Cap'n Bob Napier, while recovering from shoulder surgery and trying to keep his mind off his discomfort, has been posting pictures of Anna May Wong on his blog (aptly named Cap'n Bob's Blog). Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star and had a preternaturally beautiful and mature stage presence. She was also the star of my choice for this week's selection for Todd Mason's Overlooked Films, Daughter of the Dragon (Paramount, 1931) -- a great movie that I never saw, at least, not completely.
Bear with me as I harken back to the not-so-distant past. Bouchercon IV (the only Bouchercon I ever attended) was held in Boston in 1973. This was the first East Coast Bouchercon and attendance was small but the programming was great. Somebody (Chris Steinbrunner, maybe) was showing some great movies during the evenings. One item shown was a reel from Daughter of the Dragon. (My memory is hazy: I had thought that this had been presented as a chapter in a serial and that this was the only piece extant of the movie. A check on IMDB shows I was mistaken. Daughter of the Dragon was a 70-minute 8-real film. It could be that the reel shown was the only known to survive at the time.) Anna May Wong (of course) had the title role.
The "Dragon" is that evil mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu himself. The movie is based, ever so loosely, on Sax Rohmer's novel Daughter of Fu Manchu. Anna May plays Ling Moy, whose neighbor -- unknown to her -- is Fu Manchu (played Warner Oland, later known for his Charlie Chan roles); also unknown to Ling Moy is that Fu Manchu is secretly her father. Ling Moy also happens to be interested in Ah Kee (an early role for Sessue Hayakawa), who is really a secret agent out to stop the evil doctor. Who will Ling Moy side with? Her father or her lover? Do we really have to ask?
The reel I saw seems to have Ling Moy in her father's thrall. It was interesting and thrilling in a creaky sort of way. What I remember most is that Anna May worn a filmy outfit and no bra. I always try to focus on the important parts when watching films.
Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong ("Frosted Yellow Willows") in 1905 in Los Angeles. She was a third generation American. Her father stereotypically owned a laundry and opposed her dreams of acting; in the Chinese culture of the time an actress was on the same level as a prostitute. Anna was stubborn, however, and haunted movie sets while very young. She managed to her her first, uncredited, role when she was 14 in a movie called The Red Lantern. She had a number of other bit roles in films until, at 17, she got the lead role in Toll of the Sea, an adaptation of Madame Butterfly.
Anna was now a star, but as an Asian she had to confront the racism of the time. Leading Asian roles were usually played by white actors (viz., Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and countless others). Asian women were elimated from most starring roles because 1) they didn't look Asian enough (!), or, 2) they weren't allowed to kiss a white leading man. (Mary Pickford, one of the whitest actresses ever, had the lead role as an Asian in an earlier version of Madame Butterfly.) Anna May Wong was only one of two major actresses who never kissed a leading man onscreen. (For you trivia experts out there, the other was Mae West.)
During her career, Anna May Wong worked with many of the leading actors of the time: Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Ronald Colburn, Lawrence Olivier, and Anthony Quinn, among others. She was known as the world's best dressed woman and was said to have the most beautiful hands in the movies. I didn't notice her hands in Daughter of the Dragon.
Tired of being denied roles, Anna moved to Europe in 1928 and made a stream of English and German films. In Europe, she was treated like the major actress she was. Her fame soared after her first talkie, The Flame of Love. This film, made before dubbing was available, was shot three times and Anna spoke her role in English, French, and German for the various releases.
She never married. Because of the racial laws in America, she was forbidden to marry a white and the thought of marrying someone of her own race conflicted with her strong ideas of independence. Reportedly, one white lover wanted to take her to Mexico and marry her there, but recanted when he considered the possible effect on his acting career. She continued acting -- movies, stage, radio, and television. In 1951, she had a short-lived television program on the Dumont Network, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she played a Chinese detective.
Caught between two worlds, she faced racism from many whites and disdain from many Chinese. She was a well-read person who conversed well in the salons of Europe, spoke four languages fluently (although her parents complained that she spoke Chinese with an English accent), loved golf, horses, and skiing. She also had her demons. Rumored to be bisexual, she suffered from depression and smoked and drank too much.
Anna May Wong, a pioneer for Asian-Americans and for women, died far too young at age 56 of cirrhosis of the liver.
For more Overlooked Movies, visit Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom at socialistjazz.blogspot.com.