Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong Return to the Screen (1931) 🇺🇸

Anna May Wong |

November 29, 2021

Famous Oriental Stars Return to the Screen

Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong have been away from American movies for several years — winning stage triumphs in New York and European capitals. They’ve now returned to Hollywood to win back screen honors.

by Betty Willis

Two of Hollywood’s stepchildren, who slipped away some years ago when fortune seemed to be looking in the other direction, have just come back in triumph. Since they left the American screen, Anna May Wong, the Chinese Flapper, and Sessue Hayakawa, the most famous Japanese actor, have become international figures.

That makes them eligible to be co-starred by Paramount in Daughter of the Dragon, and to be treated with something like veneration in the old home- town.

Anna May and Sessue haven’t met since they left Hollywood, but their experiences have been very similar. Strangely so. Both captivated Europe, on the screen and on the stage. Both conquered race prejudice and have been received as unofficial good-will ambassadors — Anna May of China, and Sessue of Japan. Both were singled out for honors by the British royal family, and received the attentions that London society likes to bestow on theatrical figures. They have learned languages. They have displayed great versatility and earned a great deal of money.

They reacted to this success in completely different ways.

Anna May Wong came back completely Westernized. She is exactly like any slightly affected American girl. The Chinese flapper has an English accent now. She thinks in Western terms. Her manners, her dress, her humor, her attitude, are Western. She loves tea — but an English brand. Her face no longer looks very Chinese.

The only things Western about Sessue Hayakawa that I could discover were the black-and-white American sport shoes emerging from beneath his two kimonos. He smokes Japanese cigarettes, has Japanese people around him, talks with a completely bewildering Japanese accent, looks Oriental, and above all, thinks with the Oriental’s attitude.

What They Have in Common

One thing they have in common — they are both fatalists.

“Never make plan,” says Sessue with his difficult accent. “Never plan ahead.” Anna May, with Western verbosity, is more explicit in expressing her philosophy. “I always say it is better not to expect anything. Then you are not bitterly disappointed. And if you succeed, it is doubly wonderful. I never try to make things come out as I want them. I just let things alone, and let them take care of themselves.”

Anna May may not have struggled against Fate, but it’s not altogether accurate to say she has let things alone. She has shown great determination and sagacity in planning her career, and has helped Fate along by studying and perfecting herself in everything that might further it. Without the will and the wisdom behind her slanting eyes, the little daughter of the Chinese laundryman could never have worked up to the English accent and the Paramount contract that now distinguish her.

In the good old silent days, picture companies often used Los Angeles’ Chinatown as a setting. There Anna May — whose Chinese name means “Frosted Yellow Lily” — felt her first craving to be a movie star. Most of her school days were spent playing hooky — either at the picture show or watching the companies at work. She asked innumerable questions about how it was done, and was known to everybody from the director to the prop-boy as the Curious Chinese Child. They couldn’t hold out against her inquisitive coaxing, and pretty soon she did her first extra work in Nazimova’s picture, The Red Lantern.

How Anna May Succeeded

“I feel I am a very fortunate person,” Anna May said, looking back on those days from her present pinnacle. “All people have their dreams, and it’s wonderful just to have them. But when they actually come true, you are happy and lucky beyond what you have any right to expect, and it is very wonderful.

“I think it was my fatalism that made me able to start working out my seemingly impossible ambitions. That, and the fact that I was very imaginative — it was possible for anything to happen, it seemed to me. I was so young when I began that I knew I would still have my youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself ten years to succeed as an actress. Ten years is not a long time in the Chinese mind.”

Her parents were opposed to her career. They wanted her to marry and have a family, and live an upright, domestic life, in the honorable fashion that is the ideal of every Chinese girl. During her first contract with Paramount, in silent pictures, her father refused to see any of her productions, though he had reluctantly given her his permission to be an actress.

“Chinese children,” said Anna May, “are brought up with a great deal of discipline, a sense of responsibility, and a tremendous loyalty to each other. They may not be demonstrative and kiss each other, but a Chinese family will stick together through fire. White people often kiss each other a good deal, but desert each other in any kind of trouble.”

So Anna May’s family stuck to her through her early days in Hollywood, through the hard times that drove her to a picture contract in Germany, and through the amazing success that has brought her back to the studio where she started.

Why She’s Glad She’s Back

“It’s wonderful, my success, because now I feel I can help my family — there are so many of them. When I went away my brothers were little boys. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them — all grown up, with long trousers and deep voices.”

The boys were probably equally amazed by the erstwhile Frosted Yellow Lily. With English accent, Paris gowns, and a great deal of American money, Anna May must have presented a startling change. She acquired that accent by taking lessons, at a cost of two hundred guineas, and she got her money’s worth. Anna May begins her conversations with “I say,” ends them with “Well, cheerio!”, says, “It’s a jolly nuisance,” and calls her native land “Amuddicah.” “When I came back, I decided to keep my English accent,” she explained, “because I think it suits me, and I believe it’s right to take whatever becomes you and make it part of yourself.”

Her years on the Continent have acted as a sort of finishing school for Anna May. In brushing against the most famous people of all nations, she has acquired an almost appalling poise. She is self-sufficient and intelligent and has an air of being too sure of herself to feel ill at ease in any situation or any company,

In the past three years she has made three successful pictures in German, two in English, and one in French. She has had a great personal success on the London stage in “The Circle of Chalk,” and on the New York stage in “On the Spot.” She has sung and danced in an operetta in Vienna.

How She Conquered Europe

When she first arrived in Berlin in 1928 to fulfill a picture contract, she didn’t know a word of German. Emil Jannings benevolently advised her to answer “Nein” to everything — to be on the safe side.

Less than two years later, she spoke German so perfectly in her first talkie, The Flame of Love, that critics accused her of having a double for the dialogue.

During her first stage appearance, in “The Circle of Chalk” in London, the King’s sister came to congratulate her personally, behind the scenes.

“Sometimes it happens,” said Anna May, “that when you are very happy within yourself, you radiate that feeling and attract happy people to you. I had a very marvelous time socially in London. Many of the finest people became my friends and were wonderful to me.”

Once for two weeks she didn’t have to buy herself a single meal.

She made speeches in Chinese, and sat next to Noel Coward at a luncheon.

She visited Paris and learned to speak French. She was mobbed by adoring crowds in Berlin.

She was even used as publicity for the Graf Zeppelin, which transported four pigeons to her brother in Los Angeles.

Anna May found absolutely no race prejudice in Europe.

“That’s one reason why I was so happy there. Of course, it depends a lot upon who you are. People who might ordinarily have racial feeling would make an exception in the case of a celebrity. But there everyone was lovely to me.”

That is not always true of America. “But what difference does it make?” asks Anna May. “People like that — who would be rude and unkind — you wouldn’t wish to know anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

“It’s Fun While It Lasts”

“I couldn’t give up my career, because I feel it is really drawing China nearer, and making it better understood and liked. And I also love the fame and the fun. It may not last long, but it’s nice in the meantime. And I take all the fun with it. Some famous people say, ‘Oh, I know I’m just invited because I’m So-and-So. They don’t like me for myself.’ I know they’re asking me because I’m Anna May Wong, but I turn the tables on them — I go, and I enjoy myself.

“People tell me I’ve changed so since my European experience, and that I don’t look like a Chinese girl any more. I believe the mind and spirit show through the features. My face has changed because my mind has changed. I think like the people of the West — except in some moments of despair and stress. Then I fall back on Oriental philosophy, which is to accept not to resist. There’s no use to struggle. That philosophy gets you through a lot of tight places.”

The same philosophy has taken Sessue Hayakawa through tighter places than any that Anna May has experienced. Sessue’s star began to set in Hollywood just as Anna May’s was beginning to rise. The old folks and some precocious young ones remember when Sessue and Fanny Ward were the sensation of the screen in “The Cheat.” That was in 1915 when he was a Paramount star. Later he produced his own pictures and, as is usually the case, failed.

There were several things Sessue had been wanting to do for many years. He had always wanted to revisit Japan, where he was born. He had always wanted to appear on the New York stage. And he had always wanted to go to Europe.

Hayakawa Makes No Plans

Never make any plan,” said Sessue. “Want to go somewhere, pack up night before and go. Never plan ahead.”

So, strictly without planning ahead, he packed up the night before and did all these things in careful succession. He went to Chiba, where he was born, and where he was destined by a political heritage to become the mayor, or something. He went to New York, and appeared in a play called “The Tiger Lily.” He went to Paris and made a very successful picture called “The Battle,” in which they used seventeen warships, which seemed to be a matter of great pride to Mr. Hayakawa. He learned to speak French.

He went to London, to give a command performance before the King and Queen of England — a very great honor. He also made two pictures in London.

He returned to France and wrote a novel.

He went to Monte Carlo, and in one evening lost his entire fortune — four hundred thousand dollars. That was something he did not plan ahead.

He returned to New York and made more money playing in “The Love City” and touring in vaudeville.

Then he returned to Japan, where he smashed a national tradition. In Japan, professions are hereditary. Hayakawa was the first man not of a theatrical family to appear on the Japanese stage. He translated English plays into his native language, and staged them in European dress. “Seventh Heaven,” and others he knew would appeal to the idealistic and beauty-loving mind of the Japanese. He was profitably engaged in this when the cable came from Paramount, asking him to play in “Daughter of the Dragon.”

“Was planning new play,” said Mr. Hayakawa. “ Didn’t think it wise to come. But after exchanging maybe twenty cables, I consented.”

Sessue Hayakawa is rich again, with the self-confidence and poise of Anna May Wong. But unlike her, he is past youth, and his character is set definitely and permanently in the Eastern mold.

The moral of this story is — plan everything ahead, carefully, painstakingly, cleverly. But pretend you’re just letting things take care of themselves. That seems to be the Oriental secret of success.

Anna May Wong has been away three years.

  • In that time she has learned German and French, and acquired an English accent.
  • She has made three successful pictures in German, two in English, and one in French — and has been a sensation on the stages of the Continent, London and New York.
  • She is glad to be back.
  • She went away a Chinese flapper — and now many tell her that she no longer even looks Oriental.

Sessue Hayakawa has been away twelve years.

  • He went to London by way of New York, and was a success on the stages of both cities.
  • He made a picture in France, and wrote a novel there.
  • In one evening at Monte Carlo, he lost his entire fortune.
  • He returned to Japan, broke a tradition of his native stage, and became Japan’s greatest actor.
  • He did not want to come back to Hollywood.
  • He has remained completely Oriental.

Clever, this Chinese! Who’d ever know Anna May Wong doesn’t really come from the land of paper windows and cherry blossoms — but from little old Los Angeles? And when you see the Oriental star come back in “Daughter of the Dragon,” you’ll never guess how Westernized she has become — unless you read the story over the page.

Photo by: Eugene Robert Richee (1896–1972)

Source: Motion Picture, October 1931

Pajamas, you know, are an old Chinese costume

Who started this pajama fad, anyway? Some of Anna May Wong’s ancestors, or their relatives or their friends — thousands of years ago. Anna May, however, is of the opinion that they should have made them bigger and roomier — like these. They’re the kind she wears in real life. She wishes she could wear them on the screen in “Shanghai Express” — and startle the natives.

Photo by: Eugene Robert Richee (1896–1972)

Source: Motion Picture Magazine, January 1932

see Sessue Hayakawa (早川 雪洲) — Filmography