Film series: From Silent Film Star to American Icon: Celebrating Anna May Wong
Though her likeness was added to the U.S. quarter in 2022 as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, Anna May Wong remains a somewhat unrecognized historical figure, despite her stature as the first Asian-American Hollywood film star. Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Anna May Wong was a prolific, multitalented, and internationally acclaimed actress who starred in more than 60 films and whose career spanned a period of great transformation for the film industry. Early in her career, Wong was consistently passed over for leading roles and cast in supporting roles that perpetuated racist stereotypes about Asian and Asian-American communities.
Frustrated with this problematic treatment of Asian characters, Wong attempted to establish her own production company in 1924 before eventually leaving the United States to work in Europe, where she was cast as more complex characters and in a greater number of leading roles. Committed to only starring in films that positively portrayed Asian characters, she returned to the United States in the 1930s where she starred in some of her most famous films, including opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) and in Robert Florey’s Daughter of Shanghai (1937). Our Cornell Cinema series aims at once to acknowledge this difficult Hollywood history and to celebrate the ways that Anna May Wong continuously broke new ground for Asian-American representation on screen.
What is additionally remarkable about Anna May Wong is that her career also encapsulated significant technological shifts in the film industry, including the transition from silent to sound cinema and the shift from black-and-white to color. Because both these technological advancements were pioneered locally by George Eastman at Eastman-Kodak in Rochester and Theodore Case in Auburn, Wong’s career—as explored through this series—creates an exciting opportunity to celebrate the central importance of our local region for the technological development of cinema. The George Eastman Museum and the Case Research Lab are partnered with Wharton Studio Museum in the Finger Lakes Film Trail, an intra-county initiative that launched in 2018 that celebrates movie history in the region.
Our series will begin by examining films from Wong’s early career including the first-ever, two-strip Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea (1922), Peter Pan (1924), and Daughter of The Dragon (1931). The latter film, which will screen downtown at Cinemapolis, stars both Wong and actor Warner Oland, who was a frequent collaborator of Theodore and Leopold Wharton of the Wharton Film Studio in Ithaca, NY.
Next, the series will shift to focus on Anna May Wong’s career in Europe and her stature as an international film star. On Thursday, October 26, we are delighted to welcome the celebrated scholar Professor Shirley Jennifer Lim ‘90 to deliver a lecture on the life and work of Anna May Wong. Professor Lim will discuss Anna May Wong’s stature as an international movie star and self-fashioning as a quintessentially modern woman, which is the subject of her most recent book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern (Temple University Press, 2019). The talk is free and open to the public, will take place at Cornell Cinema, and will be followed by a free screening of Piccadilly (Germany, 1928, dir. by Richard Eichberg) at 7:30pm.
Finally, the series will conclude with a screening of one of Anna May Wong’s best-known films from later in her career, Shanghai Express (1932), on Saturday, November 4 at 7pm.
The series will also feature two special, silent films events with live musical accompaniment. On Sunday, October 1, local musicians Robert Aceto, Peter Dodge, and Chris White, who perform together as the Cloud Chamber Orchestra, will perform an original, experimental score for Toll of the Sea (1922).
Then, on Sunday, October 29, acclaimed accompanists Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (’71) will perform live alongside the first-ever film version of Peter Pan (1924), in which Anna May Wong plays the character Tiger Lily. At this family-friendly screening close to Halloween, families and children are invited to dress up and to participate in a costume parade before the film.
This series is made possible by generous support from the Asian-American Studies Program, the East Asia Program at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Department of History, the Department of Performing and Media Arts, and the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
“Celebrating Anna May Wong” is presented in partnership with the Wharton Studio Museum and Cinemapolis as part of the 12th Annual Silent Movie Month in Ithaca. Please visit whartonstudiomuseum.org for more information.
Don’t miss your chance to learn more about Anna May Wong through a special Silent Movie Month display at Odyssey Bookstore, 115 West Green Street, Ithaca!
Sunday, October 1 at 5:30pm
The Toll of the Sea
directed by Chester M. Franklin (1922 USA)
featuring an original live score by Cloud Chamber Orchestra and a 35mm restoration print courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive
Thursday, October 19 at 5:30pm
Daughter of the Dragon
directed by Lloyd Corrigan (1931 USA)
Thursday, October 26 at 6pm and 7:30pm
Anna May Wong: A Lecture by Professor Shirley Jennifer Lim ’90
Free admission; Cornell Cinema
Followed by screening of:
directed by E.A. Dupont (1929 UK)
Cornell Cinema; free admission
Sunday, October 29 at 2:30pm
directed by Herbert Brenon (1924 USA)
featuring live musical accompaniment by acclaimed musicians Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton
Saturday, November 4 at 7pm
directed by Josef von Sternberg (1932, USA)