The First Chinese-American Movie Star
March 12, 2015 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star, first appearing as an extra in 1919. Her first leading role came in 1922's Toll of the Sea, the first color feature made in Hollywood. She continued appearing in films until 1960, the year prior to her death.

In the early 1930s, she departed for Europe, where she became a sensation, and a close friend of Leni Reifenstahl (yes, that Leni Reifenstahl).

Back in America, the Hays code's anti-miscegenation rules kept her out of the lead role in The Good Earth in 1937; she was offered the part of the villain, but she refused to play the only non-sympathetic role vs. a cast of white actors playing Chinese characters.

The documentary Anna May Wong: In her Own Words (trailer) was made about her career, and a biopic may be in early stages of development.

Clip of a 1937 movie appearance with color and sound.
posted by Blue Jello Elf (5 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Also of note is Sessue Hayakawa, one of the first leading male sex symbols in Hollywood who rivaled Rudolf Valentino. And just like Anna May Wong, his career was curtailed by racism and anti-miscegenation laws.
posted by cazoo at 9:25 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Slanted Screen is a half-decent documentary on the stereotypical depictions and absence of Asian males in American cinema and other media from the silent era to the present day. It was interesting to learn of the vibrant film world pre-Hayes Code, but annoying in that it didn't cover Asian women in American cinema. This post helps fill in some of those gaps for me, thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:39 AM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

I saw the above-mentioned documentary when it showed at the CAAM festival in SF in 2011 (this Asian and Asian-American film fest is about to kick off this year's installment today, by the way.) The doc is re-screening on KQED April 29. There is also another documentary called Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows. (upcoming screening in Monterrey Park, CA)

She was also close friends with Carl Van Vechten (Wong biographer Graham Russel Gao Hodges notes that she wrote him over 200 letters over 30 years, the biggest cache of her correspondence) and he took many photos of her (LOC link)

I have seen Toll of the Sea - it's two-strip Technicolor, which only had red and green. Each strip was black-and-white film that was toned and then the two strips were glued together, but that led to focus problems. The restoration was done from the original negatives and modern compositing processes, so the gluing wasn't necessary and the results were better.

Also, Picadilly, shot in England and her last silent film, is really good.

And she holds her own on-screen with Marlene Dietrich in Sternberg's Shanghai Express.
posted by larrybob at 10:53 AM on March 12, 2015

Also, another film that Anna May Wong was in, Drifting, a 1923 silent film, which also starred Wallace Beery and Priscilla Dean, is (as of 2011) undergoing restoration. The intertitles had to be translated back to English from Czech.
posted by larrybob at 11:06 AM on March 12, 2015

If you have the opportunity to see Picadilly or Shanghai Express on a big screen, take it - Wong has a presence made for the big screen and she is luminous and expressive and awesome in them. I saw both on a computer screen first, and seeing them in big form was tremendously better.
posted by julen at 11:52 AM on March 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

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