27 July 2011

Anna May Wong: Hollywood Alchemy

A laundryman's daughter, a tenement boy who styled himself  an aristocrat, and a lawyer's son from Denver.  From these unlikely beginnings, stars were made in early Hollywood days. 

"(T)here is something ludicrous about a star's resentment of the public's intrusive interest in his private life and beliefs, his insistence that all he owes the public are good performances." – Douglas Fairbanks

The son of a much-married southern debutante whose emotional life revolved around her talented son, Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) was an unusually cheerful boy who was also introspective enough to analyze his tanned skin and quietness as obstacles he needed to overcome to be successful. Yet, as a fantastically successful adult, he failed to adapt to the slower pace of talking pictures or to realize how his boundless optimism would seem hollow in the aftermath of the stock market crash.  Protective of his reputation as an artist, Fairbanks resisted the lure of Hollywood in favor of a career on the Broadway stage. But when he finally took a chance on Hollywood in 1915, success was instantaneous and he never looked back. 
When Douglas Fairbanks met Mary Pickford in 1916, he was already the second highest paid star in town (she was the first).  They divorced their respective spouses and, once united, they formed Hollywood's exemplary couple in the 1920s, holding court at their estate Pickfair Producer Joseph Mankiewicz could have been describing the demise of Fairbanks' first marriage to the forgotten Beth Sully when he wrote: "Their moment of danger...is his moment of triumph, the moment the husband achieves that success they have together struggled toward, sacrificed. For in the theater - no matter what they may feel - that moment is his and his alone."
The couple took their privileged position seriously, touring the world as ambassadors from Hollywood.  Co-founders of United Artists, an independent production company, with their friend Charlie Chaplin Active in all aspects of moviemaking, they founded the Motion Picture Fund to assist indigent actors in 1921, were instrumental in starting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to honor achievements in film.  Though they appeared together onscreen in an early 'talkie' The Taming Of The Shrew (1929),  the usual temptations of stardom finally took their toll on the marriage and Doug and Mary separated in 1933.
Physical grace and breathtaking stunts became the Fairbanks trademark. The word dashing seemed to have been invented for the man who dazzled audiences in The Mark Of Zorro and The Three Musketeers  In The Thief Of Baghdad (1924), he used a whip to extinguish a lighted candle, cut paper to pieces, snapped a cigarette out of the villain's mouth.
Also appearing in the film in the small part of a slave was the nineteen year-old Anna May Wong.  Destined to become Fairbanks’s equal as a screen icon in the 1930s, Wong had already appeared in Hollywood's first Technicolor feature film The Toll of the Sea in 1922.

Anna May Wong (1905–1961), said that she always knew she wanted to be an actress in spite of her family’s disapproval.  Born over the family laundry business, Anna May was one of seven children in an immigrant family.  Throughout her career, her beauty and Chinese ancestry obscured the fact that she was a Los Angeles native.  What Hollywood producers saw was an exotic outsider.
Many of the screen roles Wong sought in Hollywood went to other Anglo actresses.  The lead in The Crimson City (1928), a part written for her was eventually given to Montana native Myrna Loy. Searching for roles to match her ambitions, After this painful rejection, Wong moved to Europe where she starred in several German films. On the London stage, she played opposite the young Laurence Olivier in a play written just for her.
To appease Hollywood steroetypes, Wong wore the traditional Chinese dress, the cheongsam. in  films like Tiger Bay (1933).  Cheongsam or qui pao, is a simple Chinese dress that buttons at the side, with a standup collar. An elegant woman in whatever outfits she chose to wear, Wong was voted one of the world's best-dressed women in 1953.

One of her best-known Hollywood roles was as Hui Fei in Shanghai Express (1932), directed by Josef von Sternberg. Wong played a prostitute who befriends a character known as Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). Although Wong was paid $6,000 for her role and Dietrich received $78,000 for hers, most critics thought Wong 'stole' the film.   Still, in 1938 Wong was denied the lead in The Good Earth.  The role of a lifetime about a Chinese revolutionary heroine went to Austrian actress Luise Ranier.
Eager to make her first visit to China in 1936, Wong was taken aback and deeply hurt when she was pelted with rocks  during a visit to her ancestral home. Polpular with Chinese film fans, Wong was regarded as an interloper to traditional Chinese society.  In spite of all hurts, Wong worked tirelessly for both the USO and Chinese relief funds during World War II.   Anna May Wong died in 1962 at the age of fifty-six.

A native of Vienna, Austria, Josef Sternberg (1894-1969) added the "von" to his name upon arriving in Hollywood. Well aware of the power of screen stardom, Von Sternberg became his own greatest creation, almost a caricature of a director in puttees and berets, strutting around the movie set with as much panache as his actors. He had grown up in a New York City tenement, making an inauspicious career debut as a cleaner of damaged movie prints. By the time von Sternberg made his directorial debut in 1925, he was already a licensed cinematographer, an influence that shows in his lavishly arranged shots and lingering fades, his films visually impressive even when their plots were threadbare, as they often were.
Von Sternberg's production of The Blue Angel (1929) made a star of Marlene Dietrich in the part of the temptress Lola-Lola. Equally well-known is his 1932 film Shanghai Express which also featured Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Warner Oland of Charlie Chan fame as a mysterious Eurasian businessman up to no good on a transcontinental train traveling through war-ravaged China. Before the train reaches its destination there is mayhem, murder, and a hostage-taking involving a rebel group. Though a frothy melodrama, the picture boasts one of Dietrich's most vampish lines: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."
How realistic was von Sternberg's Orient? Not very.  The reader of Fun In A Chinese Laundry should be warned that von Sternberg's autobiography is full of small factual inaccuracies, but it is an enjoyable creation - just like his films.

1. Edward Sheriff Curtis - Anna May Wong, 1925, Library of Congress.
2. unknown photographer - Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, early 1920s, Library of Congress.
3. unknown artist - film poster for The Thief of Baghdad, 1924, Wikipedia.
4. unknown photographer - Anna May Wong, no date, Life Magazine.
5. unknown photographer - Josef  von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich on the set of Dishonored, 1931, Paramount Pictures Archives, Hollywood, CA.
For further reading:

Anna May Wong  by Graham Russell Hodges London, Palgrave MacMillan: 2004
His Picture In The Papers: A Speculation on Celebrity in America based on the Life of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.  by Richard Schickel New York, Charterhouse: 1973
Fun In A Chinese Laundry by Josef von Sternberg London, Secker & Co; Warburg: 1965


Blue Jay Peg said...

Fairbanks and Pickfor were larger than life, but I feel like Sternberg was "smaller than life."

Jane said...

Blue Jay Peg, an interesting observation. It may be a by-product of working behind the camera, although adherents of the auteur theory would take offense at the very idea.