Exotic, seductive, expressive…she was probably one of the most talented actresses of the 20th century that most people have never heard of: Anna May Wong.
Anna May Wong took Hollywood by storm in the 1920s in movies such as The Toll of the Sea; Piccadilly; Lilies of the Field; The Thief of Bagdad; Peter Pan and Shanghai Express. Hers was one of the few Asian faces to make it to the silver screen in that era, but Anna May Wong was an all-American girl.
Born in L.A. in 1905 to second-generation American parents of Chinese descent, Anna May went to integrated public schools, was addicted to Nickelodeons and often skipped late-afternoon Chinese school to sneak into the Nickelodeons. Although she didn’t live in Chinatown, she lived close to it and enjoyed watching silent movies being made in Chinatown. Often they needed extras who looked Chinese, and she eventually talked her father into allowing her to be an extra at age 14.
Just 17 years old, she was picked to star in an early two-strip Technicolor film called The Toll of the Sea (1922). It was a story about a Chinese girl who fell in love with a white sailor and eventually gives her life to save him. (It was based loosely on Madame Butterfly.) It was a big hit at the box office, and soon Douglas Fairbanks—the biggest star of the era—was requesting her to star as a venomous slave girl in his upcoming blockbuster, The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
The Thief of Bagdad was the Star Wars of its day. It had the most cutting-edge special effects, an intense action-packed plot and a dynamic super-star lead with an impressive supporting cast.
The only problem with these two movies for Wong was that she would be forever typecast as either a virtuous Chinese maiden willing to sacrifice herself for love or as a viperous dragon lady. To her credit, she played both with incredible verve whenever she was called upon to. And yet, in spite of being Chinese-American, she could almost never get roles as a leading Asian character. Lead roles went to white women such as Myrna Loy who could “play” Asian.
Growing tired of the raging racism of Hollywood, she set out for Europe. At the time she was more famous in Europe than many other American actresses. She learned French and German. She was the toast of film centers in London, Paris and Berlin. She was the guest of honor at many parties—parties she would have been banned from attending in the States. It was a huge relief to her, and she picked up some especially juicy roles.
Wong absolutely steals the show in 1929’s Piccadilly, a hit English film. At a hot nightclub, her character goes from a kitchen worker to the star attraction, as the plot twists around love, betrayal and murder. Surprisingly suspenseful and tense for a silent film, many of its scenes seem to be a precursor to film noir, with their dramatic lighting and cinematography.
After the switch to sound, Wong headed back to Hollywood. Race relations still made life difficult for her. Many directors and producers were stunned she spoke fluent English with an American accent and had difficulty believing she was a real American, born and raised.
Unlike many silent stars, Wong continued getting roles, but they were often secondary characters in the roles in which she was typecast. When it became clear that Hollywood was going to make a serious movie about life in China, Wong campaigned to win the lead female role in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). The novel famously depicts peasant life in pre-revolutionary China, and Wong vied to portray the lead female role of O-Lan, a peasant farmer’s wife. When both lead roles for the husband and wife went to white actors made up to look Chinese, Wong refused yet another secondary dragon lady role in protest. Producers insisted she was too Chinese for the lead.
Although she learned Chinese at a young age through her parents and classes, she had never been to China. After the failed campaign to be cast in The Good Earth, she made a yearlong visit. She wrote articles about China for American newspapers. She explored Chinese theater only to be rejected for being too American. Upon returning to the States, her career began to fade as she protested the treatment of Asian-American actors in Hollywood, only getting a handful of roles in B-movies that treated Asian culture and people with respect. She began devoting much more time and money to supporting the people of China who were already under attack by the Japanese before the United States entered World War II.
After the war, Wong made some television appearances and was staging a major comeback with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Unfortunately, she died in her sleep due to a massive heart attack. She was only 56 when she passed in 1961.
Through the enduring legacy of film, you can still watch many of Anna May Wong’s finest performances. If you get the chance, you really need to see Piccadilly and The Thief of Bagdad with a full organ accompaniment! It is great stuff!
Nathaniel Cerf is a silent movie addict and a regular at the Silent Film Society of Chicago’s special showings. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.