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Anna May Wong lost the role in the 1938 film, “The Good Earth” once Paul Muni was cast in the lead because The Hayes Code prohibited actors of different races from playing husband and wife. [x]

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“There’s a mystique,” she says in trying to explain the Hollywood compulsion. “The white man idealizes and totally dismisses the human being. Polynesian women are a fantasy of primal passion. Asians are more of a possession, like jade, a gemstone. The white man has a difficult time seeing women in general, especially women of color. Liat is part of that fantasy.” - France Nuyen 

Actress France Nuyen was born in France to a Vietnamese father and French mother. During WWII her mother and grandfather were persecuted by the occupying Germans for being Roma and so she was subsequently raised by her cousin in Marseilles, France. Nuyen went on to become the second woman of Asian heritage to become a major star in Hollywood, after Anna May Wong.

At the age of 17 she made a name for herself as Liat in the movie musical South Pacific (1958) and she continued her success on stage in The World of Suzie Wong (she was replaced in the movie adaptation). Decades earlier, movie roles which specifically called for Asian actors went to European actors such as Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer and Katherine Hepburn. Luise Rainer who starred ( in yellow face) in The Good Earth, was cast in preference over Anna May Wong. Wong was instead offered a much lesser part. She turned it down however and at the time spoke of it (to Irving Thalberg): “If you let me play O-lan (the lead role), I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”. This was in the 30s and some twenty years later France Nuyen, in comparison may have fared a bit better. Though of course it being Hollywood , her Vietnamese heritage made it impossible to escape the Asian typecast. Post WWII there was a Asian fad in Hollywood and when the fad peaked in the late 60s, Nuyen kept busy by continuing to work in B movies (see: Battle for The Planet of The Apes) and roles on Television (notably St. Elsewhere, Star Trek, I Spy, & Columbo). She later starred in Amy Tan’s brilliant The Joy Luck Club (1993).

Nygen spoke of an increase in Asian media visibility that occurred in the nineties (in Hollwood movies): “Now there is interest. The background is war, the conflict of veterans. They have a white man there.”.  “It’s a fad. Thirty years ago there was Flower Drum Song,” says Nuyen. “I know because I was part of that fad”. 

**In the 1980s Nuyen earned a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and in 1989 she received the “Woman of the Year” award in Los Angeles for her work as a consulting psychologist in treating abused children and convicted women. 

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Anna May Wong with Sessue Hayakawa,  Philip Ahn and  Keye Luke.

Anna May Wong’s parents were second-generation Chinese Americans; her maternal and paternal grandparents had resided in the U.S. since at least 1855.

At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea (1922). The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”

Despite such reviews, Hollywood proved reluctant to create starring roles for Wong; her ethnicity prevented U.S. filmmakers from seeing her as a leading lady.

Conscious that Americans viewed her as “foreign born” even though she was born and raised in California, Wong began cultivating a flapper image.

It soon became evident that Wong’s career would continue to be limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race, even if the character was Asian, but being portrayed by a white actor. The only leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era was Sessue Hayakawa. Unless Asian leading men could be found, Wong could not be a leading lady.

Tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe.

She returned to the U.S. in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM’s film version of The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book and as early as 1933, Los Angeles newspapers were touting Wong as the best choice for the part. Nevertheless, the studio apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan’s husband, Wang Lung.

According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family’s oldest son. Wong refused the role, telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” The role Wong hoped for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. MGM’s refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as “one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s”

Anna May Wong, one of the first well known  Chinese American actresses, starred in movies such as  Piccadilly, Daughter of the Dragon, and Daughter of Shanghai. She was born in 1905 and began acting when she was only a teenager, quickly achieving international fame. Her film The Toll of the Sea, which came out in 1922, was one of the first movies made in color. In the late 1920s, Anna, frustrated by stereotypical roles she was being given in Hollywood, left for Europe. In Europe, she received more opportunities, starring in both plays and films.

Anna returned to the United States in 1930s when Paramount Studios  offered her a contract. Although she was often asked to play stereotyped characters, Anna worked to portray Chinese Americans more authentically and in a positive light. During World War II, she took a break from acting, and spent time and money advocating against the Japanese invasion of China. Anna’s TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong made US television history as the first show starring an Asian American lead in 1951. Anna planned a return to film, but passed away in 1961.

The picture above shows Anna May Wong near the end of her life. She bought two tickets to a Charity Field Day and stands in the photograph with then Deputy Mayor John McMorrow.

Actress Anna May Wong is sold two tickets to the Mayor’s Charity Field Day by Deputy Mayor John McMorrow, circa 1960-1961, Mayor John F. Collins records, Collection #0244.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

Blog post by Monica Haberny, City Archives Outreach Intern