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Her career was winding down. Her last contract was with the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) for top-billed roles in two 1942 propaganda films set in the Asian war. In Joseph H. Lewis' Bombs Over Burma she's a schoolteacher joining forces with American GIs to defeat the Japs. "I can stand up and take it now," a soldier brags. "And what's more I can give it back." Wong smiles and replies, "Like China." This is one of the few exchanges in a strange movie, whose dialogue is so sotto voce, it's almost not-o voce. Long sequences are without dialogue, others are only in Cantonese. The actors play like non-actors. In its rigorous artlessness, Bombs Over Burma is almost a preview of Italian neo-realism.
The PRC Lady from Chungking reunited Wong with William Nigh, who had directed her in two silent films. She plays Kwan Mei, a rebel leader who is organizing guerrillas in the hills while wheedling strategic information from Kaimura, the Japanese officer in town. "There is a fragile but durable beauty in you, Madame," purrs the smitten swine, to which Kwan Mei says, "Perhaps I'm as aged-looking as the Great Wall." No, she is fetching in her improbable gear. Anthony Chan observes: "Even as the rebel leader in the rice fields, Kwan Mei wears a silk suit with handwoven buttons..."
While paying a dozing attention to the plot, a viewer wonders whether, for once, Wong will get an on-screen kiss. She does, from Kaimura a rebel leader will do anything for the Cause and, when he discovers her true mission, she pays with her life. Standing before the firing squad, she declares: "You cannot kill me. You cannot kill China. Not even a million deaths would crush the soul of China. For the soul of China is eternal. ... We shall live on until the enemy is driven back over scorched land and hurled into the sea. ... Out of the ashes of ruin ... until the world is again sane and beautiful." The firing squad's fatal work doesn't interrupt Kwan Mei's oration; her ghost finishes the speech. It would be Wong's last grand gesture in films.
THREE RULES FOR ANNA MAY WONG
A few rules that guided and restricted Wong's career:
1. She couldn't kiss. A Wong character might lure men to delight or destruction, but she was forbidden the main movie signifier of romantic fulfillment: the kiss. In Piccadilly with Jameson Thomas and in The Road to Dishonor (the English-language remake of Hai-Tang) with John Longden, their kiss was cut by British censors "on moral grounds." Wong, quoted in TIME, proclaimed the furor much ado about bussing, "I see no reason why Chinese and English people should not kiss on the screen, even though I prefer not to." Both co-stars agreed. Thomas: "In England, we have less prejudice against scenes of interracial romance than in America. In France, there is still less, and in Germany, there is none at all. But we are careful to handles such scenes tactfully." Longden: the ban on kissing was "a ridiculous anomaly," "stupid and inconsistent."
There were occasions when Wong could be kissed: tenderly, sexlessly, by a child (in her first starring role, The Toll of the Sea) or, greedily, by a rapacious, besotted Japanese general (in her last starring role, Lady from Chungking). But, so often, directors sidled up to the big smooch, then found an excuse to abort it, as with the white Fletcher and the Asian Hayakawa in Daughter of the Dragon and with Loder in Java Head. Decades after her death, the poet John Lau wrote a verse titled "No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong." That's not quite true; the poem's title should be "Everyone Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong But Hardly Anyone Got to Do It."
2. She had to die. Not always, but frequently. You may know that Chaney, because of his gift (and fondness) for distorting his features to play a wide range of characters, was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces. Well, Wong was the Woman of a Thousand Deaths. A saunter through the film synopses in Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work, by Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane, reveals some of the mischief done to Wong characters: she was buried alive in The Devil Dancer, fatally impaled on knives in Song, shot dead in Piccadilly, Daughter of the Dragon and Lady from Chungking. She committed suicide in Shame and Drifting, Hai-Tang, Tiger Bay and Java Head (poison) and Limehouse Blues and Dangerous to Know (dagger).
You may think that her regular demise was the last vengeance of racist screenwriters. Think again. Garbo, the most exalted Hollywood star of the period, died in most of her movies too.
3. She would be given star treatment in the credits but not in her pay packet. On the business side of Wong's career, two anomalies stand out. She was often billed higher than warranted by the importance of her character or the size of her role. (The names of black actors, no matter how substantial their roles, were typically placed below the least significant white actors.) Yet, even when she was the star, she often was paid less than her supporting actors. In Daughter of the Dragon, where she was top-billed, she earned $6,000 to Hayakawa's $10,000 and Oland's $12,000 (though he's out of the picture by the 23rd min.). Her Shanghai Express gig, where she is billed third, again above Oland, Wong earned another $6,000; Dietrich got $78,166. A decade later, in her two-film deal with PRC, she was paid a pretty paltry $4,500. She donated it all to China War Relief.
She spent much of the war beating the drum for the Chinese who had not made it to the Golden Mountain: America. At war's end she was 40 not as old as the Great Wall, but getting on. Age had thickened her features, and years of playing either stern villains or stalwart heroines had stripped animation from her face. Now it was an impassive mask, as if she were preparing for a Peking Opera version of a Samuel Beckett play.
She didn't return to films until 1949, and then in a small role in a B picture called Impact. As the hero's housekeeper she is mostly mute and still, a piece of antique statuary, hoarding secrets in deference to her good master. When she speaks, it's in tortuous translations from the pseudo-Cantonese ("It is the hope that Su Lin was of small help to Mr. Williams"), Eleven years later she was another housekeeper in the Ross Hunter production Portrait in Black, this time supporting Anthony Quinn, who had done small roles in her late-30s Paramount films. Now he was the famous name and she the filler. (Also in 1960, Quinn starred as an Inuit in Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents opposite another actress, Marie Yang, who in this film was billed as Anna May Wong! It may be the only instance of an actor appearing with two actresses of the same name in the same year.)
Like a lot of veteran performers in the 50s, Wong found more work on the small screen than the large. She hosted a 13-week series, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong (her Chinese name), for the Dumont network in 1951, and in 1957 hosted an ABC evening of film clips from the 30s trip to China, called Bold Journey. She did guest spots on The Barbara Stanwyck Show and Adventures in Paradise. In 1956 she got a long-deferred chance to play a role she lost out on in Hollywood: as the Asian blackmailer in Somerset Maugham's The Letter. The director of the TV show was William Wyler, the man who had said no when he made the film version in 1940. She was set to return to Hollywood, with the large role of Auntie Liang in Hunter's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, when, on Feb. 3, 1961 44 years ago today she died of a heart attack following liver disease. She was 56.
The woman who had died a thousand deaths on screen now died for real. And the story of her life traced the arc of triumph and tragedy that marked so many of her films. Wong's youthful ambition and screen appeal got her farther than anyone else of her race. But her race, or rather Hollywood's and America's fear of giving Chinese and other non-whites the same chance as European Americans, kept her from reaching the Golden Mountaintop. We can be startled and impressed by the success she, alone, attained. And still we ask: Who knows what Anna May Wong could have been allowed to achieve if she had been Anna May White?