Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anna May Wong (1905-1961)

"There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles."

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star in Hollywood, and the first Asian American actress to become an international star. Her on-screen coolness and sophistication caught my interest in Josef von Sternberg's classic Marlene Dietrich vehicle Shanghai Express (1932), but it was first when I listened to one of the top five songs that lies closest to my heart, These Foolish Things sung by Bryan Ferry, that I decided to write a portrayal post on Anna May.
What was her connection to that song? Read on, dahlin'!


Anna May Wong was born Huang Liu Tsong (meaning "frosted yellow willows") January 3, 1905, near the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her parents were second-generation Chinese-American, her father owning a laundrette, and Anna May was the second child of seven siblings.

When Anna May was five years old, in 1910, her family moved across the hill to another Los Angeles neighborhood, at Figueroa Street. Their new neighborhood was mostly populated by Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, making the Wong family the only Chinese in the area. Being separated from Chinatown helped Anna May to assimilate into the American culture, but it seemed like the American culture had problems assimilating with the Wongs. Anna May and her older sister were targets for racist bullying in school, and soon they had to attend a Chinese school instead. The classes were however still taught in English.

It was about this time that the film industry relocated to the west, to flee from the Edison's patent costs on film cameras. Films were shot all around the neighborhood where the Wongs lived. Anna May went to Nickelodeon movie theatres, and fell in love with the movies. She actually fell so hard that she skipped classes in school and used up her lunch money on the film theatres.

She decided to make a career in movies at the age of nine, despite her father's disliking. She visited the film sets, begging for a part in the movies, and soon earned the nickname "C.C.C." ("Curious Chinese Child"). At age 11, she made up the stage name Anna May Wong.

When Anna May was 14 she had a job at Hollywood's Ville de Paris department store, when Hollywood needed 300 extras for Alla Nazimova's film The Red Lantern (1919). At this time, Anna May had gotten herself a film connection (a friend of her unknowing father's), who helped her land a part as one of the extras. Now Anna May was officially in the Hollywood business.

Anna May Wong in the two-strip Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea (1922).

In 1921 Anna May dropped out of school to concentrate fully on her Hollywood career, which payed off in 1922 and the leading role as Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea (my first film review on this blog, read it here). Variety magazine praised her "extraordinarily fine acting". She was 17 years old!

"Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for, and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical 'feeling'. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy ... She should be seen again and often on the screen."

The New York Times on
Anna May Wong in The Toll of the Sea

Despite her great reviews, Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with their new star. The next few years followed with supporting roles of "exotic" nature. She couldn't land any leadning lady parts, due to the anti-miscegenation Film Production Code. An Asian woman was not allowed to kiss a Caucasian man in "yellowface" on-screen, or vice versa. So as long there wasn't any Asian leading man to play opposite Anna May (there was only one of those active during this era, Sessue Hayakawa), she had to stick to supporting parts.

Anna May with Sessue Hayakawa.

The most degrading thing about this situation was that Anna May lost a lot of parts she was well suited for, written for Chinese women, to Caucasian actresses in yellowface. (See American Myrna Loy and German Luise Rainer.)

When Anna May played a typical "dragon lady" part as the Mongol slave in the Douglas Fairbanks film The Thief of Bagdad (1924), she was surprisingly noticed by the audience once again. The film grossed over $2 million and helped Anna May's career, and now she could move out of her family home into her own apartment.
The same year she played Tiger Lily in Peter Pan (1924).

As Tiger Lily in the 1924 version of Peter Pan.

Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad. Love the outfit.

Anna May realized that people, even though she was born in America, concidered her a foreign born, and decided to do something about it. She cultivated a flapper image (which she succeeded with, often being referred to as "the first Chinese American flapper"), became a popular fashion model, and even planned to start up her own film company. The company, called Anna May Wong Productions, was supposed to concentrate on Chinese myths, but her business partner was shown to be a crook. She sued him, and the plans of an own film company was dissolved.

Becoming a flapper and a fashionista.

Again, Anna May was stuck with supporting roles. She tried to do something different by joining a group of serial actors on a vaudeville tour in 1925. It turned out to be a failure, and it was back to Hollywood for Anna May: back to Butterflies and Dragon Ladies.

In 1926 she and Norma Talmadge put the first rivet in the groundbreaking Grauman's Chinese Theatre ceremony, even though she wasn't invited to put her hand- and foot-prints in the cement. In 1927 she lost another leading part to a non-Asian actress, this time to French Renée Adorée, in the Lon Chaney (my post on him here) film Mr. Wu, and instead got to play a small part as Loo Song.

Scene from Mr. Wu (1927).
Anna May Wong (right) and Renée Adorée in yellowface (left).
Like you needed me to tell the real Asian from the fakie.

The next year Anna May finally got another leading part, as Dragon Horse in The Silk Bouquet (1926). This was one of the first American films to co-produce with a Chinese production company, San Fransisco's Chinese Six Companies. The film was set during the Ming Dynasty in China, and the Asian parts were played by Asian actors (!).
Unfortunately, this film seems to be lost.

In 1928, Anna May had had enough of being type-cast and loosing good Chinese parts to non-Asian actors, so she moved to Europe. She became a sensation with German films like Show Life (Schmutziges Geld, 1928) and City Butterfly (Großstadtschmetterling , 1929)
Interestingly enough, the Europeans seemed like they wanted to neglect her American nationality, and only concentrated on her Asian origins.
She continued her European success with the operetta Tschun Tschi in Vienna, which she played in fluent German.

"Wong is acclaimed not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty."

The New York Times on
Germany's response to Show Life

"Fräulein Wong had the audience perfectly in her power and the unobtrusive tragedy of her acting was deeply moving, carrying off the difficult German-speaking part very successfully."

Austrian critic on Anna May Wong's
performance in Tschun Tschi

While in Germany, Anna May befriended director Leni Riefenstahl (who later directed nazi-propaganda films for Adolf Hitler, like Triumph des Willens, 1935), and they became inseparable. Anna May's close relationships with women, such as Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Cunningham started rumours about Anna May being a lesbian, which hurt her career and embarrassed her family (who already didn't like her choice of profession).

Anna May managed however to continue her European career, now in England. She played in a classical Chinese vers play, Circle of Chalk, on stage with none other than Laurence Olivier, changing her Californian accent for a British one.
In 1929 she made her last silent film, and first of five films made in England, a crime drama called Piccadilly, in which she had the starring role. Polish actress Gilda Gray had the top billing, but it was no doubts about who was the star of the picture. Variety commented:

"From the moment Miss Wong dances in the kitchen's rear, she steals 'Piccadilly' from Miss Gray."

Stills from Piccadilly (1929).

Even though Anna May was presented in a very sensual role, she was none the less forbidden to kiss her love interest on-screen. A kissing scene was planned, but the cencor scissors got ahold of it before it had time to upset anyone.
Piccadilly is one of those films who, after having been forgotten for decades, finally have been restored for modern audiences to see.

And here is the part where I link Anna May Wong to my favourite love song, These Foolish Things. While in London, Anna May was romantically involved with a song writer, Eric Maschwitz. He supposedly followed her to Hollywood, where they broke up and he returned to England. In 1935 he wrote These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) about his longing for her, and how every trivial little thing reminds him of his lost love.
There are countless versions of this beloved song. Among many others, it has been sung by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frankie Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Nat "King" Cole, Rod Stewart and, my absolute favorite version - Bryan Ferry.

Bryan Ferry's version of These Foolish Things. The 1970's goes 1930's, when Ferry's broken down anti-hero drowns his sorrows in alcohol and cigarettes. Gives me goose bumps all over!

In the 1930's, the American studios was looking for a fresh, European talent, and for some reason they finally took a good look at Anna May Wong again. She signed a Paramount Contract in 1930. Soon after that she made a huge success on Broadway, playing a Japanese woman in On the Spot. The play's director wanted her to play her part with stereotypical Japanese mannerism, but she refused. Instead she used her knowledge of Chinese gestures and mannerism, making her performance authentic. And it proved successful.

She accepted a stereotypical role in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), with the promise of working with the famous Josef von Sternberg.
She did that the next year, playing alongside Marlene Dietrich's Shanghai Lily as a self-sacrificing courtesan in Shanghai Express (1932).

Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

In the same pace as her fame grew, Anna May became more outspoken. She openly made political criticism (for example on the Mukden Accident and the invasion of Manchuria in 1931), and under the head line "I Protest" (a clever reference on Emile Zola's J'Accuse?) she criticized the negative stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood film:

"Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?"

Anna May Wong on
Asian stereotypes

Unfortunately, even after the success of Shanghai Express, Anna May Wong's career followed in the same footsteps as before - loosing parts to white actresses in yellowface. She returned to England for three years, appearing in four films and appearing in King George V's Silver Jubilee program in 1935.
In the film Java Head (1934), Anna May got to kiss a male white star in pictures for the first time, her husband in the film. An Anna May Wong biographer, Graham Russell Hodges, thought this might be the reason that this film, which otherwise wasn't considered great, was among Anna May's personal favorites.

In 1937 MGM planned on making a film adaption of a best-selling Pearl Buck novel about family life in a Chinese village. Since the book was published in 1931, Anna May had made it clear that she wanted the part of O-Lan, the leading female character. Even Los Angeles newspapers had in 1933 boasted on Anna May being the most suitable actress for the part. But by now, we know the story - the leading man was played by Scarface Paul Muni in yellowface, and the part of O-Lan went to Luise Rainer. Anna May was offered the part of Lotus, a singer who helps destroying the family and seduces the eldest son. Anna May refused to play the part, with the following words:

"If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."

Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of O-Lan.

After that disappointment Anna May announced that she was going on a year-long tour in China, to visit her father and her younger siblings who had moved to Taishan, China in 1934. She wanted to learn more about Chinese theatre and how to perform Chinese plays better before international audiences.

"... for a year, I shall study the land of my fathers. Perhaps upon my arrival, I shall feel like an outsider. Perhaps instead, I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality.

This did however not turn out to be as ideal as it sounded at first. Being raised with the Taishan dialect rather than the more common Mandarin, Anna May had to use a translator to be able to communicate in many parts of China. The press was obstinate and didn't leave her alone, and on top of that the Chinese government was hostile to the star. This resulted in depression, heavy drinking and excessive smoking.
Feeling irritable when confronting a crowd in Hong Kong, Anna May w a s unusually aggressive, resulting in an offended crowd shouting things like "Down with Huang Liu Tsong – the stooge that disgraces China. Don't let her go ashore."
She joined her family in Hong Kong, where she spent several days while the situation cooled down.
After having returned to Hollywood Anna May stated:
"I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts."

Finishing off her contract with Paramount, Anna May appeared in a series of B-movies in the late 1930's. This had however a positive effect - low-budget films had the advantage that they could be bolder than the big-budget films. Anna May was offered non-stereotypical roles, praised by the Chinese American press for its positive portrayal of the Chinese.
Among these films her roles as Lan Ying Lin in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and Dr. Mary Ling (she plays a surgeon) in King of Chinatown (1939) are worth mentioning.

Portrait from 1939.

During the WWII years, Anna May put her Hollywood career on ice to engage in support of the Chinese Struggle against Japan. She made two anti-Japanese propagande film during this period, Lady from Chungking (1942) and Bombs Over Burma (1943). She donated her salary to United China Relief. Her performances in these films got great reviews, even though the films themselves were considered poor.

Later in life, Anna May didn't appear in many films. She invested in real estate and owned a lot of Hollywood properties, and between the late 1940's and 1956 she served as an apartment house manager before moving in with her brother in Santa Monica.

In 1951 Anna May starred in a detective TV-series, especially written for her, called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (names after her birth name). She plays an art collector who gets involved in adventures and mysteries.
There are no known copies of the show in existence.

After the detective series, Anna May's health began to decline, and in late 1953 she suffered an internal hemorrhage, probably caused by heavy drinking and financial worries.

In 1956 Anna May hosted one of the first American documentaries on China, using footage from her 1936 China tour. She also did guest appearances on Adventure in Paradise, The Barbara Stanwyck Show and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

Look closely, and you can see Anna May Wong's name on the poster.

1960 was the year of Anna May Wong's last appearance in a motion picture. The film was a thriller drama called Portrait in Black, and starred Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn.

In 1961 Anna May Wong suffered a heart attack in her home at Santa Monica. Her cremated remains were buried in her mother's grave, who had died in a car accident in 1930.

She was never married. When she in 1936 was asked if she planned to ever get married, she answered:

"No, I am wedded to my art."

Remember now to send a thought to the passionate Anna May Wong every time you hear These Foolish Things. And turn up the volume!


Mykal Banta said...

Oh, how the ghost of you clings . . .

Magnificent post.

I won't step on your fine words with any lesser ones of my own except to say - this was excellent work. -- Mykal

Juliette. said...

What a cool coincidence! Last night I was researching Nazimova and came across a link for Anna May Wong, so I read a bit about her and whatnot. Thanks for the great post-- you really added to my knowledge of this actress. :)

Lolita of the Classics said...

Radiation Cinema:
Thank you so much! You make me very flattered.

Really! Great that I could do the research for you! ;)

Anonymous said...

wow, what a great post Lolita!! I hardly knew anything about Anna May Wong until now. I wish her television show were available, I'd love to see that!!

By the way, you're the first person I've ever met who knows who Bryan Ferry is. It's a nice surprise! :)

Juliette. said...

Exactly! ;)

Lolita of the Classics said...

Kate Gabrielle:
Thank you! It became a long post, but these "portrait posts" need to do the person justice, also - so a long post is a price I can pay!
Yeah, Anna May as an art collector/detective would have been awesome to see!
I love Bryan Ferry, you should see how I drool over him in that video, ha ha. Another favorite is Love is the Drug with Roxy Music, that video is lovely!

Mykal Banta said...

Kate & Lolita: How about Fool for Love? As female fans of Mr. Ferry, I must urgently recommned that you look up this song if you don't already know it. On the off chance you don't know the song, here are the lyrics:

Tell her I'll be waiting
In the usual place
With the tired and weary
There's no escape
To need a woman
You've got to know
How the strong get weak
And the rich get poor

Slave to love (repeat)

You're running with me
Don't touch the ground
We're the restless hearted
Not the chained and bound
The sky is burning
A sea of flame
Though your world is changing
I will be the same

Slave to love (repeat)
And I can't escape
I'm a slave to love

Can you help me? (repeat)

The storm is breaking
Or so it seems
We're too young to reason
Too grown up to dream
And the spring is turning
Your face to mine
I can hear your laughter
I can see your smile

Slave to love (repeat)
And I can't escape
I'm a slave to love

-- Mykal

Lolita of the Classics said...

Radiation Cinema:
Yes, that one is enchanting!

Anonymous said...

My favorite Roxy Music song is If There is Something, do you like that one? I love the "growing potatoes by the score" part. It's just one of my favorite lines in a song ever, for some reason :)

Farbror Sid said...

One of my favourite songs too... and Another Time Another Place - 1974... and all the other with Bryan :-)

Tuxedo_Mask said...

A very interesting post on a very interesting lady. Thanks for this.


Woofy said...

I'm a history buff & I appract this post .... I'm always interested in people who from other races maded it back then in movies & other jobs with out any repercution ... I mean this woman had many walls to knock down ... I never heard her name bfore but I'm so glad to find out

JerryAtTheMovies said...

Thanks for posting this. I am doing a youtube video on Anna May Wong as part of my Legends of Hollywood series on underrated talents so any info i can dig up is valuable. Very good piece.