Born in Los Angeles in 1905, five years before the picture people came west from New York and Chicago, Anna May grew up watching movies made on the streets near her home. Her laundryman father tried to beat (literally beat) a dutiful girl's sense into her, and told her she was disgracing the family, as we learn from Graham Russell Gao Hodges' thorough biography Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend. But Anna May couldn't get the dream out of her head. Because she was tall and graceful, and because her big eyes gave her a maturity beyond her years, she found work as an extra by the time she was 14, and played important roles opposite Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks while still in her teens, and was a sensation in German and English films before she was 25.
RICHEE / PARAMOUNT / MPTVAnna May Wong in 1933
Her resume would be impressive enough for a caucasian actress. It happened that Anna May Wong was Chinese, at a time when East Asians were no more likely to become Hollywood stars than someone from India or Africa. She knew, from seeing The Perils of Pauline serials with the villainous Wu Fang, or D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, about a sensitive, opium-sotted "Chink," that Chinese were portrayed in films as notorious criminals or emotional cripples, and that, anyway, they were almost always played by white actors. Hollywood may as well have had a sign on the studio gate reading No Chinese Need Apply. But Wong did; she was merely following her dream to be a star. She was too young and ambitious to know it couldn't be done. So she did it.
The magnitude of Wong's achievement is not that she was Hollywood's first star actress of Chinese blood. It is that, for her entire, 40-plus years in movies, and for decades after, she was the only one. Lucy Liu, from Queens, has achieved a little fame on the small and big screens; the Mainland's Zhang Ziyi, soon to star (as a Japanese!) in Bob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, may duplicate her Asian luminosity. But Wong was the No. 1 Chinese lady, from the teens to the 60s, and there was no No. 2. Against devastating odds, she made her name in silent films in the U.S., with Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, and abroad, starring in the amazing Anglo-German Piccadilly. Like Greta Garbo, Wong developed a gestural language for silent film and attached it to her already formidable screen presence. When sound came in, she wanted to stick around.
Dozens of silent stars failed in the talking pictures that went from novelty in 1927 to the norm by 1930. Wong had garnered raves for speaking German with a natural precision in her first talkie, Hai-Tang. Her West End stage debut in The Circle of Chalk, though, was calamitous. Critics derided her "Yankee squeak," and the show's producer, Basil Dean, blamed her for its early close. Apparently, she didn't always project for audiences to hear her, and when they did they were appalled by her flat California diction. Well, she was from California. Maybe she didn't look California? Here's what Katherine De Mille said of her: "She has the world's most beautiful figure and a face like a Ming princess, and when she opens her mouth out comes Los Angeles Chinatown sing-sing girl and every syllable is a fresh shock." Was Anna May the first Valley girl?
Prodded by the Circle of Chalk embarrassment, Wong paid #200 for a speech teacher, who implanted a mid-Atlantic accent that the actress would use from then on. What didn't change was the flatness. She had a deep alto voice, with a cello's rich knowing, melancholy, but it was a monotone; it didn't climb or fall with the musicality most actors adopt. Her tonal range was one of the narrowest in talking pictures, and that limited her emotional range. She rarely giggled or shrieked; her voice suggested that she was either disdainful or incapable of severe highs and lows. She wasn't one to spit out rapid-fire dialogue, a vocal reticence that would have limited her roles even in a color-blind Hollywood. Saucy comedy, of the sort Jean Harlow personified, was out, as was the scalding, wiseacre melodrama, Barbara Stanwyck-style. Wong could flash a regal hauteur and, when called for, that sensuality. She could have played grand-dame roles of the sort essayed by Garbo she certainly could match the Swede for fascination, and self-fascination but not, say, Marlene Dietrich, whose awareness of her power over men was always comic and ironic.
The poles of Wong's screen appeal were that she was nonchalantly sexual (in many films the slim-chested actress wears no bra, thus allowing viewers to ogle at what Sanney Leung on the invaluable Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review website refers to as "two points") and vaguely forbidding. Hollywood couldn't ignore her allure, and had taken notice of her stardom in Europe. Finally, in 1931, at 26, she got top billing in her first American talkie, director Lloyd Corrigan's Daughter of the Dragon which, in its unabashed melodramatic excess, its rampaging ethnic stereotypes and the opportunity it affords its star to be simultaneously sexy and grave, sympathetic and villainous, qualifies the film as the definitive Anna May Wong movie.
Based on a Fu Manchu novel by Sax Rohmer, the plot of Daughter of the Dragon extended the curse sworn by Dr. Fu on the Petrie family to the next generation. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland), long ago injured and exiled in an attempt on Petrie Sr., returns to London and confronts the father: "In the 20 years I have fought to live," he says in his florid maleficence, "the thought of killing you and your son has been my dearest nurse." He kills the father, is mortally wounded himself and, on his deathbed, reveals his identity to his daughter Ling Moy (Wong) and elicits her vow that she will "cancel the debt" to the Fu family honor and murder the son, Ronald (Bramwell Fletcher)... who, dash it all, is madly infatuated with Ling Moy.
Ronald has seen "Princess Ling Moy Celebrated Oriental Dancer" perform, and the vision has made him woozy. "I wish I could find a word to describe her," this calf-man effuses. "Exotic that's the word! And she's intriguing, if you know what I mean." In a near-clinch, Ling Moy wonders if a Chinese woman can appeal to a British toff. When he begs her to "chuck everything and stay," she asks him, "If I stayed, would my hair ever become golden curls, and my skin ivory, like Ronald's?" But the lure of the exotic is hard to shake. "Strange," he says, "I prefer yours. I shall never forget your hair and your eyes." They almost kiss ... when an off-camera scream shakes him out of his dream. It is from his girlfriend Joan (Frances Dade), and the societal message is as clear and shrill: white woman alerting white man to treachery of yellow woman.
Ling Moy, a nice girl, previously unaware of her lineage, might be expected to struggle, at least briefly, with the shock of her identity and the dreadful deed her father obliges her to perform. But Wong makes an instant transformation, hissing, "The blood is mine. The hatred is mine. The vengeance shall be mine." Just before his death, Fu mourns that he has no son to kill Ronald. But, in a good full-throated reading, Wong vows: "Father, father, I will be your son. I will be your son!" The audience then has the fun of watching her stoke Ronald's ardor while plotting his death. When she is with him, pleading and salesmanship radiate from her big eyes. But when an ally asks her why she keeps encouraging the lad, she sneers and says, "I am giving him a beautiful illusion. Which I shall crush."
As a villainess, she is just getting started. Revealing her mission to Ronald, she tells him she plans to kill Joan "Because you must have a thousand bitter tastes of death before you die." (The ripe dialogue is by Hollywood neophyte Sidney Buchman, whose distinguished list of credits would include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Here Comes Mr Jordan and The Talk of the Town.) She soon ascends on a geyser of madness as she decides on a new torture: "My vengeance is inspired tonight. You will first have the torture of seeing her beauty eaten slowly away by this hungry acid." An aide holds a hose gadget over Joan's soon-to-be-corroded face, and Ronald cries for Ling Moy to stop. Very well she says. "Ling Moy is merciful." She barks at Ronald: "Kill her!" He must decide if his favorite white girl is to be etched with acid or stabbed to death. Great stuff! Melodrama is the art of knowing how precisely too far to go.