Monday, April 26, 2010Stealing Dietrich's Limelight and Other Major Achievements...
Before anyone protests that Marlene Dietrich could never be overshadowed in life or death, you need to see Shanghai Express (1932). After spending many afternoons rewatching all of Dietrich's films for a dissertation, I was awestruck by her presence and ability to dominate anyone she shared the screen with, from Adolphe Menjou and Cesar Romero, to a very young and uncharismatic Cary Grant. However, that was before I was able to get my hands on a good copy of Shanghai Express; Dietrich is still wonderful but overshadowed by the luminous Anna May Wong. After experiencing a minor revelation courtesy of Wong's entrancing performance, Dietrich could smoulder away but I wasn't really watching her. Finishing the film I immediately tried to find out what else I could see her appear in, only to find that she was an actress who never really reached the audience she deserved due to prejudice within the Western film industry and Eastern movie audiences.
A second generation Chinese-American, Wong was the first Asian-American movie star who started her career in silent movies aged 17, achieving stardom with a role in The Thief of Baghdad (1924) with Douglas Fairbanks. Her beauty and style ensured she would always have her admirers on the international circuit, however any roles she was offered were always minor due to the Hays Office anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from kissing any Euro-American actors onscreen. At this time studios were also in the habit of giving leading Chinese roles to white actresses, who would play the role in yellowface. Facing such obstacles, Wong left for Europe in the mid-20s, only returning to America in the 30's where she got roles in films like Daughter of the Dragon (1931) - her last role which negatively portrayed Chinese people - and Daughter of Shanghai (1937). In Europe, she starred in the play A Circle of Chalk with Laurence Olivier and her final silent film role in Piccadilly (1929) - my favourite with AMW. She was received with widespread praise for most of her work, though frustratingly her American background was denied to her as the press continually called on her Chinese roots.
Wong was lured back to the US by Paramount who was looking for fresh talent in Europe, but she began to refuse to play anymore roles which stereotyped Asian culture and behaviour, and she publicly expressed her frustration at playing the 'evil Chinese woman' in interviews. Her prominent role in Shanghai Express was a quiet victory, marred only by the Chinese press who derided her acting and called her a disgrace to the Chinese race because of her stirring on-screen sexuality. Chinese intellectuals were not so quick to judge her, however the damage was already done and the negative Chinese press was enough for the Chinese advisor at MGM to recommend she was not cast in the upcoming role of O-Ian in The Good Earth (recommended book) - a role that Wong had openly coveted with the support of the press. Evidently MGM had never considered her a strong candidate as they had already cast a European actor in yellowface for the leading male role, and had previously stated she was "too Chinese to play a Chinese". The role went to Luise Rainer who won an Oscar in the Best Actress category.
In a display of further discrimination, Wong later revealed that she had been offered the role of Lotus, an artful and treacherous concubine in The Good Earth, which Wong vehemently rejected on the basis that she was loathe to be the only Chinese cast member in an All-American cast, playing a despised character. She soon retired to B-movies which allowed her the freedom to portray Chinese characters which the sympathy and authenticity she had always wanted, with frequent returns to the stage and in 1960, was given a star on the inaugeration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame - in fact, she remains the only Asian-American female to have a star. Marginalized by Hollywood and villainized by the Chinese Nationalist government and press, Anna May Wong continued to champion her beliefs and raise racial awareness to the point that she rejected undesirable roles even when plagued by the financial worries and health issues that led to her demise aged only 56. Fighting the prejudice of mainstream culture, she left behind a legacy and became an iconic figure, not only to the Asian-American community, but in cinematic history.