The Wong show

Moving Image honors the great Anna May Wong

STAR AND STRIPES FOREVER Wong smolders in E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929).

STAR AND STRIPES FOREVER Wong smolders in E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929).

Although her name may be unfamiliar to many, Anna May Wong (1905--1961) was the most famous Chinese-American actor of her era, her success unparalleled even now (sorry, Lucy Liu). As temptress, travel companion or noble freedom fighter, the star constantly captivated. Anna May fans and curious filmgoers alike can rejoice, as the Museum of the Moving Image presents the most comprehensive Wong retrospective ever mounted, with more than 20 (of the 60) films she appeared in unspooling over the next seven weeks.

Wong, a Los Angeles native, made her acting debut at 14 as an extra in 1919’s The Red Lantern (not included in the series), starring Alla Nazimova as a pair of half sisters (one Eurasian, one white). An especially remarkable aspect of Wong’s career is how she thrived despite the racism prevalent in Hollywood at the time. As Livia Bloom, the assistant curator at the Museum of the Moving Image and organizer of the series, explains, “People really want to claim her as a progressive actress at the time. Which she was, but she also exploited the roles even as they exploited her.” Indeed, after viewing her outrageous turn as the vengeful Princess Ling Moy, the daughter of Fu Manchu in Lloyd Corrigan’s howler Daughter of the Dragon (1931), you sense that Wong’s excessive flourishes were a form of critique.

At 17, Wong starred in Chester M. Franklin’s The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first color films— and the actor’s breakthrough role. This Madame Butterfly--inspired romance finds island ingenue Lotus Flower (Wong) falling in love with—and bearing a child by—Allen Carver (Kenneth Harlan), a white American whom she rescued from the ocean. Allen promises to take his beloved back to the States, but he doesn’t, of course, marrying instead his childhood sweetheart. Lotus Flower relinquishes her son to the newlyweds and meets a watery death. Without Wong’s wrenching portrayal of heartbreak, Toll would be just a Technicolor sudser.

But following this and other acclaimed roles, Wong encountered frustration; as David Schwartz, the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image, notes, “She built up a level of stardom in Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her.” So, like compatriots Louise Brooks and Josephine Baker, Wong headed for Europe, where she made two of her greatest films, both from 1929: Richard Eichberg’s The Pavement Butterfly and E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly. In the former, Wong plays Hai-Tang, a circus performer who becomes smitten with Kusmin (Louis Lerch), a Parisian artist. Again, a white woman intervenes—as do certain codes preventing mixed-race romance onscreen, enforced even on the more liberal Continent—and Hai-Tang must give up her man (but, at least this time, not her life) to an heiress. Throughout the melodrama, Wong shimmers with emotional vibrancy—dancing, her arms akimbo, for a street crowd in one scene, then achingly stroking a wall out of thwarted desire for Kusmin in the next.

In Piccadilly, Wong electrifies as Shosho, who advances from scullion to nightclub headliner, thanks to her impromptu tabletop wiggle, which catches the eye of club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). Once again, a love triangle complicates the plot: Valentine is sweet on lily-white top attraction Mabel (Gilda Gray), but soon can’t fight his feelings for Shosho—and with her impeccable flapper fashion and flirty finesse, who possibly could?

Back in Hollywood, Wong would find more onscreen sizzle with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s delirious Shanghai Express (1932). As high-class ladies of the night traveling together on the titular train, Wong and Dietrich balance each other perfectly—Wong with her steely languor and Dietrich with her chilly coquettishness.

After Shanghai Express, Wong starred in a string of B pictures, including her last lead roles, in Joseph H. Lewis’s Bombs over Burma (1942) and William Nigh’s Lady from Chungking (1942). The films are essentially lumbering propaganda pieces to support the Chinese fight against the Japanese during World War II (a cause dear to the actor). But even as a deglammed, nonshimmying heroine in both, Wong still has majestic presence. “I am Madame Kwan Mei!” she declares in Chungking. We’ll never forget her name-—or that of the actor who played her.

“Anna May Wong” runs Saturday 4 through April 16 at the Museum of the Moving Image. See Art-house & indie cinema.