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13 Fresh Anna May Wong Movies

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(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection)

Anna May Wong made her lead debut in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, and in the century that’s passed she is remembered as the first Asian-American of several distinctions. The first Asian-American Hollywood star. Later, the first Asian-American to lead a TV series. The Toll of the Sea? The first available color film. And now Wong is the first Asian-American on American currency as part of a series of historical women-tributed quarters. Wong’s chunk of a buck depicts her with head resting on hand as her gaze climbs upwards diagonally over an iconic bob haircut.

Born in Los Angeles, Wong was just 17 when she took the lead in The Toll of the Sea. Revitalizing the melodramatic foundation of Madame Butterfly, Toll is the first surviving color film and was considered lost until its restoration in the mid-’80s. Wong blossomed into a full-flashed star in the classic 1924 fantasy The Thief of Baghdadstanding out against Douglas Fairbanks.

But disillusionment over her career prospects set in quickly, and Wong moved to Europe chasing less stereotypical role opportunities. It’s a move with latter-day echoes, such as Bruce Lee leaving America for Hong Kong to start his run into Enter the Dragonor Ke Huy Quan’s decades-long absence from the screen until Everything Everywhere All At Once.

As reported by The Los Angeles Times, Wong explains: “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.”

In Europe, Wong released seven films across 1929 and 1930 in a mixture of English, French, and German films, with Picadilly the most widely seen. Wong was back in the States by 1931, working mainly under contract with Paramount. The first of those films, Daughter of the Dragon, saw the only time Wong acted against another Asian actor of her stature, the Japanese matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa. At the same time, Daughter featured Swedish actor Warner Oland (who would go on to cap his career in yellowface with the Charlie Chan movies) as Fu Manchu.

Filming was steady in this period, which included the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Shanghai Express and a lauded adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes classic story A Study in Scarlet. But Wong was fearless and frank in her public appraisal of the work, describing Daughter of the Dragon and Oland’s Fu Manchu character as “so wicked” just two years after the fact.

MGM denying her the lead role in 1937’s The Good Earth in favor of Luise Rainer led Wong to leave Hollywood again for China in what she hoped would be a journey of spiritual discovery. When she returned to Los Angeles a year later, Wong concluded, “I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese theater. I have no feeling for it. It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I’m too American.”

Wong picked up business again with Paramount in her final major studio contract. Daughter of Shanghai, Island of Lost Menand king of chinatown allowed her to put out more positively portrayed characters, but the films’ lack of traction with audiences convinced her to retire from serious filmmaking in 1942, at the age of 37.

There were guest TV stints and occasional film roles in the following decades. 1951 saw the premiere of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which Wong played a detective and became the first Asian-American actress to lead a series. The show puts the same fate as most that aired on DuMont (an early rival of NBC and CBS) – dumped into the New York East River by the 1970s – so no scripts or full episodes of Gallery are known to exist. In 1960, Wong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one year before her death. —Alex Vo


Adjusted Score: 107445%

Critics Consensus: Buckle up: Marlene Dietrich will inveigle you on the Shanghai Express with her fearlessness and bare-knuckle one-liners in this slick pre-code melodrama.

Synopsis: In Peking, China, during a civil war, British Capt. Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) meets his old flame Magdalen (Marlene Dietrich)… [More]


Adjusted Score: 106111%

Critics Consensus: It requires some viewing commitment, but this beautifully assembled showcase for Douglas Fairbanks’ acting offers some splendid treats for classic film fans.

Synopsis: A thief sneaks into a royal palace, where he sees and falls instantly in love with a beautiful princess. Claiming… [More]


Adjusted Score: 99028%

Critics Consensus: Armed with technical ingenuity and classic source material, Peter Pan brings JM Barrie’s beloved fantasy to the screen in dazzling style.

Synopsis: An amazing boy takes the Darling children to Never-Never Land on an adventure…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 98461%

Critics Consensus: Led by a mesmerizing Anna May Wong, Daughter of Shanghai is a revenge thriller fueled by non-stop excitement.

Synopsis: A Chinese-American (Anna May Wong) avenges her father, slain by smugglers led by a San Francisco socialite…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 54661%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: While investigating a secretive group of aristocrats, Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) and Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble) must contend with a… [More]


Adjusted Score: 90255%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: An American seaman (Kenneth Harlan) marries a Chinese girl (Anna May Wong), then deserts her…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 43512%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A Chinese guerrilla (Anna May Wong) flirts with a Japanese general (Harold Huber), then slips him a Mickey…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 82089%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) owns a nightclub featuring dancers Mabel (Gilda Gray) and Vic (Cyril Ritchard). After a confrontation with… [More]


Adjusted Score: 78326%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A slave (Anna May Wong) saves Ali Baba (George Robey) and outwits a robber (Fritz Kortner) posing as a mandarin,… [More]


Adjusted Score: 72003%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: At her Chinese father’s bidding, a woman (Anna May Wong) goes to murder an enemy and meets a Scotland Yard… [More]

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Adjusted Score: 72769%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: An 1850s shipbuilder (John Loder) brings his Chinese bride (Anna May Wong) to England; she realizes he loves someone else… [More]


Adjusted Score: 16883%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A declared-dead man (Brian Donlevy) hides out with a widow (Ella Raines) after his wife and her lover botch his… [More]


Adjusted Score: 33051%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A Chinese general’s daughter (Anna May Wong) tracks her father to a slave-labor tyrant’s (J. Carrol Naish) jungle empire…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 43349%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A Chinese astrologer (Anna May Wong) helps the San Francisco police solve a murder…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 9371%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: As the health of tyrannical but gravely ill shipping tycoon Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan) declines, he relies on pain medicine… [More]


Adjusted Score: 9648%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: The Chinese government expects a schoolteacher (Anna May Wong) to spy for her country…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 30741%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.


Adjusted Score: 24543%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: The beautiful and idealistic daughter of a slain smuggler struggles to escape her sordid past…. [More]


Adjusted Score: 11017%

Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.

Synopsis: A wounded gangster (Akim Tamiroff) falls in love with a Chinatown doctor (Anna May Wong) who saves his life…. [More]