The greatest depiction of a woman crying on the silver screen is one you’ve likely never seen. You may be tempted to call up the image of Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s stoic tears in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the mesmeric power of the saline streams down Anna Karina’s face in Vivre Sa Vie. Both scenes, iconic in their own right, hark back to an earlier acting triumph: that of the delicate, pink-hued face of Anna May Wong, only seventeen and virtually unknown at the time, framed in dramatic chiaroscuro, her eyes glistening pools of feeling.
The film, The Toll of the Sea, a gem of the silent era that turns one hundred this year, was made in Hollywood under unusual circumstances. The inspiration for it didn’t come from a director or screenwriter but from “two great scientists,” as a 1922 advertisement declared. Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, graduates of MIT, were the men behind Technicolor, a company cofounded in 1915 with engineer W. Burton Wescott in order to develop a process for photographing motion pictures in color.
By 1922, Technicolor had mastered a new two-color system but the problem they now faced was getting filmmakers to use it. With $1.2 million in funding raised from backers in New York and the support of Marcus Loew and Joseph Schenck, who offered up their facilities at Metro Pictures along with a director and lead actor at no cost, Technicolor set out to make a film that would impress audiences and thereby convince studio heads to adopt the new color film technology on a mass scale.
Frances Marion, the most sought-after and highly paid screenwriter in the industry, was brought on to write a scenario that would “best exploit the variable color tones.” Freed from commercial pressures, Marion envisioned a rich and sumptuous “Oriental background” and set about writing a tragic love story with a familiar ring. “It was practically the step-daughter of Madame Butterfly,” Marion later said. Only the setting changed from Japan to China.
Matinee idol Kenneth Harlan was cast as Allen Carver, the American cad who washes up on the rocky shores of Hong Kong in the opening scenes and is discovered by a young Chinese girl who marshals a group of fishermen to pull him to safety. The girl, called Lotus Flower, was played by Anna May Wong in her first starring role. In contrast to many who landed in motion pictures, Wong was a homegrown talent. She was born in Los Angeles in 1905 to a Chinese laundryman and grew up in and around Chinatown, where movie studios like Selig and Bioscope set up shop in the early days. As a child she stalked their makeshift outdoor sets, pushing her way through the crowds of onlookers to get a peek at the action. By eleven she decided she was going to be an actress and at thirteen she started doing extra work. Within a few years, Wong was garnering modest roles in films directed by the likes of Marshall Neilan, a Mary Pickford regular at the time.
Although yellowface, like blackface, was alive and well in the 1920s, Anna May Wong and the other Chinese actors who appear in Toll of the Sea, including Etta Lee and Ming Young, were cast seemingly without objection. The prevailing wisdom that favored white actors playing Asian characters in makeup and taped eyes didn’t apply in this instance. The more authentic the film’s look and feel, the better to demonstrate its vibrant realism. Technicolor’s stated aim, after all, was to make motion pictures in “natural color.”
Production began in May of 1922, but according to Comstock’s reports, some of the actors didn’t take the job seriously. The outright failure of Technicolor’s first film effort in 1917, the hour-long The Gulf Between, was fresh in their minds. It was anyone’s guess whether Toll of the Sea would meet a similar fate. The unconventional production already had enough challenges. Because of the color film’s slower speed, high-intensity lighting was required, even outside. The actors were practically melting under the bright klieg lights, not to mention the southern California sunshine beating down on them. When the cameras ran out of film, all work stopped for weeks at a time until more of Technicolor’s special film stock could be manufactured and then shipped out from Boston. If any of this affected Anna May Wong’s enthusiasm for her part as Lotus Flower, she didn’t show it in front of the cameras.
In the film, Lotus Flower predictably falls in love with the handsome foreigner she’s rescued and he in turn becomes enchanted with her exotic beauty. She strikes a pact with the ocean that has brought her this gift, vowing: “Ask of me anything in return, O Sea!” Their courtship ensues among the cherry blossoms until Carver is called back home to the United States. In his absence, Lotus Flower, who believes Carver to be her rightful husband, gives birth to a son. Several years pass before she spots him again from the shore, but she soon discovers he has returned with an American wife. Grasping the truth of her situation, Lotus Flower selflessly gives her son over to the care of Carver and his new bride so that the boy might live a better life. Then she relinquishes herself to the sea.
No one was enthusiastic about yet another version of the hackneyed Madame Butterfly saga (Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge had already done renditions in 1915 and 1918, respectively). Upon learning of the script, Kalmus later recalled taking “a rather a dim view of the choice. It seemed a depressing story.” But all that changed once Anna May Wong entered the picture. “When I saw the early rushes,” he continued, “I realized that she was radiant in color as the girl who drowns herself in the sea.” Wong could cry buckets without the aid of glycerin tears. Plus, her bouts of emotion looked genuine.
Critics responded similarly, affronted at first by the paltry story, then swept off their feet by the young actress’s heartrending performance and the luminous, pigmented world surrounding her. “We had not dreamed that the old, old story of Mme. Butterfly could ever again wring tears from us,” Harriette Underhill wrote in her column for the New York Tribune. “The people who have made this new colored picture have done something so beautiful that it is rather awe inspiring and criticizing it is like dissecting a butterfly.”
One hundred years later, Toll of the Sea holds up as one of the silent era’s treasures. The film’s simple yet beautifully rendered mise-en-scène coupled with director Chester M. Franklin’s judicious use of close shots allow the acting to speak for itself, and when given this opportunity, Wong stuns with a virtuoso performance. Her depth of feeling is especially apparent in scenes where she, then still a child herself, embodies the loving mother with her toddler son played by child actor Baby Moran. “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for, and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling,’” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times. “She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”
To nearly everyone’s surprise, the film was a huge critical and commercial success. Technicolor couldn’t make prints fast enough and the film didn’t circulate to theaters following its December 1922 premiere until well into 1923. Letters of praise arrived from renowned artists Maxfield Parrish and Charles Dana Gibson. According to Kalmus, the film grossed an astounding $250,000 ($4.4 million today).
Then came the call from Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s biggest stars and producers. He liked what he saw of Technicolor’s process and was interested in making a color picture (which he eventually did with 1926’s The Black Pirate).What’s more, the Chinese American actress with three credits to her name had left an impression he couldn’t shake. Fairbanks decided to cast Wong in his 1924 blockbuster hit The Thief of Bagdad, catapulting her to international fame. Despite these successes and relatively steady work, Wong had to wait another six years and sail across the Atlantic to win her next starring role in the German production Song. Hollywood, it turned out, wasn’t quite ready to see things in living color.