Righting a Wong
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Anna May Wong is not really a classic beauty. Her nose is kind of squashed, her short hair isn't really worn to advantage and her slouched posture only emphasizes her smallish chest. Yet when she comes onscreen for the first time in Piccadilly -- or any of her films, for that matter -- she oozes a rich essence of sensual allure. She's as effortlessly capable of danger and cunning and wile as she is of open-hearted naivete. She's a classic scene-stealer and she demands and earns our attention.
Strangely, Wong (1905-1961) has been more or less forgotten over the years.
She was born in Los Angeles where her parents ran a Chinese Laundry. Her fascination with the movies led to her into film, but she very often played flower girls and dragon ladies. Her first big role was in The Toll of the Sea (1922), which also had the distinction of being the first two-strip Technicolor picture. That film was restored by technicians at UCLA and is available on DVD in the glorious Treasures from American Film Archives box set.
In this melodrama, Wong plays Lotus Flower, a naïve Chinese girl who is swept away by an American washed up on the shore of her native village. He gets her pregnant and forgets all about her when he returns to the U.S. It's a seriously hackneyed story, but Wong's sheer grace gets her through.
Douglas Fairbanks saw her in that role and cast her in a small part in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), where she stole every bit of her miniscule amount of screen time for herself, not to mention that she was seen in a huge blockbuster hit.
Most of Wong's other films have been forgotten, save for her role in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932), opposite Marlene Dietrich, proving that she could make the leap to talkies.
The new restored print of her last silent film, Piccadilly (1929), which opens this week at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, is more or less engineered to help bring her back. (Her films will also have a retrospective at this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.)
She is not top billed, but her entrance in Piccadilly -- and her general presence -- make her the star. In the high-class London nightclub of the title, Victor (Cyril Richard) and Mabel (Gilda Gray) bring in the crowds with their ballroom dancing routine. During one of their performances, a patron (beautifully played by Charles Laughton) raises a huge fuss over a dirty plate, which disrupts the performance, and indeed, everything else. The club's owner, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) traces the cause of the dirty plate back to the kitchen and there discovers Shosho (Wong) dancing up a storm and distracting the grungy, overworked dishwashers.
Wilmot becomes enchanted with her. When Victor leaves the club and it becomes clear that Mabel can't bring in the crowds by herself, Wilmot gives Shosho a chance. But the crafty enchantress maneuvers the job offer into a position of power, which ends in tragedy -- and a rather silly courtroom sequence.
Director E.A. Dupont had enjoyed a huge success with his 1925 film Variety, and he employed a visceral style for "Piccadilly," most notably the astonishing lighting scheme used for the club. But he also carefully juxtaposed those scenes with the scenes of Shosho's neighborhood, the "Limehouse," and its raucous, slightly shady joints and alleyways.
It's Wong's silky star power that really makes the picture. She was the first Chinese-American star in an industry that has seen far too few of them.
Several reports have compared Wong's career to that of Louise Brooks; a fiercely independent woman with a head for business who finally succumbed to an industry not quite ready for her, and was unjustly forgotten for too many decades. Both women possessed hauntingly potent screen presence. Brooks has since become a cult figure, and I'd like to sign up now for Wong's fan club.
DVD Details: Milestone's new DVD is presented in a beautiful, clean transfer with few impurities. The print is tinted, mostly in gold with the occasional blue for night scenes. Milestone has done a good job of packing their disc with extras when such things are usually rare for silent films. It's filled with information about Ms. Wong, from a liner notes essay to DVD-Rom extras (more essays and press notes). The disc itself comes with the original 5-minute introduction to the "sound" version, and a 20-minute short about Neil Brand's score. Other bonuses include a still gallery and a video of the panel at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where the film played in 2004.