We return this week to carry on our look at pioneering actresses from the Silent era of film. Last week we wrote about Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Today we focus on a pioneer of Asian American acting in Anna May Wong and her performance in Piccadilly.
You could be forgiven for not really knowing who Anna May Wong was, indeed, but my deep-dive into the silent cinema I only had a passing knowledge of her. Not until this piece did I fully begin to appreciate the role and influences she would have on many actresses for future decades. She was a true pioneer of cinema.
To put a lot of what we talk about throughout this piece into context we need to mention that Hollywood was still quite strict with its rules on non-white performers (some would say racist in fact, and it would be hard to disagree). This meant that Wong would not truly become the level of a star that she deserved to be. Due to Americas anti-miscegenation laws (no mix race relationships), this meant that Wong would rarely get the starring role in a film as she could not kiss the leading man. This was even if the leading man was white and playing a Chinese or Asian character. So she was relegated to supporting roles and while there she would often flourish and steal the film from under the feet of the leads.
This frustration and constant relegation from lack of lead roles, especially after her star turn in The Toll of the Sea (1922) caused Wong to leave the United States for Europe where she flourished with leading role after leading role not only on film but on stage. This eventually in 1929 brought us Piccadilly. But more on the film later. Although she could still not kiss her co-star, she was still able to play the role without any kissing scenes.
Wong would go on to have a strong talkie era career, which was a rarity for silent film actresses of the time. Wong was still stereotyped upon her return to Hollywood with evil Chinese characters such as Daughter of the Dragon (1931). This caused many of the press in China to turn against her as she would be the main Chinese (despite her being Chinese American) star internationally showing it’s citizens in a bad light.
Heartbreakingly for Wong, she was neither loved by Chinese audiences and by American producers saying “It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I’m, ‘too American’ and by American producers, because they prefer other races to act in Chinese parts”. Despite all of this Anna May Wong would continue to have a strong career in the 1930s and into the 1940s when the majority of her contemporaries had long left the film industry.
A Chinese kitchen worker in a popular dance club in London is thrust into the limelight with her provocative dance moves when the main act split. She is quickly thrust into a world of forbidden love, betrayal and murder.
An utter triumph of a film and although Wong was still not allowed to share an on-screen kiss it is heavily implied what Sho Sho gets up to with the club owner Wilmot. Although, there is a moment when she shares a kiss through a newspaper which, in one way is a clever way around the ban, but also sadly cheap as it is a strong reminder of what the laws were at the time to take away an important aspect of the film.
Unsurprisingly Piccadily works best when Wong is on screen and seems to slow down and lose its impetus when she is not. Which is disappointing when remembering that the beginning of the film almost pretends that Wongs Sho Sho is not the main focus due to it focuses a tad too long on Mabel, Wilmot and Victors dynamic. I would imagine in modern days this would have been altered to heavily include more of Wong. It is evident from the first second she appears onscreen that she is the jolt the film needs. She is entrancing to watch as she dances in the kitchen.
As a result Wong steals the entire film and although originally she was not the name actress on the marquee despite being front and centre on the poster, in a risque costume she never wears in the film itself (Sex sells after all, even in 1929).
What helped Piccadilly stand our from the rest of the British silent films at the time was how noir it was. Director Dupont wanted to push the boundaries on race relations as far as he could. Doing this not only with Sho Sho’s and Wilmot’s arc, but in a scene where a white female dance with a black male dancer and is told that doing such things is forbidden. Yet, European Dubont made sure to keep the dancing on screen long enough for it to stick in the memory of audiences and critics of such things we wouldn’t even look back twice at now.
Wong seems to revel in her role. Not just playing the small role, but being the cog to the entire film. It is immensely important to recognise how easily this character could have been written to be white. With actresses from different ethnicities, there were so few roles such as this time that it was believed that no one could handle it. Yet, Wong does so and with the greatest of ease. She is a great anchor to the film and sadly is just not in the film enough to help elevate further.
Sho Sho is not fleshed out as well as you would like her to be, but with the ability of Wong you almost forget that fact. She is able to enhance the character and make her so much more complex. Written on paper we have a character who rises into fame and is heartbreakingly punished for it with no fault to her own. Instead, we have a character that is vulnerable at all times, looking at wonder at the new world she finds herself in. She is also able to show a great confidence in the role and as the character, utilising her dancing skills with a plum.
By having Wong in the picture the entire film becomes more memorable. It is not a hard stretch to say that the film would be forgotten quite easily if it wasn’t for Wong being cast. Wong was at the forefront of people from a minority background getting the prime roles in cinema. It is just a shame that it took her moving to Europe to be recognised and even more of a shame that Hollywood still neglected such a talent.
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