Colorization & Restoration by Manos Athanasiadis
Anna May Wong (photo: George Hurell) 1938
Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong, 1905–1961) was an American actress. She is considered to be the first Chinese American movie star, and also the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Her long and varied career spanned silent film, sound film, television, stage and radio.
Born in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, she acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color. Her big breakthrough came when Douglas Fairbanks cast her in a supporting role as a treacherous Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The $2-million blockbuster production made her known to critics and the movie-going public. For better or worse, a star, albeit of the stereotypical “Dragon Lady” type, was born.
Despite her waxing fame, she was limited to supporting roles, as Caucasian actresses, continued to be cast as Asian women in lead roles. She was unable to attract lead parts despite her beauty and proven acting talent, even in films featuring Asian women. The characters she played typically were duplicitous or murderous vamps that often reaped the wages of their sin by being raped. Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable plays and films. European directors appreciated Wong’s unique talents and beauty, and they used her in ways that stereotype-minded Hollywood, hemmed in by American prejudice, would not or could not. Moving to Germany to appear in German films, she became acquainted with German film personalities, including Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. She learned German and French and began to develop a continental European attitude and outlook. Anna May Wong was featured in magazines all over the world, she became a media superstar, and her coiffure and complexion were copied, while “coolie coats” became the rage. The 170-cm-tall beauty was known as the world’s best-dressed woman and widely considered to have the loveliest hands in the cinema.
She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. Her best role in Hollywood in the early 1930s was in support of Marlene Dietrich in Oscar-winning classic Shanghai Express (1932). However, Hollywood in the 1930s was as racist as it had been in the Roaring Twenties, and MGM refused to cast her in its 1932 production of The Son-Daughter (1932), for which she did a screen-test, as she was “too Chinese to play a Chinese.”
In 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career, when MGM refused to consider her for the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film The Good Earth, choosing instead the German actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role. Albert Lewin, the Thalberg assistant who was casting the film, vetoed Wong and other ethnic Chinese because their looks didn’t fit his conception of what Chinese people should look like. Ironically, the year “The Good Earth” came out, Wong appeared on the cover of Look Magazine’s second issue, which labeled her “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl.” Luise Rainer would win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance of O-Lan in Chinese drag.
Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family’s ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. Though Wong was one of Hollywood’s more memorable victims of racism in being denied leading roles in A-list pictures because the racist mores of the times prevented an Asian woman from kissing a Caucasian actor, she was considered socially suspect by her own people. The roles she was forced to accept in order to have an acting career, as well as her status as a single woman disgusted many Chinese in America and in her ancestral homeland, where actresses were equated with prostitutes and where women were still played by men in classical opera. On her trip, Anna May was welcomed by the country’s cultural elite in cosmopolitan Beijing and Shanghai, but she had to abandon a trip to her parents’ ancestral village when her progress was blocked by a crowd of protesters.
Wong’s personal relationships typically were with older Caucasian men, but California law forbade marriage between Asians and Caucasians until 1948. One of her white lovers offered to marry her in Mexico, but the couple’s intentions became known and he backed off when his Hollywood career was jeopardized. Wong mused about marrying a Chinese man at times, but the Chinese culture held actresses to be on a par with prostitutes, which made her suspect marriage material. She was afraid that the mores of her culture likely meant that marrying a Chinese would force her to quit her career and be an obedient wife.
Anna May Wong loved reading, and her favorite subjects spanned a wide range, everything from Asian history and Tzu Lao to William Shakespeare. She never married but occupied her time with golf, horses, and skiing. Wong smoked, drank too much, and suffered from depression.
In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese Americans in a positive light. She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances. In 1951, she made history with her TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American series lead.
She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died of a massive heart attack on February 3, 1961, in Santa Monica, CA, after a long struggle against Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease of the liver. She was 56 years old.
For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical “Dragon Lady” and demure “Butterfly” roles that she was often given. Her life and career were re-evaluated in the years around the centennial of her birth, in three major literary works and film retrospectives.
George Edward Hurrell (1904–1992) was a photographer who contributed to the image of glamour presented by Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hurrell originally studied as a painter with no particular interest in photography. He first began to use photography only as a medium for recording his paintings. After moving to Laguna Beach, California from Chicago, Illinois in 1925 he met many other painters who had connections. One of those connections was Edward Steichen who encouraged him to pursue photography after seeing some of his works. Hurrell eventually opened a photographic studio in Los Angeles.
In the late 1920s, Hurrell was introduced to the actor Ramon Novarro and agreed to take a series of photographs of him. Novarro was impressed with the results and showed them to the actress Norma Shearer, who was attempting to mould her wholesome image into something more glamorous and sophisticated in an attempt to land the title role in the movie The Divorcee. She asked Hurrell to photograph her in poses more provocative than her fans had seen before. After she showed these photographs to her husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, Thalberg was so impressed that he signed Hurrell to a contract with MGM Studios, making him head of the portrait photography department. But in 1932, Hurrell left MGM after differences with their publicity head, and from then on until 1938 ran his own studio. Throughout the decade, Hurrell photographed every star contracted to MGM, and his striking black-and-white images were used extensively in the marketing of these stars.
In the early 1940s Hurrell moved to Warner Brothers Studios and later in the decade, he moved to Columbia Pictures where his photographs were used to help the studio build the career of Rita Hayworth.
He left Hollywood briefly to make training films for the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. When he returned to Hollywood in the mid-1950s his old style of glamour had fallen from favour. Where he had worked hard to create an idealised image of his subjects, the new style of Hollywood glamour was more earthy and gritty, and for the first time in his career Hurrell’s style was not in demand. He moved to New York and worked for the advertising industry where glamour was still valued. He continued his work for fashion magazines and photographed for print advertisements for several years before returning to Hollywood in the 1960s.
Hurrell died from complications from bladder cancer shortly after completing a TBS documentary about his life. He died on May 17, 1992.
Since his death, his vintage works have continued to appreciate in value and examples of his artistic output can be found in the permanent collections of numerous museums around the world.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Anna May Wong
Wikipedia: George Hurrell
George Hurrell Official Site
Scandalous Women: Anna May Wong
IMDb: Anna May Wong
BuzzFeed: Anne Helen Petersen’s “Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema” (bonus chapter)