The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin, 1922, USA)

The Toll of the Sea is a silent film from 1922. It is notable in several respects. Firstly, the film was one of the first color films made in Hollywood and the first that did not require special projection. It is also perhaps the first Hollywood film to feature a Chinese-American actress in a leading role. Anna May Wong, born to second-generation Chinese-American parents in Los Angeles, stars in the film Lotus Flower. Wong had an amazing career, becoming the first Chinese American silent film star. When work became more difficult in the 1930s, she moved to Europe and began working with great directors such as Josef von Sternberg. She also was a pioneer in television, becoming the first Asian American lead of a US television series in the 1950s.

The plot of The Toll of the Sea is a take on the Madama Butterfly story, although here the action is transplanted from Japan to China. The film was written by another female pioneer, Frances Marion, who is probably the most prolific female screenwriter of all time, as well as the first writer to win two Academy Awards. While Anna May Wong is great in her role, the plot leaves something to be desired. Essentially here we have the trope of the two cultures (East and West) intermixing, and the doomed nature of this love affair culminates in Anna May Wong's suicide. Meanwhile, her American lover comes out of the situation unscathed. While this seems quite crude nowadays, it is interesting from a historical perspective in that it shows how the West perceived China at this time in history. The film is worth seeking out however for Anna May Wong's performance. She does the best with a role that is not complex or well-written, and we are interested to see more of her work.



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