Before Myrna Loy rose to stardom with Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man (both 1934), she was often relegated to playing vamps, mistresses, and other assorted flavors of wicked women. (As this early picture shows, she clearly wasn't cut out to be the girl next door). A redhead by birth, it took only a dark wig to prompt many a director to cast her as an exotic beauty -- be it Mexican peasant girl or Senegalese spy (in blackface, no less). Yet most fascinating are the films in which she portrayed Asian characters, for they say quite a bit about Hollywood's perception of and approach towards the "oriental".
In 1928 Loy was given a lead role in The Crimson City, playing a Chinese woman who is to be sold into slavery. It's worth noting that she was chosen for the part over Anna May Wong, who wound up as a supporting actor in the film. (Losing the part to Loy was what finally convinced Wong to leave Hollywood and try her hand at acting overseas.) Wong was no stranger to cinema at this time -- with over twenty-five films on her resume, she would have been the logical choice to play the lead, but as Yiman Wang explains in Camera Obscura, there was a rejection of history and realist representation by audiences of that period. She finds this consistent with art-deco aesthetic, which decontextualizes objects and repackages them for decorative purposes, thus making Loy's faux-Chinese more desirable than the real thing.
Studios kept offering Loy Asian roles -- from bit parts in A Girl in Every Port and The Show of Shows to a lead role playing an Indian princess in John Ford's The Black Watch. Yet in 1932 she appeared in two films that found her portraying particularly devilish women, which would turn out to be her final outings in yellowface.
Dated and quite racist, The Mask of Fu Manchu has Boris Karloff playing the titular "hideous yellow monster" that dreams of taking over the world. Loy plays his daughter, Fa Lo See, a half-naked nymphomaniacal sadist who reaches orgasmic heights when torturing white males. A product of its time, its sexual kinkiness is unfortunately outweighed by its unflattering portrait of Asians as simpletons who are more than willing to follow a madman in his quest to destroy the white race. Though immensely entertaining, the exaggerated stereotypes and racial slurs make it difficult to enjoy in its entirety.
|Loy's other Asian role in 1932 was as the mysterious (and oddly named) Ursula Georgi in George Archainbaud's thriller, Thirteen Women. This pre-code bit of nastiness (which Filmbrain recently caught on TCM) is interesting in that racism is at the heart of the story, even if its approach lacks a certain subtlety. Ursula Georgi, a self-described half-breed (referred to as "half-Hindu, half-Japanese" by a detective) uses the power of suggestion to exact revenge on a group of women who scorned, alienated, and mistreated her when they were at school together. Working in cahoots (at first) with a Swami, she sends the women letters, telling them of the awful fate that will befall them, which naturally comes true once the idea is planted. So strong are her powers, that a mere glance into her eyes is enough to convince a man to throw himself in front of a moving train. One of the thirteen women is Laura Stanhope (an early performance by Irene Dunne), wealthy Beverly Hills wife, and mother of an eight year-old boy who becomes Ursula's target. When poisoned candy and an exploding rubber ball fails, she decides to take matters into her own hands, leading to a wonderfully tense confrontation near the film's end. When Dunne asks her "What have I done, what have any of us done to make you so inhuman?", Loy gets her moment to shine: |
A fairly bold statement for '32, especially considering that this was the same year as The Mask of Fu Manchu. While Thirteen Women isn't the most complex or thought provoking look at racism in America, Loy's character is far less objectified than her other Asian roles, even if she does play a woman who kills for revenge. Though it suffers from early-talkie syndrome (characters shouting their lines, and awkward pauses between them), Thirteen Women is an effective thriller with a great final reel that still holds up today.
But has Hollywood changed much over the years? Are Brando's taped-up eyes in The Teahouse of the August Moon or Mickey Rooney's false front teeth and cartoonish dialect in Breakfast at Tiffany's signs of progression? Hardly. Even last year's Memoirs of a Geisha revealed that there is no distinction in Hollywood between Chinese and Japanese actors (let alone tradition and culture.) The casting of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi as geishas might not be quite the same as Myrna Loy being cast over Anna May Wong -- one could argue that Amblin Entertainment's motivation was economical. While it is a fact that there aren't many Japanese actors who are recognizable to US audiences, it seems that Hollywood still views the Orient as the great exotic other, whose cultures can be mixed at matched at whim..