Wong as a woman in a knife-throwing act who pines for her partner's love),Big City Butterfly (A circus artist on the run from a murder charge) or the three version of Hai-Tang (a dancer in pre-Revolutionary Russia). But the plot synopses and reviews suggest these were adult melodramas with juicy parts for Wong, and for which she received wide praise. But I have seen another film she made for a German director in 1929: Dupont's Piccadilly, her finest movie, her most liberated performance and one of the last gasps of silent-film greatness.

Like her other European films, this is a showbiz tale. Mabel (Gilda Gray) and her partner (Cyril Ritchard) are the star act at the Piccadilly Club, run by Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). A complaint about a dirty dish sends the boss to the club's scullery, where he finds Sho-Sho (Wong) dancing on a countertop. That night, Sho-Sho insinuates herself into Valentine's chambers, tells him she wants to dance in his club and, somehow (off-camera), persuades him. With her first performance she's a star of such heat that her dancing incites a knife fight. Mabel is furious too, with the righteous rage of the jilted. In Sho-Sho's lair, Mabel flashes a gun, Sho-Sho pulls a knife from her brocaded sleeve. And the more interesting woman dies.

Gray was top-billed, and she's pretty, with sharp-featured photogenicity, though a hippo on the dance floor. It's Wong's movie. A kewpie doll with Louise Brooks bangs (although Wong wore them first), she carries herself with an insolent poise; she knows what she's got, and how to use it. As so often, she's a dancer, though not one of finesse; in her big number, which seems more Balinese than Chinese; she displays a little skill and a lot of skin. But even when in relative repose, she exudes a musk, a star-is-born radiance, that absorbs her and exhausts the men in love with her (whose mute devotion she hardly notices). And with a female rival, she has an unfair advantage. This exchange, written by novelist Arnold Bennett, shows who's boss. Sho-Sho: "You want me to give back what you couldn't keep." Mabel "He's too old for me." Sho-sho: "He isn't too old for you — but you're too old for him." And Sho-Sho, in Wong's incandescent incarnation, is too hot to live.

NEXT: Part II: Anna May Talks!

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next