Anna May Wong might be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars that most film fans have never heard of. Thanks to KL Studio Classics, you now have the opportunity to get to know the actress a little better and sample three of her films. For those of you who take the time to add this to your collection, you won’t be disappointed. She’s not the kind of name who appears in many conversations these days, but she left behind a body of work that is more impressive than many of the golden era names you do know. Her real name was Wong Liu Tsong, and she appeared in about 50 films from 1920 in the Silent Era until about 1950 when she made her way to television screens for another 16 years, appearing in such hit shows as Mike Hammer with Darren McGavin and I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. In the Silent Era she was frustrated that she had been typecast in the typical, often stereotypical roles of Asian women and left Hollywood for Europe where she continued to be disappointed. Throughout her career she went back and forth between Europe and America and even toured China for several years. While she fought to get prominent parts, she was often thwarted by her heritage and ended up in mostly budget films throughout her career. But these budget films have found their way back to the surface, and you get to catch three of them here.
Island Of Lost Men (1939)
“Nobody disobeys me. My word is law. I am king of this river. They are all savages, but they are like little children, and I know how to handle them. I will say, ‘I am your king so back to the jungle. Let peace return to the river.'”
The original shooting title was Guns For China, but there was some pushback from the American State Department to avoid any references to the Second Sino-Japanese War and any attempt to put America on any particular side of the conflict. The working titles for Island Of Lost Men were North Of Singapore and King Of The River, and it was based on the Broadway play Hangman’s Whip by Norman Reilly Raine. The film was a remake of the 1933 film White Woman with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton. Laughton, of course, was well-known for his role as Dr. Moreau in the film Island Of Lost Souls a year before White Woman, which also starred Bela Lugosi and was based on The Island Of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. I bring this up because you’re going to see a lot of similarities between the two stories. Both feature a madman who has created a fiefdom out of primitive subjects who eventually turn on their master. Island Of Lost Men is pretty much the same story without the scientific experiments. The film was also intended to feature Herbert Mundin, but he died in a car accident shortly before production began, and Eric Blore took his place.
Kim Ling (Wong) is searching for her father, a Chinese general who is believed to have disappeared with a huge chunk of cash. She accepts the invitation of Gregory Prin, played by J. Carrol Naish, to visit his enterprises deep in the jungles of an island north of Singapore. She doesn’t tell Prin her true purpose, because she suspects he knows something of what happened to her father. At Prin’s jungle kingdom, she meets Chang Tai, played by a young, yet unknown Anthony Quinn. He is also under cover and searching for the general. There is also Professor Sen (Forster), who is Prin’s right-hand man but is secretly planning to overthrow Prin. The kingdom is protected by the local natives who obey Prin out of fear. When Prin wants someone dead, he merely “transfers” them upriver, where his native subjects kill the person. When Prin discovers Chang Tai is an undercover agent, he sends him on this “redshirt” mission, but Professor Sen steps in and saves the agent as part of his own plans to take over. An American named Tex Barrister, played by Broderick Crawford shows up, aware that Prin has the $300,000 believed stolen by the general. He basically sits back and lets the drama unfold, planning on taking at least half the cash. Prin discovers Kim’s true purpose and does nothing to stop her from getting away with the money in the assurance that his natives will make sure she doesn’t get out of the jungle alive. But Prin made one terrible mistake. His loyal servant, Herbert (Blore) had a trained pet monkey that he loved. When Prin kills the monkey, he loses Herbert’s loyalty, and Herbert throws the guns Prin has been stashing in the river. Prin’s operation was really a gun smuggling operation that Kim’s father had come upon. He was killed, and the money he was transporting taken. While Kim safely drives her boat to Singapore, Prin and Tex are left to deal with the unsettled natives with only one gun and one bullet. Not the outcome either man anticipated as the requisite poetic justice is played out.
Island Of Lost Men could not be made today. Both J. Carroll Naish and Anthony Quinn are made up as Chinamen, and of course they aren’t even close to being Chinese. From Charlie Chan to the Mr. Wong films with Boris Karloff, this was indeed a common practice in Hollywood. The actors who put on this makeup didn’t do so out of any kind of racial hatred, but merely to play a role. That kind of performance could not happen today. Both put on compelling performances, but you have to watch this with the sensibilities of the 1930’s and not the 2020’s.
Horror fans will remember Naish as the humpback servant of Boris Karloff in House Of Frankenstein. Daniel becomes jealous when Lon Chaney’s Wolfman/Larry Talbot wins the affections of the pretty Ilonka, played by Elena Verdugo. He was also known for playing a villain in the early Batman serials and ended his career in 1971 with Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein as Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Anthony Quinn would have an even more distinguished career in classics like Larwence of Arabia, Santiago in Hemmingway’s The Old Man Of The Sea and his Oscars for Best Supporting Actor in both Lust For Life and Viva Zapata.
King Of Chinatown (1939)
“The hand that gives aid is also hand that slits throat.”
Both Anthony Quinn and J. Carrol Naish rejoin Anna May Wong in this film made the same year. The film also stars Sidney Toler, who made his fame playing Charlie Chan in a large number of films during the same period of time. Here Wong breaks those stereotypical Asian roles when she plays Dr. Mary Ling, an accomplished surgeon.
Frank Baturin, played by Akim Tamiroff, owns the city’s rackets. He runs a protection outfit that pushes merchants to pay up or have their business destroyed and quite possibly be killed along with their shops. His only real rival in the rackets is Mike Gordon (Quinn), who ends up interfering when Baturin tries to fix a boxing match. the interference costs him $20,000, and he orders his top hitman Rep Harrington (Karns) to take care of Gordon, who gets shot in front of a pharmacy run by Dr. Chang Lin (Toler), father to surgeon Mary Ling (Wong). But Rep has been won over by a man who calls himself the Professor (Naish), who also works for Gordon but has switched sides. Baturin is the one who ends up shot by Gordon, but Mary thinks her father shot the gangster because he also refused to pay the protection money. Even though she hates the man, she ends up nursing him, because she thinks she’s helping her father. The problem is that Baturin falls in love with Mary. Things don’t work out well for the Professor as Gordon takes over the rackets and installs a reign of terror among the Chinese merchants. Meanwhile the Professor tries to strongarm Mary into letting Baturin die. In the end it’s Baturin who saves Mary when the Professor tries to kill her and ends up mortally wounded. He grants her the cash she needs to continue her humanitarian efforts before he dies in an attempt to find redemption and out of love for Mary.
I find this to be the best of the three. Wong’s role shows her as an educated and accomplished Asian woman, and her ability to treat the man she knows is threatening her father and the other merchants gives the actress the chance to show more range here than in either of the other two roles. This one has all the elements of a classic film noir effort and is worth the price of the package all on its own.
Dangerous To Know (1938)
“Is there no honesty among men?”
This might not be the best of the films here, and it certainly offers Wong the shortest screen time in the collection; however, it is the best known of the films. It was based on the Broadway play On The Spot, written by Edgar Wallace in 1930 and based on the life of Al Capone, who was a contemporary figure at the time. The play was a huge hit, and Anna May Wong reprises her role from the play in the film. While J. Carrol Naish isn’t in this film, Anthony Quinn returns, and so does Akim Tamiroff.
Stephen Recka (Tamiroff) is the head of one of the city’s mob rackets. He’s got connections and also bugs planted in places like City Hall where his henchman Nicky Kusnoff (Quinn) overhears John Rance (Pawley) conspire to take over the mayor’s office. He ends up visiting Rance and kills him after making him write a suicide note. It’s his style, but it doesn’t fool Inspector Brandon (Nolan), who visits him after Recka’s lavish birthday party. His gift is a set of chocolate handcuffs, promising to have better ones later. Recka has been trying to bribe Brandon, and they both happen to share a birthday. While Recka happily eats his handcuffs, Brandon turns down an envelope with cash.
At the party which is thrown by his “hostess” Madam Lan Yin (Wong), Recka is taken with a crasher, the socialite Margaret Van Case (Patrick). Van Case, however, is engaged to Philip Easton (Stephens), a bonds salesman. So het sets out to set up Easton for murder and theft of a large number of bonds. He admits to Margaret that he has done this and promises to clear Easton’s name if she drops him for Recka. She agrees with the promise that she’ll be a wife in name only and will plot his downfall. Unfortunately for Recka, the guys he hired to frame Easton are caught speeding with the bonds in the car. They were actually trying to keep the bonds against Recka’s orders. Just when Recka still appears untouchable, Lan Yin kills herself with a dagger while Recka plays his organ. The timing is perfect. He’s holding her and the dagger as Brandon busts through the door, and while he can’t get him for the other crimes, he ends up getting him for a murder he didn’t commit. It all ends happily ever after for Margaret and Easton as they fly away on the trip Recka planned for Margaret and himself.
There are three discs here with the films and a commentary on each. This set is pretty much set up like KL Studio Classics Film Noir Collections and will fit nicely among them on your shelf. Anna Wong became the first Asian-American to have her face on an American coin, a quarter, to celebrate great American women. Her accomplishments do get noticed from time to time, and when you see the films, you’ll find, “That wasn’t no accident.”