Posts tagged cinema.

January 3, 1905: Anna May Wong is born.

Anna May Wong, who was born in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, is considered the first Chinese-American movie star. Along with the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, Wong was one of the first Asian-American actors to achieve international fame, although, like Hayakawa, her race limited the different roles she could play on screen. Off-screen, she was considered a fashion and beauty icon, but on it, she was either the “Dragon Lady” or the demure Chinese butterfly. In 1922 Wong starred in Hollywood’s first color feature, The Toll of the Sea. At 19, she was cast in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (1924) - in a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” role, but a significant role nonetheless. It was this film that introduced her to the public. Also like Hayakawa, Wong fled (in 1928) to Europe, frustrated with Hollywood’s limited role opportunities and the American film industry’s tendency to cast non-Asians in Asian roles over eager Asian actors. 

In Europe, Wong starred in a number of successful films, and European critics (according to The New York Times), regarded her “not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty”, especially praising her performance in the British film Piccadilly (1928), considered one of her best. In Germany, she befriended director Leni Riefenstahl (who would go on to direct The Triumph of the Will) and the actress Marlene Dietrich. Wong returned to the United States in 1930 and accepted yet another yellow peril-type role in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), the only film in which she appeared alongside Sessue Hayakawa; in 1933 she spoke out against Hollywood’s relentlessly negative portrayal of Chinese-Americans in its films:

Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?

Wong’s continued on-screen portrayal of unsympathetic Asian characters led to her rejection by the Chinese government and press, who regarded her a “disgrace to the Chinese race”.  Unfortunately, one of the greatest disappointments of Wong’s career came in the form of a production that did portray its Chinese characters sympathetically - a film adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel The Good Earth. Wong was considered the perfect fit for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese peasant and the novel’s main female character, and Buck herself had intended any movie adaptation of her novel to feature an all-Asian cast. In the end, it was decided that such a cast would shock and possibly repel American audiences, and Paul Muni, an Austrian actor, was cast in the male lead role. Because of the anti-miscegenation restrictions of the time, the studio did not consider Wong for O-Lan because her on-screen husband would be played by a white actor, and the role went instead to Luise Rainer, a German-born actress who eventually received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Meanwhile, Wong was offered a separate role in the film, which she refused, stating, “You’re asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters”. 

Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon)

December 8, 1861: Georges Méliès is born.

Dubbed a “cinemagician” for his experimentation with special effects and cinematography, this early filmmaker was, for much of his early career, a stage performer with a particular love for magic and illusion shows. He combined some of his theatrical techniques with his films, realizing that, through cinema, he could create situations and effects that could not possibly exist or be performed on stage - objects could disappear or be transformed, and rockets could fly into the moon. In 1896, the year after the Lumière brothers held a sceening for their first film, Méliès began shooting his own. By 1913 he had directed 531 films, most of which were used to showcase Méliès’ innovative special effects. His most famous film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), was one of the earliest science-fiction films. It cost 10,000 francs to produce and was extremely successful, yet it was not Méliès who profited the most off of his own movie in the United States but producers who distributed illegal copies, including Thomas Edison.

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His other famous films include The Impossible Voyage (1904) and Conquest of the Pole (1912), Méliès’ last successful film before going bankrupt after a series of personal crises and financial failures. During World War I, hundreds of his studio’s films were confiscated and melted down for raw materials; still, 200 of Méliès’ films were preserved and survive to this day. After years of living out of the public eye, interest in Méliès and his work renewed in the late 1920s, and in 1931 the French government awarded him the Légion d’honneur.The Lumière brothers, who in 1895 had refused to sell Méliès a camera, proclaimed him the “creator of the cinematic spectacle”. 

October 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer, the first prominent “talkie”, is released.

You ain’t heard nothing yet” was a line spoken by Al Jolson in the first feature film with synchronized dialogue. In a way, his words were almost prophetic - the success of The Jazz Singer ushered in a new age of cinema. The movie smashed Warner Bros.’ previous box office record, demonstrating the profitability of the “talkie”. Prior to the release of this film, however, most studios and critics doubted talking film technology and dismissed it as a novelty; Harry Warner, whose company would pioneer talking films, famously scoffed “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" (although the full quote reveals that he believed recorded music would be a more decisive factor).

At the 1st Academy Awards (1929), The Jazz Singer was excluded from the top prizes because it was a talkie, but the Academy bestowed upon the film a Special Academy Award, recognizing it as “the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry”. 2011’s The Artist was actually the first silent film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since 1929, revealing how fas the silent film’s departure was. By the early 1930s, what had once been viewed as a fad was now standard procedure for most of the major studios. 

But the advent of the talkie was not beneficial for everyone in the industry. Some filmmakers continued to flourish despite the change, like Charlie Chaplin, who released some of his most popular films (City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator) after 1927; others, like, Douglas Fairbanks, who had once been called “the King of Hollywood”, could not adjust. Musicians who had provided live music for silent films also found themselves out of work, because prerecorded musical tracks rendered them obsolete. 

October 5, 1962: Dr. No, the first James Bond film, is released.

With twenty-two films out (and a twenty-third set for release this October), the series was the first film series to gross over a billion dollars; it was the highest-grossing series ever until surpassed by Harry Potter in 2011, but it retains the top position adjusted for inflation. And it turns fifty years old today.

FUN FACTS.

  • Six actors have played the iconic character - Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.
  • Of them, Lazenby starred in the least (perhaps for good reason, but the quality of his performance is still disputed among fans). 
  • Sean Connery wore a toupee in all of his films.
  • Actors who were offered or considered for the role include Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Cary Grant, Adam West (Adam West), Michael Gambon, James Brolin, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson.
  • Ranulph Fiennes was rejected for having “hands too big and a face like a farmer”; Patrick McGoohan declined the role for “moral reasons” (i.e. he thought Bond was too promiscuous).
  • Author Ian Fleming was initially doubtful about Sean Connery playing the role, calling him “an overgrown stunt-man”. 
  • Roger Moore was the oldest actor to play Bond, at fifty-seven.
  • George Lazenby was chosen for the role after producer Cubby Broccoli and director/editor Peter Hunt saw him in a chocolate bar commercial.
  • Each film has featured at least two “Bond girls”. A View to a Kill had the most, with six.
  • The famous gun barrel sequence has been a part of every Bond film, but the Bond in this sequence was played by a stuntman until Thunderball.
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was also based on an Ian Fleming novel, and it was also produced by a James Bond producer.
  • Steven Spielberg was informed in the 1970s by Cubby Broccoli that he was not experienced enough to direct a Bond film.
  • Goldfinger was the first Bond film to win an Oscar.
  • Adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing Bond film is Thunderball

August 13, 1899: Alfred Hitchcock is born.

Give them pleasure - the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.

June 29, 1919: Slim Pickens is born.

Most famously, this rodeo performer rode a nuclear bomb in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He was also inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame and starred in several other films, and - did I mention that he rode a nuclear bomb?