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”.
September 30, 1955: James Dean is killed in a car crash.
James Dean was twenty-four-years old when he crashed his Porsche nearly head-on with another car on the way to an auto rally in Salinas. He was not killed on impact, but the crash crushed his foot and broke his neck. When he was taken to the hospital thirty-five minutes later, he was pronounced dead on arrival. The other driver, Donald Turnupseed, survived, as did Dean’s passenger, Rolf Wütherich. Dean’s car, which he’d nicknamed “Little Bastard”, was rumored to be cursed because it had been loosely involved in fatal accidents both before and after Dean’s death.
Although he was a rising star at the time, having that year starred in his first lead role as East of Eden’s Cal Trask, his premature death cemented his status as a cultural icon. Two of Dean’s three total films, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released posthumously in October of 1955 and October of 1956; for the latter, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, making him the only actor to have ever been posthumously nominated for two acting Oscars. Although Donald Turnupseed would never be relieved of the guilt of having been involved in the actor’s death, it was the car crash that (by killing him) immortalized him.
May 25, 1977: Star Wars is released.
George Lucas’s landmark space opera was produced on a budget of $11 million and debuted on opening day to only thirty-two theatres, but by the end of its theatrical run, it had grossed nearly $800 million worldwide. Today, it is (domestically) the second-highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, and the franchise it spawned is as deeply ingrained in American culture as a piece of fiction can be. Star Wars, along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, helped inaugurate a new era in filmmaking - the era of the blockbuster. Roger Ebert called it “a technical watershed”, and this was true as well, for films intending to copy Star Wars’s model (and its success) relied more on special effects than any generation of films before it. And, for better or for worse, George Lucas’s genre-defying epic demonstrated the potential commercial viability of a well-marketed franchise.
Fun facts about the planning, production, and early versions of Star Wars:
- “Luke Skywalker” was originally an elderly General, a Ben Kenobi-type character, and the young protagonist was named “Annikin Starkiller”.
- Though the movie was created to stand alone (separate from any series) Lucas said that he soon “began to see it as a tale that could take at least nine films to tell”.
- During production, Star Wars was titled The Star Wars, and Luke Skywalker was called Luke Starkiller.
- Before 1978, the idea that Darth Vader was (spoiler!) Luke’s father had probably not even been seriously considered - leading to some discrepancies between the first and second films.
- George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made a bet on whether Star Wars or Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind would become the bigger hit. Lucas won.
- The subtitles Episode IV and A New Hope were not added until 1981, after The Empire Strikes Back was released.
- Han Solo was originally written as a green alien, but that honor ultimately went to Greedo.
- George Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles to voice Darth Vader.
Pictured above is concept art by the late Ralph McQuarrie, who himself later said that he “didn’t think the film would ever get made” because “it was too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough of an audience. It’s just too complicated.”
May 16, 1929: The first Academy Awards are held.
The first Academy Awards were held at the Roosevelt Hotel and hosted by the silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks, one of the founding members of the Academy. Ironically, among the movies nominated was one of the first “talkies” (The Jazz Singer), the advent of which helped bring about the end of Fairbanks’ career. The entire event was attended by 270 people, mostly Academy members, and it lasted less than an hour - a far cry from the international glamour-fest it would become within decades.
Also unlike today’s Oscars, the winners of the 1929 Academy Awards were announced three months before the actual ceremony, and there were only twelve categories - and no Best Picture award. Instead, there was a “Most Outstanding Production” award (its 1929 counterpart) and a “Most Artistic Quality of Production” award. The latter was won by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise; the latter by Wings, the first and last silent movie to win Best Picture until 2012. Originally, Charlie Chaplin was nominated for the Best Actor, Writer, and Director (Comedy) awards for his film The Circus; instead, he received an Honorary Academy Award “for versatility and genius”.
Happy birthday, Fred Astaire! (May 9, 1899 - June 22, 1987)
The history of dance on film begins with Astaire.
February 5, 1919: United Artists is formed.
The four founders of the United Artists Corporation were the biggest stars in Hollywood, which, by this time, had already become the film center of the United States. These four were Mary Pickford, a Canadian-American who, along with her husband Douglas Fairbanks, was probably the first example of Hollywood royalty; Douglas Fairbanks himself, the famous swashbuckling silent film actor; D.W. Griffith, the pioneering but controversial director of The Birth of a Nation, and Charlie Chaplin, the only one of the four whose work did not become obsolete with the advent of the “talkies”.
Over the years, United Artists signed contracts with Samuel Goldwyn, Buster Keaton, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney, and other notables of the time, but by the 1940s, after Fairbanks and Pickford’s careers had already come to an end, the company slowly broke apart. In the 1950s, UA experienced a revival, and since then has released hits like The African Queen, West Side Story, the early James Bond films, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, Fiddler on the Roof, Midnight Cowboy, Rocky, and even Gilligan’s Island. Recently, the studio has come under the control of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner.