Louise Brooks and Anna May Wong — Their European Souls (1930) 🇺🇸

Anna May Wong | www.vintoz.com

January 28, 2022

Some stars’ spirits flower only abroad.

by Cedric Belfrage

Some are born European; some achieve Europe; and some have Europe thrust upon them.

So it is in this funny old business of the movies.

The advent of the talkies has been thrusting Europe rather too suddenly and violently upon some of our eminent Hollywood citizens. It was a case of here today and gone tomorrow. One day, the arrival home of Jannings from his studio labors, swathed in a fur rug in the rear seat of his Mercedes, was the local big event which everybody turned out to see. The next, there was just a big empty house with a few beer-stains on the tables. And Jannings was no more.

And it seems like yesterday that we were all worshiping at the shrine of La Belle Negri, and dishing the dirt about her temperamental and emotional adventures over our Montmartre spaghetti. Yet today we are dishing it about Ina Claire and Irène Bordoni and Ruth Chatterton — such dirt as there is to dish about these practically irreproachable ladies.

But there are others, formerly of our number in the picture colony, whose bright little faces are no longer seen around, nor are their bright little names bandied from mouth to mouth at Wednesday and Saturday dirt-dishing time. A face here, a face there, has faded out of the picture. Not faces especially greatly missed, because perhaps they never fitted very well into the jig-saw puzzle of Hollywood.

Good and Unhappy

These are they who have achieved Europe. Achieved it as a natural consequence of the fact that they were really born European — though they didn’t realize it at the time.

In Hollywood they were, in a way, square pegs in round holes. They were good, but they weren’t happy. They were well on the upward path to the starry heights; some had actually achieved stardom. There was nothing to stop them except their temperaments.

They had restless souls, like Chekhov’s heroines who sit on the wide-open steppes and moan all day long: “God! I’m stifling here! I can’t breathe! When, oh when, do we go to Moscow?” The only difference was that the steppes in this case were Hollywood and Moscow was Europe.

So, in the end, they packed their grips and lit out for their spiritual home.

Hollywood saw them no more — for a time, at least.

There was Louise Brooks, for instance. Charming girl, Louise. Pretty girl. Clever, too. People liked her in Hollywood — those who could understand her. The others thought she was cold, haughty and upstage. But there was no doubt about her ability. Nobody asked her to leave; she just left.

The siren voice of Europe called her and held her. She went to work for Pabst, the German director, in Berlin — at a salary at least double what she received in Hollywood — and is still working for him, at present on her third picture. But I am naive enough to believe sincerely that it isn’t the salary that holds Louise in Europe. Of course, it makes a decided difference to her outlook. But fundamentally it is the fact that, at heart, she is a European.

She Is So European

When I say European, I mean as distinct from Hollywoodian — the only other thing one is allowed to be, if one is in the movies. Louise adores New York, and goes back there for a short visit between each picture. But Hollywood? The very mention of the place gives her a sensation of nausea. The pettiness of it, the dullness, the monotony, the stupidity — no, no, that is no place for Louise Brooks.

Or so the eminent Herr Pabst described it to me over a cocktail in the Bristol Bar, Berlin. “Louise,” said Herr Pabst, “has a European soul. You can’t get away from it. When she described Hollywood to me — I have never been there — I cry out against the absurd fate that ever put her there at all. She belongs in Europe and to Europeans. She has been a sensational hit in her German pictures. I do not have her play silly little cuties. She plays real women, and plays them marvelously.”

Anna May Wong is an even stranger case. She has not only the combination of a Hollywood background and a European soul — but an Asiatic body, thrown in. Anna May was a lonely enough figure in Hollywood. She was considered a success in pictures, but she never got to enjoy the social life of the place. The only set she enjoyed going with was the European set. She was often to be seen at the Jannings’ or at the Veidts’s, but beyond that she walked by herself most of the time.

Anna May Escapes

Then came an offer from Europe. The moment she landed she was a sensation. Royalty and the haute noblesse took her up, and wined and dined her. She was voted in England, France and Germany the most amusing and delightful addition to society in months. You should see her today receiving her friends at tea in the garden of Berlin’s Esplanade Hotel. Novelists, statesmen, sportin’ chappies and whatnot come to pay court to her and listen to her charming conversation. Her life is an endless procession of dinners with Lady This and cocktail parties with Baron de That. And to Anna May, Hollywood is a mere memory which she would rather not think about very much. She does not tirade against Hollywood — with Asiatic calm she assures everyone that it’s perfectly all right in its way. But its way isn’t Anna May’s way. Give her Paris, Berlin, London, and she is in her right setting.

Virginia Bradford was another one. Popularity, work, and success were all hers in Hollywood, but her temperament was against her. The monotony of it got on her nerves. After six years in the place she found she had practically lost interest in its social whirl, and in studio activities also. She had been to Tia Juana so many times that she was sick of it. She was fed up with parties where the same people eternally said the same things. Hollywood Boulevard gave her somewhat of a pain in the neck. Going to openings had deteriorated, for her, into a pretty bad joke.

Just an Old-World Girl

Was this the European soul doing its deadly work again? It seems so. For Virginia set sail for the shores of old England; three weeks after her arrival was placed on long-term contract by Maurice Browne, the London producer; and a week after that had been heard to declare, so that all might hear, that she didn’t particularly care how long it was before she saw Hollywood again. And she, too, has found herself a spiritual home in the Old World. She has come to the conclusion that in some previous incarnation she must have been either a Hungarian gypsy or the Queen of England.

Betty Blythe is another star with a European soul, though at present she is back in Hollywood. Betty has been in Europe five or six years, making pictures in England, Germany and France. She has come back to Hollywood because she has a desire to get on the talkie band-wagon while the getting is good, but her soul pines for Paris.

Other Exiles

Syd Chaplin and Monty Banks were both European-born, though they carved out their careers entirely in Hollywood. They are rather European of soul — never have quite been able to Hollywoodize themselves. They have now both more or less permanently transferred their energies to European studios. Syd, if one may believe newspaper reports, has a great time in England dining extra girls, while Mont}-, having gone bankrupt in America, finds the English air particularly bracing. Having a European soul suits them both admirably. To them the Old World is a good old world. 

Abbe — Paris

Photo by: James Abbe (1883–1973)

Above, Louise Brooks, who is now in France, making her first starring picture, “Le Prix de Beauté”; and right, Anna May Wong, Chinese star, as seen in “Show Life,” which bears a made-in-Germany label.

Source: Motion Picture MagazineFebruary 1930