During the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was the first and only non-white performer to achieve a level of movie superstardom. While racial attitudes limited the depth and scope of the roles which she received, Wong nonetheless brought a sense of glamour and style to the screen which made her among the most recognized film icons of her day.

Over the years, however, Wong’s star faded (she died in 1961) and for the longest time her role in film history was barely acknowledged. The final insult came in a feeble joke in the 1975 Broadway musical “A Chorus Line,” when a gay dancer acknowledges that he dressed up to imitate Wong in an all-male burlesque show. The fall from international celebrity to vapid gay camp was inglorious, to be certain.

In recent months, however, Wong has been the center of an extraordinary flurry of activity. Three different biographies have been simultaneously released, retrospectives of her films have been held in New York and Los Angeles, and her 1929 film “Piccadilly” has been restored for theatrical re-release. Wong’s role in breaking down racist barriers in Hollywood has finally been acknowledged as a new generation of Asian and Asian-American actresses follow in the path she created.

But somewhat lost in the new Wong celebration is her most unusual and provocative film: the 1934 British production “Java Head.” Wong was very popular in the British film industry, and when Hollywood failed to provide her with worthwhile roles she found professional satisfaction in several London-based productions.

Based on the novel by Joseph Hergesheimer, “Java Head” takes place in the English port city of Bristol during the 1850s. The local maritime trade is commanded by the Ammidon family, headed by the old salt patriarch played by Edmund Gwenn (best known today for his Oscar-winning role as Santa Claus in “The Miracle on 34th Street”). Old Ammidon’s sons are polar opposites: snarky William (Ralph Richardson) never went to sea and spends much of his time trying to get his father to update and modernize his fleet, while dashing Gerrit (John Loder) has sailed all over the world. Gerrit is a handsome guy but he’s also somewhat dumb — he doesn’t realize that lovely Nettie Vollar (Elizabeth Allan) is madly in love with him. Alas, Nettie’s father is a dour Bible-thumper who’s had a running feud with Old Ammidon for 20 years and this long-standing bitterness prevents Nettie from hoping to become Gerrit’s wife.

Gerrit, to everyone’s surprise, eventually marries a girl from out of town. Way out of town, to be precise — China! He returns from an around-the-world sail with a new bride in the form of the Manchu Princess Taou Yuen (Anna May Wong). With her exotic colorful clothing and dramatic make-up, Taou Yuen seems like she came from another planet to the pale, colorless people of Bristol. Although initial sneering about having “that heathen” in the neighborhood greets her arrival, Taou Yuen slowly manages to integrate herself into the Ammidon household and the community.

But too quickly, Gerrit begins to have second thoughts about his Chinese wife. He begins spending more time with Nettie and begins to realize that she might have been a more appropriate wife. Meanwhile, old man Ammidon discovers that his sneaky son William has been using the family fleet to import illegal opium from China. This proves too much and the elder Ammidon spins around the room while clutching his chest, collapsing into a cardiac death. When Taou Yuen mourns for her dead father-in-law in the traditional Buddhist manner, she is berated by her husband for the “barbaric ways” she expresses grief. Realizing this cannot go on much longer, Taou Yuen poisons herself with a cup full of opium. Gerrit immediately sails off with his second wife, Nettie, to points unknown.

Admittedly, this is not a great film. It suffers many of the problems typical of British films of the early 1930s: cheap production values, overdone acting, and a sense of self-importance which occasionally borders on sheer arrogance. Yet “Java Head” is noteworthy because it dares to tread on the taboo subject of interracial marriage and also presents what may have been the first interracial love scene in movie history between Wong and Loder. (A previous silent version of “Java Head” starred white actress Leatrice Joy as the Chinese princess.) The love scene consists of two medium-length kisses and the tight holding of hands. While Wong had been the subject of white male romantic attention in her previous films, this was the first and only time in her career that she was given the chance to have an on-screen kiss. The fact “Java Head” was a British production and not a Hollywood film can explain how this provocative scene was put into place.

Wong was top billed for “Java Head,” even though her role is more of a supporting level. This was a testament to her fame, but in retrospect this was her final film glory. She would not make any more films in London and her subsequent Hollywood roles were in undistinguished movies that were mostly at the B-level.

“Java Head” was not a significant commercial success and it quickly became forgotten. The film’s American copyright eventually lapsed into the public domain and by the early 1980s it re-emerged in a mediocre-quality bootleg video which seemed to have been taken from a battered 16mm print. To date, it has never received a proper commercial video release nor has it been restored. In fact, the version that was included last month’s Anna May Wong retrospective in Los Angeles was from a scratchy archival print.

With the new level of interest in Anna May Wong, it is possible “Java Head” will be restored and properly released. While the film may not be a classic, it is an important milestone in the career of a remarkable actress and having it exist only in a cruddy bootleg video version is shameful.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on February 20, 2004 in Features by

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