Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beautiful birthday greetings

Anna May Wong, 1905-1961

On this day in 1905, Ray Milland was born. However, on the very same day, the much better-looking Anna May Wong was born. Wong's films show up on TV less frequently as well, so it is with that (and not her looks) in mind that we celebrate her birthday today.

Wong received a prominent place in TCM's series last June on Asians in Hollywood, and rightly so. Wong was American, but of Chinese descent, so any time the studio needed somebody "exotic" to play an Asian, there she was. Wong was the star of Toll of the Sea, a 1922 retelling of Madame Butterfly, in which an American in China falls in love with Wong, despite his being betrothed to somebody back home, resulting in tragedy for all. Toll of the Sea has the distinction of being the first movie released in two-strip Technicolor, which has held up surprisingly well for a movie so old.

However, Wong's career in Hollywood eventually stalled, leading her to go to Europe. In Britain, she starred in the 1929 silent movie Piccadilly, playing a dishwasher at a nightclub who eventually becomes the star dancing attraction after the boss sees her performing a rather alluring dance for the kitchen staff. Eventually, though, Wong's charms prove to be the melodramatic downfall of her. Technically, Wong wasn't supposed to be the star of Picadilly, but she makes it her own with that dancing.

Both Toll of the Sea and Piccadilly have been released to DVD, but you'd probably be better off renting than buying. This is especially true of Toll of the Sea, which was released only as part of a large collection of "rescued" movies that were all found languishing in various archives.

Wong later returned to Hollywood, where she played opposite the equally lovely Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, about a group of passangers trapped on a train caught up in the Chinese civil war. Surprisingly, however, it's not available on DVD, which is a real shame. Even worse, though, is what happened to Wong's career. She wanted to play the part of Olan in the MGM version of Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth. However, Paul Muni was playing the male lead, and at the time, the rules on miscegenation in the movies were such that an Asian-American like Wong wouldn't be allowed to play opposite a white man (even if in "yellowface").

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