The Self-Made Anna May Wong

October 6, 2015 - 1:47pm
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the career of Anna May Wong was written by Cinematheque Staff Member Amanda McQueen. A double feature of the Wong vehicles Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know will screen at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, October 11 beginning at 2 p.m. This screening is a co-presentation of the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's "35mm Forever!" series and Madison's Asian-American Media Spotlight.

By Amanda McQueen

In her profile of Anna May Wong for Hollywood Magazine in January 1938, columnist Louise Leung concluded of the actress, "If anyone can claim to be self-made, she can." Indeed, as the first Chinese American film star, she had to be. Multi-lingual, fashion forward, politically engaged, witty, and often outspoken against the limited roles offered to people of color, Wong worked tirelessly within a system that did little to help her succeed. And although Hollywood never made her a true leading lady, her hard work and talent – evident even in low-budget features like Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and Dangerous to Know (1938) – nevertheless made her an icon.

Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong) grew up alongside Hollywood and spent her childhood infatuated with the movies. In 1921, after working for a few years as an extra, she dropped out of school to pursue acting full time. Although she worked steadily through the 1920s, anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from kissing an actor of another race on screen, and she was mostly relegated to stereotyped supporting roles, like that of the treacherous Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924). In 1928, frustrated by this lack of opportunity, Wong left for Europe, where films like Piccadilly (UK 1929) and The Flame of Love (UK 1930, aka Road to Dishonour) – her first talkie, which she recorded in English, French, and German – made her an international star.

When Paramount offered her a contract in 1931, Wong returned to Hollywood, hoping to capitalize on the prestige she had built in Europe. However, despite strong performances in big-budget films like Shanghai Express (1932), she remained only a featured player. Adding insult to injury, studios often considered Wong for a part, only to give it to a white actor in "yellow face"; for example, the female lead in MGM's adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth (1937), which Wong had long coveted, went to German-born Luise Rainer. So although she continued to act in Hollywood, Wong frequently returned to the stage and Europe in search of better opportunities, and in 1936 – after the Good Earth disappointment – she spent nine months touring China.

In 1937, Paramount offered Wong a new contract (she had been dropped as a cost-cutting measure some years before), initiating what she called the "Third Beginning" of her film career. This time, the studio placed her in B films, where she posed less of a financial risk, but where she also found more freedom to promote positive portrayals of Chinese characters. The first of these films was Daughter of Shanghai, in which she played Lan Ying Lin, a young woman who teams up with Detective Kim Lee (Philip Ahn) to investigate her father's murder and halt a smuggling ring. Written by Gladys Unger and Garnett Weston, the film was partly an attempt to capitalize on the contemporary vogue for Chinese themes, but it was also designed to give Wong an active and sympathetic character. "I like my part in this picture better than any I've had before," she explained to Hollywood Magazine, "because this picture gives the Chinese a break." She similarly told Modern Screen, "I feel that the real Chinese should be shown to the audiences of the world, if only to correct false impressions of the past. And so, with this thought in mind, I was happy to appear in 'Daughter of Shanghai.'" Paramount also touted the fact that the Chinese consul in LA had approved the screenplay; this was a significant change for Wong, whose previous films had been criticized and banned by the Chinese Nationalist government for their "disgraceful" depictions of Chinese womanhood. For these reasons, then, as the Library of Congress explained upon selecting it for preservation, "Daughter of Shanghai was more truly Wong's personal vehicle than any other of her films."

Wong then immediately went to work on another B thriller, Dangerous to Know, in which she played Madam Lan Ying, a gangster's mistress. The film was an adaptation of On the Spot, a play by prolific English writer Edgar Wallace, and Wong had in fact played the same role in both the London and Broadway stage versions back in 1930, just before her return to Hollywood. (Incidentally, Dangerous to Know also served as promotion for Paramount's upcoming The Big Broadcast of 1938 by prominently featuring the song "Thanks for the Memory.")

Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know both performed well at the domestic box office, but because they were B films – each shot in about a month by low-budget specialist Robert Florey in late-1937 – neither received much critical attention. Variety concluded of the former, for example, that it wasn't "half bad" for a "frankly second-rate offering," while the New York Times dismissed the latter as a "second-rate melodrama, hardly worthy of the talents of its generally capable cast." In Europe, however, where Wong was still a big name, both films garnered much better reviews. Evidencing her continued popularity in Germany, Dangerous to Know even received a stamp of approval from the Nazi Ministry of Culture.

Wong continued to appear in low-to-mid-budget films through the 1940s – including a few anti-Japanese propaganda films – and then moved into television, where she briefly starred in her own series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951). In 1960, with the offer of a significant role in Universal's adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Flower Drum Song (1961), which boasted an all-Asian cast, Wong seemed poised for another Hollywood comeback. However, when her health – damaged by years of drinking and smoking – took a turn for the worse, she had to withdraw from the project, and she died of a heart attack in February 1961.

While some have criticized Anna May Wong for being complicit with Hollywood's stereotyping of Asian characters, others – including the Asian-American Artists Foundation and the Asian Fashion Designers – have heralded her as a pioneering figure. In films like Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know, Anna May Wong demonstrates her undeniable talent, style, and tenacity, making it clear why Kay Francis would name her as one of the "8 Most Fascinating People in Hollywood" for Modern Screen. "I believe that she, more than any woman in pictures, has made the best of her opportunities," Francis explained. "Her problems were peculiarly complicated, but she wasn't daunted in the least."