DANGEROUS TO KNOW: THE FILMS OF ANNA MAY WONG June 4-16, Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West). $5.50-$10.10. 416-968-FILM. For complete screening info, see Indie & Rep Film. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American movie star. Unless my memory has ceased to function, until Lucy Liu came along she was almost the only one. I'm talking about name-above-the-title stars; there are several actors with lengthy supporting careers, like Keye Luke, forever Charlie Chan's number-one son.
After the early silent era, if a producer had an African-American character in his film he had little choice but to cast a black actor. But Hollywood never had any qualms about casting white actors in Asian roles.
For me, it's not about political correctness. My issues are aesthetic. It's just flat-out bizarre to see Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, or Paul Muni and Louise Rainer in The Good Earth, or Ronald Colman as a Mandarin in Inn Of The Sixth Happiness.
Anna May Wong, born in L.A. in 1905, had a career that lasted from 1920 to 1950, often with her name above the title, though rarely in the most prestigious roles or pictures. Cinematheque's program of Wong's films, which has been touring out of the UCLA film archives, has what seem to be the best of them, including her starring performance in the oldest surviving technicolor film, The Toll Of The Sea (Friday, June 4, 6:30 pm) and Shanghai Express (Tuesday, June 8 6:30 pm), one of Josef von Sternberg's great vehicles for Marlene Dietrich.
The first is a version of Madame Butterfly without all the singing, with Wong - not yet 18 - as Lotus Flower, who's impregnated by an American sailor who promises to return. Anyone who thinks silent movie acting is broad mugging should see this remarkably delicate performance.
The surprise comes in sound films, when Wong opens her mouth to speak. She has one of those accentless trained voices, with a slight trans-Atlantic undertone. People from southern California don't generally sound like that.
In the midst of Shanghai Express, surrounded by various accent hams, including Dietrich, who had an ongoing battle with the English language, and Warner Oland, the Norwegian-born actor who played more Asian characters than any white actor ever, including a long run as Charlie Chan, Wong's character comes through as the film's sanest.
There are also a couple of B-programmers that are worth a look. Daughter Of The Dragon (June 10, 8:30 pm) casts Wong as the daughter of Fu Manchu (Oland again), sworn to carry out her father's agenda but in love with the heir of the family that is the target of his vengeance.
In Daughter Of Shanghai (Friday, June 4, 6:30 pm), her father, a respected merchant, is whacked by a ring importing illegal immigrants, so she teams up with a federal agent to hunt down the killers. These are unpretentious little movies, running barely an hour, and fun as the typical movie fodder of the era. Wong does what she can with them, and her love interest in Daughter Of The Dragon turns out to be Sessue Hayakawa, three decades before he played the prison camp commander in Bridge On The River Kwai.