ON THIS DATE in 1922, seventeen-year-old Anna May Wong starred in The Toll of the Sea, becoming the first Asian American woman to receive top billing in a Hollywood film.
A third-generation Chinese American from Los Angeles, Wong cut a striking figure with her five-foot-seven-inch stature, large, dark eyes, and distinctive bangs. She made her first feature film at fourteen and received progressively larger roles until the Toll of the Sea, a silent film that told a Madame Butterfly-type tale of a Chinese woman who falls in love with an American man, gives birth to a child after he leaves her, and drowns herself in the sea.
Two years later Wong appeared with Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. She made a series of films in Europe and, according some film buffs, gave her finest performance in 1929’s Picadilly. In 1932 Wong shared screen time with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, but she grew increasingly frustrated with Hollywood casting tendencies, particularly when MGM passed her over for an Austrian actress, Luise Rainier, for the peasant wife role in The Good Earth, a 1937 film about a Chinese farmer and his wife.
In 2008, Turner Classic Movies made a documentary of Wong’s singular film career titled, Anna May Wong – Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend.