Saturday, May 24, 2014

Anna May Wong; In Her Own Words (Yunah Hong/PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was called Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, and it was alternately fascinating and frustrating because, instead of building it around interviews with people who knew Anna May Wong (though some of those, including Paramount executive A. C. Lyles and a relative of her occasional co-star Philip Ahn, did appear) and film clips of Wong’s movies (though some of those also appeared), writer-director Yunah Hong chose to build it around Wong’s letters and published interviews. This wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d kept the actress reading that material off-screen, Ken Burns-style, but no-o-o-o-o: she actually hired a modern Chinese actress, Doan Ly, to play Wong on screen. Doan Ly (since she’s using a traditional Chinese name instead of adopting an at least partially Western one the way Wong herself did, I presume “Doan” is her family name) is superficially right for the part: she’s the right height, build and age (and after having suffered through the 5’ 6” Leonardo DiCaprio as the 6’ 3” Howard Hughes I’m especially attentive to issues like that in biopics!), and her speaking voice is reasonably convincing — though when we get to see footage of Wong’s 1936 trip to China to see her relatives there (she was born in L.A. in 1905 but her dad had two wives, one in China and one in the U.S., and in 1936, after the death of Wong’s mother, her dad moved back to China but then later returned to L.A.) and the voice we hear on the soundtrack is Wong’s own, narrating the silent home-movie footage 20 years later, the effect is galvanic. Also, Doan Ly attempts to reproduce Anna May Wong’s cabaret act, and she sings in a breathy, almost toneless voice I can’t believe is at all like Wong’s own. (Wong’s singing voice seems to be lost; as far as I know, she never sang in a film, nor did she make records.) I’d already come to admire Anna May Wong’s career and curse the institutionalized racism of Hollywood (and America) during her lifetime that denied her the stardom she should have had — though even in the modern day a brilliant Chinese actress like Gong Li hasn’t been able to rise much higher than the muck of villainesses and “traditional” roles that constituted most of Wong’s oeuvre — and by chance Charles and I had recently re-watched A Study in Scarlet, which may have given Wong yet another “yellow peril” villainess role but also offered some stunning Avedon-esque close-ups of her by cinematographer Arthur Edeson.

This documentary mentions Wong’s greatest career frustration — that she didn’t get the starring role as O-Lan in MGM’s 1937 film of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth (according to this movie, she was instead offered the second female lead, the villainess Lotus, who seduces the good Chinese farmer played by Paul Muni away from O-Lan and ruins him) — according to another documentary I’ve seen on MGM she actually tested for O-Lan but the studio executives considered her performance too weak (and gave the role to the God-awful Luise Rainer, who won her second undeserved Oscar in a row for it after The Great Ziegfeld — beating out Greta Garbo, who had given the performance of a lifetime that year in another MGM production, Camille). She faced opposition not only from MGM’s executives but also from Pearl S. Buck herself, who wanted MGM to make the movie in China and cast exclusively Chinese-born Chinese actors instead of a Chinese-American like Wong. Apparently Buck didn’t approve of all the villainous yellow-peril stereotypes Wong had played and either didn’t understand or didn’t care that those were the roles Anna May Wong was being offered, and it was a question of taking them or not working at all. Yunah Hong covers Wong’s several trips to Europe in the late 20’s and early 30’s, where she performed in vaudeville (singing songs in English, French and Chinese) and made bigger, more elaborate movies like Song (1928, a German production directed by Richard Eichberg, whom I’d never heard of before, though Hong makes him out as a major director of comparable importance to the ones from the period I had heard of: Murnau, Lang, Wiene and Leni, with two screenwriters I’ve also never heard of, though I have heard of Karl Vollmöller, who wrote the source novel), in which she has an interracial affair with the male lead, Heinrich George (later a favorite of the Nazis), though even in a European movie she still had to die for transgressing the racial bounds in her affections. She was also in Piccadilly (1929), a British production (though directed by another German, E. A. Dupont) which also featured Charles Laughton in a minor role, making his film debut.

Her first sound film was called Flame of Love, made at British International (the big studio that was at the same time doing its damnedest to wreck Alfred Hitchcock’s career; in his six years under contract to them he made the first British sound film, Blackmail, and his first masterpiece, Rich and Strange, but for the most part he got put on unsuitable assignments and it wasn’t until he worked free from them and got back with the producer Michael Balcon, who had launched his career in 1925, that he made the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a mega-hit which set the pattern for the rest of his career) and filmed in English, French and German versions (Richard Eichberg is credited on as co-director with Jean Kemm but I suspect Eichberg probably just directed the German version and had nothing to do with the other two). She eventually returned to the U.S. and landed what is probably her greatest film, Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich, under Josef von Sternberg’s direction — the clips from it here seem to be masterpieces in indirection, with both women competing to be as low-keyed as possible and project sexuality and exoticism by seeming to be doing nothing at all — and then there was the disappointment of not getting the lead in The Good Earth, a return to her frequent silent-era casting as the second lead in Chinese- or Chinatown-set films like Limehouse Blues with George Raft; a late-1930’s Paramount contract that landed her fairly decent roles in “B” movies like Daughter of Shanghai (in which she was a woman who runs into Philip Ahn as a Chinese-American FBI agent investigating a case of human trafficking of Chinese immigrants; for once she and Ahn got to play the good guys!) and King of Chinatown; a sorry exit at the ultra-cheap PRC studios with a couple of war-themed cheapies called Bombs Over Burma (the title was inaccurate in one particular — the film took place entirely in China, not Burma — but all too accurate in the “bomb” part) and Lady from Chungking; a bit part in the 1949 film noir Impact and a career spent mostly on stage and on TV (she did an actual series in 1951 called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong but it only lasted a few months) until her death in 1961, just before she was scheduled to film an important part in the Asian-American-themed musical Flower Drum Song. (Her actual last credit was a guest shot on Barbara Stanwyck’s anthology series.)

I’ve noticed my comments over the years on films in Anna May Wong’s oeuvre: the 1924 Peter Pan (in which Wong played the American Indian Tiger Lily, “which makes it all the more disappointing that scenarist [Willis] Goldbeck makes so little use of her and the Indians”), the 1927 Mr. Wu (a film that comes in for special condemnation in this documentary because Wong played the second lead to Renée Adorée, a French actress crudely made up to look Chinese; I wrote, “Frankly this film would have been better with Anna May Wong in her role, not only because she was authentically Asian but because she was a better actress as well”), Shanghai Express (in which, I said, Wong was “photographed superbly by Sternberg and Lee Garmes and [came] close to matching Dietrich in sheer star charisma — had the movie business been ready for an Asian mega-star in the 1930’s Wong would have had a far bigger career than she did!”), A Study in Scarlet (in which Wong was “billed second and stunningly photographed by cinematographer Arthur Edeson — the previous year she’d appeared as the second female lead in the Sternberg/Dietrich Shanghai Express and Edeson and director Edwin L. Marin were obviously giving her the same inscrutable treatment,” though Marin and the writers, Robert Florey and Reginald Owen, took pains to point out at the end that Wong was simply the mistress, not the wife, of one of the white characters to avoid any hint of interracial marriage), Limehouse Blues (in which George Raft was in “yellowface” as a Chinese gangster about to dump his Chinese fiancée, Wong’s role, for a white girl; “Wong plays this scene in her most sepulchral, ‘inscrutable’ tone, a far cry from the hysteria with which white actresses usually played confrontations with guys who were about to break up with them in 1930’s movies,” and I said the film itself was “notable for the sheer beauty and power of the atmospherics … and for Anna May Wong’s haunting performance in what was, alas, the second lead”), Daughter of Shanghai (“Once again it’s worthwhile to see Anna May Wong, who had the talent to be a major star if the American audience had been open to people of color becoming major stars back then. It’s ironic to see her playing a detective just four years after she was one of the principal villains in A Study in Scarlet, the Sherlock Holmes movie made by KBS World-Wide just before it went out of business in 1933, and certainly her role here is a throwback to the revenge figure she played so well in the Sternberg-Dietrich Shanghai Express. A nice bit of moviemaking featuring an almost forgotten star!”), and Bombs Over Burma (the only one of those movies in which I was critical of Wong, who “seemed to be sleepwalking through her part”).