Saturday, September 8, 2012

Things That Suck About Film History #2

It sucks that Anna May Wong couldn't get the lead in The Good Earth because her co-star, Paul Muni, would have been a white man and instead of Hollywood saying, "Well, then, we'll just get an actor of Chinese descent to play the lead male role," they cast the lovely and great and talented (and white) Luis Rainer. Now, this post isn't about all the awful racism that persisted in Hollywood for decades (if I wanted to, every one of these "Things that Suck about Film History" posts could be about racism), it's about how wonderful and beautiful and talented Anna May Wong was and why Hollywood should have done more for her.

But they didn't.

Movies with non-white leads didn't play well in the states and Anna had to take a backseat to white leads in all but a few of her movies. Hollywood may have claimed they couldn't violate anti-miscegenation laws by having her kiss a white actor (as if a state government would have actually sought legal retribution against the studios for such an act) but really, they just knew that it would freak out the locals and the box office would take a hit. And it sucks. They could have stood up to that notion and possibly discovered that enough people still wanted to see an adaptation of The Good Earth and wouldn't care about so-called race-mixing in the leads.

A lot of times in life, we discover something we feared was baseless. There would have been a vocal and racist minority raising a fuss but, for the most part, I believe it would have been a great success. Of course, an even better outcome would have been to cast all Chinese-Americans in all of the roles, but for starters at least, Wong should have gotten the part. Wong simply came around too soon for her talents to be fully explored in a society not yet ready for it. And it sucks.

9 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

I would argue that things are even worse now than they were fifty years ago when Nancy Kwan, France Nuyen, and to a lesser extent, Yoko Tani, got star billing. The closest we have to an Asian-American actress who sometimes gets top roles is Lucy Liu. Hawaiian born Maggie Q only received a few supporting roles in Hollywood films well after stardom was established in Hong Kong films.

I do recommend Piccadilly to see Wong in top form.

Greg F. said...

You have a point but at the very least, today's Hollywood, making a version of The Good Earth, would at least cast Chinese actors in the lead roles. It's not like they still cast white actors to play non-white roles, right? Oh, wait...

Peter Nellhaus said...

Then there is the case of Flower Drum Song. Anna May Wong was cast, but died before filming began, and was replaced by African-American Juanita Hall. Unlike the other Rogers and Hammerstein movies that were produced by 20th Century Fox, and were hits, this film was produced by Universal, and was the only Rogers and Hammerstein movie to be a comparative box office flop.

By the way, I have a documentary on Nancy Kwan that covers some of the points in general about Hollywood films in general, as well as Kwan's very brief time as a top billed star.

Roderick Heath said...

I definitely need to see more of Ms Wong's work, but her performance in Shanghai Express as Dietrich's sister in survival remains powerful in my thoughts.

Greg F. said...

I wish she'd done a lot more with Dietrich in film. I love watching them both in that film, banding together but looking out for themselves and for very different reasons.

Marilyn said...

Greg - Johnny Deep has Cherokee ancestors, so you could say he was at least partially right for the role.

Greg F. said...

Really? I didn't know that. But isn't it awfully hard to prove you actually have Cherokee, so much so that most people can safely claim it? I don't know, I guess it's not that big a deal since it's not a reflective, personal look at the lives of Native Americans where the casting would be far more problematic.

Keir said...

Waiting for the third instalment, where Yanks replace the British with themselves when fighting Nazis or finding Enigma, or ignore their own history to play up the ignominious role of others.

Greg F. said...

And everyone speaks English regardless of their country of origin and the Russian army didn't exist, period.