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Yellow Butterfly: The Return of Anna May Wong

February 1st, 2004 (06:59 pm)

© 2004. First posted February 01, 2004 on MilkPlus.

To celebrate the publication of Graham Russell Gao Hodges' book Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently held a brief Wong retrospective. Below are reviews of three of the movies.

Thanks to Milestone Films for the image from the Austrian press kit

Daughter of the Dragon - Anna May Wong as the daughter of Fu Manchu, out for revenge - and a prime example of the what had driven Wong to Europe nine years earlier. Exotic Asians; stilted, cringle-inducing dialog; strict avoidance of any whiff of sanctioning miscengenation; and planting the Japanese-playing-Chinese Sessue Hayawaka as an "acceptable" boyfriend. Why couldn't others follow von Sternberg's and Dupont's leads (see below) and allow Wong the more human, leading roles which she so deserved?

Shanghai Express - the surprise of the evening. I've seen a few Dietrich / von Sternbergs, and I wasn't too impressed story-wise (excepting The Scarlet Empress). This has the von Sternberg lighting / cinematography (sometimes doesn't work with movement, but here at its best); Marlene Dietrich as Luminous Presence and a character of some substance; Clive Brook as a leading man whose stiffness fits perfectly; and a pretty solid supporting cast. Anna May Wong's prostitute is no prop for Dietrich, but a key part of the narrative - and, at least in her case, von Sternberg actually gets some accuracy into her dress and hairstyles. This all serves to make the movie - a story of a love affair running up against a war - that much more engaging.

Piccadilly - The film opens with the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus: ads flashing Gordon's Gin, nightclubs, the latest plays. This is the center of the center of the universe, circa 1929 - the British Empire - with all the attitude and poise that implies. The camera works its way down into the traffic below, the crowds mining the seam of the nightlife, the buses and taxis taking them there. One bus stops in front of the camera; an ad on the side proclaims, "PICCADILLY starring Gilda Gray." Thus starts the movie Piccadilly.

This film works on so many levels. First, there's the storyline: both a murder mystery and a look at the seedier side of show business - and life. There's the upperclass Piccadilly Club, but also the Limehouse pub with its rough trade. Shosho may start as a scullery maid, but she's not above going after what she wants, including her choreography, her costume, her musicians - and the club owner Wilmont (Jameson Thomas). Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray), the club's soon-to-be-former headliner and Wilmont's soon-to-be-former lover, misjudges just how much the young maid is willing to play the game. Shosho's smile as Mabel condescendingly tells her she may be rehired in the scullery if she's contrite enough - not realizing that Shosho is about to take her own job - is worth the price of admission.

There's also the performances and characterizations. Gestures are controlled, to the point that this just doesn't feel like an American silent. Very much to to the movie's credit, the Chinese characters come across as both Chinese and Britons, rather than falling into the "mysterious Orient" trap. All the actors are solid; special acting kudos go to King Ho-Chan as Jimmy, Shosho's boyfriend (a restauranteur and Wong friend in real life). And Charles Laughton makes a brief striking appearance as an annoying club patron who starts the whole chain of events.

And the camerawork is a thing of wonder, moving towards art over utility with none of the pretension. A conductor stands at the back of a doubledecker as the city speeds past behind him; dancers perform a stage show, but the camera focuses on their torsos - and what effect their dance has - rather than their feet and the dance itself. Dupont definitely knew how to make his shots into direct participants in his story.

I'm in genuine awe that Anna May Wong had a role like Shosho in 1929. She has third billing, but this is Wong's movie. Unfortunately, Wong had to go overseas to get such a role; refocusing the story away from race probably couldn't have happened in a US movie of the time. It's sad to think that Hollywood's influence compelled her to return to the US to keep her career going, and that that need likely deprived us all of the full range of her talent.