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Six Early Films, 1900–1929

Date
November 12, 2022
Time
2:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Cost
$5 – $62
Organizer’s Site
https://www.academymuseum.org/en/programs/detail/six-early-films-1900-1929-01827fef-ae91-5d2a-8d5d-f476e8f1175f

SIX EARLY FILMS, 1900–1929
For much of the history of Hollywood filmmaking, movies often portrayed Chinese as the “other” in a “them vs. us” hierarchy. Early movies, in particular, exploited this dichotomy, illustrated by the now-absurd—but no less damning—examples in this program. Yet, this era also saw productions from pioneering Chinese American filmmakers who aspired to elevate onscreen representations of themselves.

Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese
Produced by one of early cinema’s most prolific studio heads, Siegmund Lubin, Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese re-enacts fictionalized scenes from the Boxer Rebellion in China. Within a 30-second running time, this film flames fears of barbaric Chinese inciting the destruction of Western civilization. Laughable today, this writer wonders if a 1900s-era audience, watching movies for the first time, may have been shaken by the scenes of decapitation.

The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teachers
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an influential and respected studio during the silent era, produced this short where Chinese laundrymen and church members share cultural traditions: Bible studies and opium smoking. The film illustrates the immoral consequences that innocent white women would suffer under the lure of “inscrutable” Chinese men—all this in three minutes.

That Chink at Golden Gulch
One of D.W. Griffith’s shorts before he directed his controversial feature about the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation (1915), That Chink at Golden Gulch was supposedly a take on racial intolerance (despite the obvious racial epithet in its title). The story focuses on a Chinese laundryman who is rescued from racist taunts by a white man, and by the end of the film he becomes a pushover in service to his white savior. At least one review from the time considered the film a call for understanding, arguing, “Perhaps if everyone could see such heroic self-sacrifice in a Chinaman as this one displayed, the aversion which most men feel toward them would disappear.” (Moving Picture World, October 22, 1910.)

The Curse of Quon Gwon
Marion Wong’s 1917 film, The Curse of Quon Gwon, is the earliest known feature film made by an Asian American, and one of the few American silent features directed by a woman of any ethnic background. Produced in and around Oakland, California, where Wong resided, the film focused on Chinese American characters and their bicultural values. It was never distributed, and only two reels of perhaps seven resurfaced when family members brought them to the attention of this writer in 2004. The Academy Film Archive eventually preserved the surviving nitrate elements, and in 2006, the National Film Registry added the title to their esteemed catalogue.

Lotus Blossom
Producer James B. Leong’s career started in the silent era, first as a China technical advisor for studios like Lasky and Ince, and subsequently acting in over 80 films until the 1960s. Lotus Blossom was his only finished production, a color-tinted silent film that embodied his ambitions to make movies about the Chinese. It starred Lady Tsen Mei, a vaudeville singer of mixed Chinese, white, and Black heritage, who had been publicized as “The Screen’s First and Only Chinese Star” for her 1918 debut film, For the Freedom of the East (1918)—four years before Anna May Wong’s breakthrough film The Toll of the Sea (1922). Preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive, only one of Lotus Blossom’s five reels has survived, which will be screened in this program.

The Letter
One of Paramount’s first sound films, The Letter is Lotus Blossom (1921) actor Lady Tsen Mei’s final known feature film appearance. She’s cast as a conniving nightspot proprietor (opium and slave girls are on the menu, of course) caught in a deadly lover’s triangle. Adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham play set in the East Indies, The Letter also stars former Ziegfeld showgirl Jeanne Eagels whose performance as a murderess was nominated by the Academy for a posthumous Best Actress Oscar. There are racist slurs and stereotypes throughout, but stay seated for Lady Tsen Mei’s impassioned lashing of Eagels and her white conceit.

Location

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036
Los Angeles, CA 90036 United States
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