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Anna May Wong: Asian American Icon

The Toll of the Sea
February 20, 2021 - 3:00 pm

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Post-screening conversation with Anna Wong, niece of Anna May Wong, and actor-writer-director Michelle Krusiec. Moderated by UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television associate dean and professor Sean Metzger.

“Anna May Wong: The First Asian American Movie Star” (4/8/2020)

This episode of Unladylike2020 (a series that premiered as part of PBS’ American Masters series) highlights the long and varied career of the trailblazing second-generation Chinese American whose popularity disrupted the trend of white performers appearing in yellow face.

Color, 11 min. Director-Screenwriter: Charlotte Mangin, Sandra Rattley. Narration: Julianna Margulies.

The Toll of the Sea (1922)

This earliest surviving feature to make use of Technicolor’s two-color process also marks a pivotal moment of on-screen representation in silent Hollywood. In casting a 17-year-old Wong to portray a Chinese character, Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation bucked the problematic trend of casting white actors in roles written for East Asian performers. Yet, in representing her character Lotus Flower’s intertitle dialogue as broken English, the producers fall short of transcending pervasive dialectal stereotypes. Prolific American screenwriter Frances Marion admits to borrowing heavily from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in helming this tragic tale of East Asian exploitation at the hands of corrupt and racist Western powers. At times, Wong’s very presence elevates the story’s subtext to the realm of anti-imperialist criticism, though the tragic ending serves ultimately to admonish her agency. Indelible in this “women’s weepie” is the lead actress’ subtle performance, which draws us into the screen to witness her character’s harrowing, conflicted life. The film’s final few minutes unfortunately have not survived and are summarized in re-created intertitles based on Marion’s synopsis.

Two-color Technicolor, silent, 53 min. Director: Chester M. Franklin. Screenwriter: Frances Marion. With: Anna May Wong, Kenneth Harlan, Beatrice Bentley, Priscilla Moran, Etta Lee.

Musical accompaniment provided by Cliff Retallick.

Copied at 19 frames per second from a 35mm two-color Technicolor print preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Clips presented during the conversation will include:

Hearst Metrotone News: “Anna May Wong Visits Shanghai, China” (5/1/1936)

Stock footage shot for, but never used in, Hearst Metrotone News of Anna May Wong arriving on a Dollar Line boat, surrounded by a group of cameramen and newspapermen. She enters Park Hotel, and visits Star Motion Picture Studios and a flower market.

B&w, silent, 8 min. Digital scan of 35mm print from the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Hollywood: Season 1, Part 2 (5/1/2020)

Clips from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s Hollywood courtesy of Netflix.