You needn’t be a shrink to understand the appeal of the beautiful Chinese American actress and sometime siren Anna May Wong (1905-61). The real question is why a Wong revival has taken so long and why it has occurred now. Best remembered as Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous, if taciturn, sidekick in Shanghai Express, the Los Angeles-born Wong broke into silent movies as a teenager and appeared in scores of movies both in the U.S. and Europe. The compact MOMA retro opens with The Toll of the Sea, an experimental Technicolor feature produced in 1922. The movie is a gimmick—it’s been suggested that the filmmakers used this Madame Butterfly story as a means to contrast golden-skinned Asians with paler Caucasians—but Wong brings surprising feeling to a knickknack role. The bill is rounded out with clips from The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which Wong nearly stole from Douglas Fairbanks in the small but unforgettable part of an underdressed Mongolian spy, and Old San Francisco (1927), made the year before she briefly relocated to Europe, her career stymied by American racial prejudice.
The MOMA retro mainly samples Wong’s subsequent Hollywood talkies: Daughter of the Dragon (1931); Shanghai Express (1932), showing with the 1936 Hearst newsreel Anna May Wong Visits Shanghai; and her two films directed by Robert Florey, Dangerous to Know (1938) and Daughter of Shanghai (1938). Also included is a screening of Wong’s triumphant performance in E.A. Dupont’s magnificently restored Piccadilly, a 1929 British silent shown at the last New York Film Festival and now getting a week-long run at Anthology Film Archives.
Dupont’s mobile camera maneuvers around a splendid set to track a tawdry showbiz sexual triangle: The pomaded proprietor of the deco nightspot Club Piccadilly dumps his star jazz baby to pursue Wong’s lithe slum goddess, first seen entertaining her fellow scullions with a dreamily sensuous tabletop dance. Wong is sensationally expressive and projects a modern, coolly appraising sexuality. Visually eloquent and often dazzling, the movie is no less terrific. Piccadilly is both evidence of silent cinema at its rudely aborted peak and Wong’s frustrated potential to have been among its greatest stars.