The Museum of the Moving Image has consecrated the winter of ’06 to flappers of color. Following on the heels of jazz baby Josephine Baker’s retro is a seven-weekend celebration of the stunningly beautiful Chinese American movie actress Anna May Wong (1905–61).
Like Baker, the Los Angeles–born Wong had to relocate to Europe to become a star—although her expat career, in London and Weimar Berlin, was by no means as glorious. Until recently, the actress was a footnote, best remembered for a scene-stealing cameo as an underdressed Mongolian spy in the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad (1924) and as Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous sidekick in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). Informed by identity politics, Wong’s current revival can be dated to two simultaneously published biographies as well as the triumphant restoration of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), in which her performance as a cool and calculating slum goddess more than demonstrates her frustrated stellar potential.
The Moving Image retro opens with Piccadilly, Wong’s posthumous comeback (a dazzling movie in its own right), and her 1922 debut in the experimental Technicolor feature The Toll of the Sea, a Madame Butterfly tale in which the 17-year-old actress brings surprising feeling to a knickknack role. While a partial MOMA retro two years back mainly sampled Wong’s Hollywood B movies, the Moving Image includes these and more—plunging next weekend into the exotic unknown with archival prints of two silent vehicles made in Weimar Berlin and unseen here since their original release.
Extremely successful in Europe, Song (1928) and The Pavement Butterfly (1929) were German-British co-productions, both directed by Richard Eichberg and named for Wong’s character. In each, she plays an Asian girl adrift who shacks up with and devotes herself to a white guy on the skids. In Song, the object of Wong’s adoration is a brutish carnival knife-thrower; in The Pavement Butterfly, it’s a starving painter. In one way or another, each of these fools dump her for a rich white woman. Wide-eyed and leggy, more an object of lust than love, Wong has a brief career as a shimmy dancer in both movies before winding up dead or alone. Solitude is her fate.
Eichberg is no Dupont, but he does demonstrate a flavorsome cheap-dive mise-en-scéne. Alexander Granach (best known as the fly-eater in Nosferatu) makes a suitably repellent villain in The Pavement Butterfly, but the main attraction is Wong. With her natural art deco slouch and a tragic sense of languor, she begs comparison with silent screen goddesses Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks. Wong is particularly good at dropping a single slow tear while maintaining what Walter Benjamin, who interviewed her in Berlin, termed “a serious and comradely gaze.” That’s one way to describe It.