That Old Feeling: Anna May Win

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Java Head: has a passing resemblance to E.T. (48 years later), the story of a strange and gifted creature who shocks on first glance, wins over the kid sister, is rejected for looking different and escapes to another land (a distant planet for E.T., death for Taou Yuen). The movie also is mildly progressive and provocative in positing a saintly Asian destroyed by ignorant Europeans. (Possible caveat: the villain, Nellie's brother, is a white man tainted by the Yellow Peril — opium.) But its most interesting subtext is the Code of the Kiss. In movies of the day, the hero was destined to wind up with the first woman he meaningfully kisses. Man and wife share several intimate scenes in their bedroom, but they never kiss. Late in he film, Gerrit surrenders to his old amour and plants a passionate one on Nellie. It seals their fate — and, terminally, Taou Yuen's.


Wong may have broken through the Hollywood race barrier, but her success didn't help others; no studio boss told his casting director, "Get me another Anna May Wong!" It didn't even help her. When Hollywood made movies about Chinese people, it simply put white actors in "yellowface." The term is a misnomer. Whereas a white actor playing a black was obliged to dab cork to darken the visage, a white playing an "Oriental" character didn't change face color but applied spirit gum to give the eyes a higher slant.

Hollywood's rationale, put baldly, went like this: 1. East Asians look just like "us," only their eyes go up funny, so they can be played by European Americans with the help of spirit gum. And 2. Asian-American actors don't have the training or star power to sell a movie character or a movie ticket.

The theatrical tradition of white actors in "yellowface" precedes movies, and the innate realism of films didn't discourage early actors. In 1919, the year Richard Barthelmess played the sensitive "chink" in Broken Blossoms, the Danish actor Warner Oland played his first Chinese in The Lightning Raider. Oland looked no more Chinese than, say, Bob Keeshan, yet he was cast "yellow" dozens of times, including in four films with Wong, and culminating in 16 Charlie Chan movies. When Oland died, in 1938, Missouri-born Sidney Toler was tabbed to replace him; he played the sleuth in 22 films, until his death in 1947. Wong had played Fu Manchu's daughter in 1931, but the following year, when MGM made The Mask of Fu Manchu, that role went to caucasian Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Jerry Lewis, Alec Guinness, Shirley MacLaine all applied Oriental makeup for mainstream movies. It wasn't until the late 60s, when Americans were seeing East Asians on their TV screens every night, that Hollywood finally renounced this sorry tendency,

Wong had played featured roles in A pictures, and leads in B's. But could Wong win a major part in the biggest Chinese-set film yet to be made? She yearned to play O-Lan, the heroine of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, a best-seller that won the American novelist the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Buck's thoughts were similar to Wong's. As Anthony B. Chan relates in his book Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, 1905-1961, Buck had lunch with an MGM executive, some time before The Good Earth was to be cast. "I said I hoped they would use Chinese actors in the leading parts," she recalled, "to which he replied that this was impossible because of the American star system." Wong, who had just turned 30, tested several times for O-lan, meeting with skepticism and animosity. The skeptic was Albert Lewin, the MGM producer in charge of casting the film. After a screen test, he wrote an evaluation expressing "a little disappointed as to looks. Does not seem beautiful enough to make Wang's infatuation convincing; however, deserves consideration." She also tested for the role of Wang's second, younger wife Lotus, but she was not seriously considered. In the New York American, Regina Crewe reported that "The producer said Anna May Wong 'wasn't the type'."

Lewin and MGM were unlikely to hire any Chinese-Americans for major roles. "In his reports on ... other Chinese actors," Hodges writes, "Lewin consistently argued that, despite their ethnicity, they did not fit his conception of what Chinese people looked like." What were they supposed to look like? Warner Oland? No, not a Dane like Oland — Austrians! Paul Muni played Wang, Luise Rainer was O-lan and Tilly Losch got the role of Lotus. Wong, Chan, speculates, was "Too beautiful for one part and too old for the other." (Anna May's younger sister Mary Liu Heung Wong did get the small role of the Little Bride. She hanged herself in the family garage in 1940.)

Resistance to Wong came from outside the studio as well as inside. The Chinese government's official advisor to MGM, who said that her odor in China was "very bad ... whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption 'Anna May again loses face for China.'" He wasn't exaggerating. When Shanghai Express played in the city it supposedly was set in, a local newspaper called Wong "the female traitor to China," and a journal in Tianjin carried the headline: "Paramount Uses Anna May Wong to Embarrass China Again." Apparently not realizing that the villain Chang was a Communist, and Wong's Hui Fei, though a prostitute, was a brave Nationalist who kills Chang to save China, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government banned the film. Said Wong: "It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I am too American."

A few years later, Wong did appear in the adaptation of a Pearl Buck novel, The Patriot, on Orson Welles' Campbell Playhouse (successor to his Mercury Theatre on the Air), supported by future Citizen Kane co-stars Ray Collins and Everett Sloane (as Chiang Kai-shek!). Wong played Peony, a servant in the house of the mandarin-turned-revolutionary I-Wan (Welles). Again she gets star billing; again she has a small role.

Listening to the show on the Mercury Theatre on the Air website, I winced to hear Wong make three gaffes in less than a minute: pronouncing the Welles character's name once as "Aye-Wan," a few moments later as "Ee-Wan"; then blowing a simple line ("Oh I'm not used — not used to — oh I'm used to serving, not sitting down with the others"); and finally stammering out a scene-ending sentence ("Tell me more, En-lan — En-lan — tell me more about this revolution") while the other actors try to cover and step on her line. It was the Circle of Chalk debacle all over again.

At the end of this April 1939 radio play the author and the guest star enjoyed a few moments of chat. "Delighted to meet you, Miss Buck," Wong says. "As a Chinese I naturally have been intensely interested in your books on China." Did Buck realize how probing and poignant Wong's interest had been?


In 1937 she was back at Paramount, for three B pictures. But she was the star! And now, no more dragon ladies. Also no more meaty roles. Sinophiles may rue the villainy imputed to them in movies, but they should realize that villains are often the best parts. The snake gets all the lines.

In Daughter of Shanghai she again stars with an Asian, the Korean actor Philip Ahn (though he was billed 10th). She's the daughter of an antique dealer who is threatened, and killed, by a smuggling ring he is trying to expose. In an early scene, smugglers are shown flying aliens into the country; when the Feds close in on them, they jettison their human payload. (An identical scene appears two years later in Secret Service of the Air, the first in Ronald Reagan's Brass Bancroft series.) Wong turns globe-trotting sleuth to learn the identity of the smugglers' Mr. Big (who turns out to be a Mrs.) and is nearly gang-raped on slave ship of illegal immigrants. When four guys fight in a dispute over her honor, she stands by, paralyzed. Scriptwriters, who didn't have trouble dreaming up cool things for her to do when she was a baddie, usually made her passive as a goodie.

The 1938 Dangerous to Know was a film version of Edgar Wallace's On the Spot, which Wong had played on Broadway. She's the "hostess," i.e. mistress, of a gangster (Akim Tamiroff) with potent political connections. While he does all the heavy acting, she stands by, stoic and steaming, as, essentially, a housekeeper in her own house. She hasn't much more to do in the 1939 Island of Lost Men, where the strong man is J. Carrol Naish as the Oriental plantation boss Gregory Prin. She's a nightclub singer ("China Lily — Songstress of the Orient") and, again, a top-billed irrelevance. She is sent off the island, and doesn't appear in the climactic seven mins. of a 63 min film.

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