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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Anna May Wong (1905-61)

Wong Liu Tsong (黃柳霜) was born January 3, 1905, in the back of her family’s laundry on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles (her family never lived in Chinatown, although she attended school there). She was a third generation Californian whose family arrived in 1855. However, due to the prejudicial laws which existed until 1948, she was a foreigner by California law. Although she spoke Mandarin at home, she never considered herself Chinese—she always called herself an American.

She became a movie star quite by accident: Coming home from school one afternoon, she walked near a film crew which was doing a location shoot. One of the crewmembers said they needed a child. Overhearing this, Liu Tsong volunteered her services and she was paid more for one hour than her family subsisted on in one week. She began to work more.

Liu Tsong gave herself an American name, Anna May. That first movie she was in was The Red Lantern (1919).

After appearing as a nameless extra in Dinty (1920), she began a career of stardom which was both amazing and heartbreaking at the same time. Her parents believed in an old Chinese idea that to have one's picture taken would ruin her life. Besides acting in movies, she also worked as an advertising model for a furrier in Los Angeles. She was tall, even for a Caucasian woman, at 5'7" with shapely legs and a very nice figure. She was not opposed to doing "cheesecake" photography, such as the partially topless publicity picture above.

As a silent star, she was successful. She was the romantic lead in The Toll of the Sea (1923), an early Technicolor film. Her portray of the Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was legendary. Acting in a silent movie was no easy feat. The eyes did the acting instead of the voice. And Mr. Fairbanks' costume obviously did not include underwear which could either arouse or sicken the fellow cast members (and this is considered a "family film"!)

In 1925, Anna was heard on the dedication program of the War Memorial Building in San Francisco. This would become the home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. From material gathered for this website, this would make her possibly the earliest big star to perform on the radio. Network radio would not be around for another three years when NBC came to the air.

After the Thief of Bagdad, most of Anna's roles tended to be exotic characters who didn't require much in the way of acting. When talking pictures revealed she didn't have a Chinese accent, but rather had the normal Southern California twang (that even this blogger claims as his accent), there was a sad disappointment in the industry.

Feeling like her talents were wasted, she went to Europe in 1929. She went to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Austria. Most critics referred to her as a "great American actress." During this time she made several movies. She learned to speak French and German. Anna returned to America in 1931. Shortly after this, her mother was tragically killed in a car accident.

The trip did much to improve her work in America, although the success was not long. Rudy Vallee had her on his radio program in 1935. After this, Anna took another trip. This time she went to China (1936-7).

Many Chinese knew Anna May Wong as a great American actress. They weren't happy that she wasn't doing the kind of work she deserved to be doing. She actually acted in a few films in China but these were not so great, either.

Anna went back to America and, again, went on Rudy Vallee's program. Later she would be on the Kraft Music Hall, Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy, the Campbell Playhouse, and Fred Allen.

She went back to do a few low budget movies but that career was over. By the time World War II started, she was acting a little but earning most of her money by selling real estate with her young brother, Richard. Anna was on some radio shows to raise money for American war efforts and she was also very concerned about how China was going to come out of the war with Japan.

In 1949, she played the part of Su Jin, a Chinese housemaid, in Impact, a low budget mystery movie. This would be followed by several television appearances, including her own dramatic anthology series on the Dumont Network, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong. And she continued acting on TV and selling houses. There would be one last film, Portrait in Black (1961), released six months after her death.

Anna May Wong died of complications of a heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver at the cottage she and her brother Richard shared in Santa Monica, California, on February 3, 1961. She had been both a heavy drinker and smoker. She was 56 years old. She was a member of the Church of Christ (Scientist).

The 1936 song, "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," by Harry Link, Holt Marvell (Eric Maschwitz), and Jack Strachey, was said to have been written about Anna. English songwriter Albert Eric Maschwitz (alias Holt Marvell) and Anna were dating in the late 1930s.

Anna May Wong was cremated and her ashes were buried in the grave of her mother at the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.


LoyalTubist said...

A friend of mine left a question at about Anna May Wong.

The first reply was quite hilarious:

"Never heard of her. Must not have been that big a star..."

For those of us who love the old movies, it's sad to see names forgotten like this.

I guess we will all be forgotten someday.

The LoyalTubist

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