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In continuing its month of Chinese American cinema, Turner Classic Movies showed THE TOLL OF THE SEA tonight (which night highlighted some of the work of Anna May Wong. The Chinese-American actress was as big a star as Sessue Hayakawa was in the silent and early talkie periods, and certainly had much going for her: not only an ability to have the motion picture camera "love her" face and motions, but a sexiness that could easily be turned on. But she had problems finding leading parts, and usually had to accept better-than-average supporting roles (usually as a villainous – see the Sherlock Holmes film, A STUDY IN SCARLET with Reginald Owen for an example). Her best recalled role to most people is the young Chinese bride headed to the hinterland to meet her husband to be, who is the subject of the sexual desires of war lord Warner Oland in SHANGHAI EXPRESS. It was a good performance under a master director (Von Sternberg), and one of the few times Marlene Dietrich had compet…
It's slow going in this Puccini Opera rip off that nevertheless is worth a look for it's early example of the Technicolor process. The film plods along at a mostly gloomy pace as the camera looks for any reason to display color. From costumes to pheasants, gardens to elaborate Chinese interiors we are offered a full range of lush colorful imagery.Without the music Madame Butterfly can be trying but Anna May Wong as Lotus Flower gives a delicately touching performance being lurched back and forth between joy and tragedy. Her silent emoting in colorful costume makes for a beautiful visual poem. Kenneth Harlan as the bigamist has the Arrow man look and his American wife played by Beatrice Bentley evokes Gibson Girl remaining mostly in profile as if posing for the period calender.Lethargic pace and glum plot aside, Toll of the Sea's colorful historical significance and Ms. Wong's tender performance deserves a look.