Zhang Shichuan

My Masquerade post is here.

Zhang Shichuan (né Zhang Weitong) (1 January 1889 or 1890–8 July 1953 or 1954) was born in Ningbo’s Beilun District, Zhejiang Province. His dad, Zhang Heju, was a silkworm dealer.

Zhang was forced to leave school at sixteen when his dad passed away. He went to live with his maternal uncle, comprador Jing Runsan, in Shanghai. Owing to his uncle’s business, Zhang got a job at the American company Huayang. He studied English at night.

In 1913, Yashell and Suffert, Americans who’d taken over the Asia Film Company, asked Zhang to be their consultant. Though he hadn’t any filmmaking experience, he gamely rose to the challenge.

Zhang enlisted the help of famed playwright Zheng Zhengqiu, with whom he founded the new film company Xinmin. That same year, they produced China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple.

WWI forced Xinmin into bankruptcy, and Zhang’s aunt, newly widowed, asked him to run their family’s New World amusement park.

Zhang didn’t stay away from filmmaking for long. In 1916, when American films came to Shanghai, he founded the Huanxian company.

His new venture quickly closed, and he returned to running the amusement park. That didn’t last long either, as the park sold in 1920.

In 1922, Zhang, his old partner Zheng, and three other people founded Mingxing. From the jump, he and Zheng had quite disparate aims. Zhang wanted to make money from movies, while Zheng saw film as a catalyst for moral improvement and social reform.

Zhang (left) and Zheng (right)

Despite their juxtaposing views on the purpose of film, Mingxing films were very popular through the Twenties. Mingxing became China’s largest film company. After the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and 1932 Battle of Shanghai, Mingxing brought leftist screenwriters on board to keep up with the times.

Troubles increased when Japan occupied Shanghai (barring foreign concessions) in 1937. Mingxing was destroyed by bombs, though Zhang was able to rescue some equipment and material before relocating to the Guohua company.

The noose tightened in 1941, when Japan occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, previously under British and U.S. control, and melded Shanghai’s remaining film companies into China United. Zhang decided to work for them as a director and branch manager.

1930s entrance to Mingxing, known in English as Star Motion Picture Company

After the war ended, Zhang was accused of treason for cooperating with the Japanese occupiers. He was able to find work at Hong Kong’s Great China Film Company and Shanghai’s Datong Film Company, but his reputation never recovered.

Zhang directed about 150 films over the course of his long career, including China’s first talkie, Sing-Song Girl Red Peony (1931); the first martial arts film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928); the oldest known Chinese film surviving in entirety, Laborer’s Love (1922); one of China’s first box office smashes, Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923); and China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple (1913).

Xuan Jinglin

Xuan Jinglin (née Tian Jinlin) (1907–22 January 1992) was born in Shanghai. Her father sold newspapers, and her mother was a homemaker. She was one of five children and the youngest of three sisters.

Sources differ as to the extent and origins of the family’s poverty, and the level of Xuan’s education. This isn’t helped by contradictory statements Xuan herself made on these subjects.

Some accounts say she received very little education and was barely literate, while others claim she was taught at home and had an English tutor. As for the poverty, some say the family were always poor, and others claim the troubles only started after her dad’s death.

At age fifteen, Xuan had a disastrous, scandalous relationship with an older man who turned out to already have a wife. Every time she turned to her mother for advice, she advised Xuan to break things off.

Accounts differ on whether her mother sold her to a brothel at this age, or if Xuan herself ran away from home with the help of a sympathetic aunt. She upped her age by one year when she presented herself at the Nanjing brothel, and reinvented herself as Sai Zhaozhun.

After two weeks of getting up to twenty customers a day, Xuan refused an offer from the head of the local tax service. She returned to Shanghai, where she continued brothel prostitution.

Eventually, she bought a house and started operating out of that. One of her customers turned out to be her former sweetheart Wang, who convinced her to quit prostituting.

Destiny called in 1925, when Zhang Shichuan, one of the founding fathers of Chinese cinema, cast her for a small role in The Last Noble Heart. He remembered seeing her in an amusement park many years ago, and put out an order to track her down.

Xuan claimed he bought her out of the brothel for 2,000 yuan, though this again contradicts the other account claiming she’d already voluntarily quit prostituting. At any rate, the director was deeply impressed with her acting, and signed her to a contract.

Zheng Zhengqiu, the other founding father of Chinese cinema, created the stage name Xuan Jinglin based on her nom de prostitution and a Shanghaiese transliteration of Lillian Gish’s name.

Xuan settled down with Mr. Wang, who worked as a bank clerk. After The Mistress’s Young Fan (1928), she temporarily left acting to devote herself to family life. Everyone around them approved of the relationship this time, except her parents-in-law.

Mr. Wang was pressured into breaking up with her yet again, this time forever.

In 1931, she returned to the screen. Though Asia remained silent much longer than the West, China was nevertheless experimenting with sound. All their sound films were shot in Putonghua (Mandarin). This required Xuan to learn a new language and unlearn her strong Suzhou accent.

Xuan went on to great success during this second wind of her career, after the long, hard effort to perfect her Mandarin. A 1935 illness forced her away from the screen again, and then WWII precluded anyone from moviemaking.

Her eponymous Xuan Jinglin Road Company toured China during the war, giving musical performances. In 1949, she returned to the screen, one of very few Shanghaiese actors permitted to keep acting after Mao’s takeover. Unlike many others, she never compromised herself under the Japanese occupation.

Her films were sporadic after her return to the screen. Her final one was in 1964.

Anna May Wong

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page, written around 2005–07.

Anna May Wong (née Wong Liu Tsong) (3 January 1905–2 February 1961), the first Taishanese Chinese-American moviestar and female Chinese–American actor to earn international fame, was born in L.A. to second-generation Chinese–Americans Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy. Her dad owned a laundry.

Her early childhood was spent on Flower Street, a block north of Chinatown, where Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and Germans lived alongside one another. In 1910, the Wongs moved to Figueroa Street. They were the only Chinese family among mostly Mexicans and Eastern Europeans.

Anna May as a baby in 1905

Anna May and her older sister Lew Ying (Lulu) were forced to leave their public school after endless Sinophobic abuse. Their new school was run by Chinese Prebyterians, with English instruction. On afternoons and Saturdays, they attended a Chinese-language school.

Owing to many movie studios moving from New York to L.A., Anna May had the opportunity to watch films regularly being shot in her area. She loved going to nickelodeon shows, which she skipped school and used her lunch money to attend.

Her dad wasn’t very pleased with her newfound love, but she continued going to the movies. By age nine, she was begging filmmakers for roles. She created her stage name at age eleven.

In 1919, when she was working at Hollywood’s Ville de Paris department store, she answered a call for 300 female extras for Alla Nazimova’s The Red Lantern. A well-connected friend of her dad’s helped her to get one of those parts in secret.

She spent the next two years as an extra, until St. Vitus’s dance forced her to miss many months of both school and acting. After her recovery, Anna May dropped out of school to focus on acting.

In 1921, she got her first credited role, as Toy Sing in Bits of Life, the first anthology film (an amalgamation of four different stories). Lon Chaney, Sr., was her screen husband. Anna May fondly remembered this as the only time she played a mother.

She scored her first leading role in 1922, at age seventeen, in the two-strip Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea. Though she earned rave reviews, the powers that be were loath to cast a Chinese woman as a leading lady.

Anna May had little choice but to accept supporting roles (sometimes to white actors playing Chinese characters), providing an exotic atmosphere.

Her breakthrough film was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), where she played a Mongol slave. Her brief appearance catapulted her to widespread public awareness among both critics and regular moviegoers.

Off-camera, she and director Tod Browning had an affair. This was very hushed-up at the time, since Browning was 25 years older than 19-year-old Anna May, and miscegenation was against the law.

Anna May’s career was severely limited by said anti-miscegenation laws. Actors of different races were forbidden to kiss onscreen, and the only Asian leading man in this era was Sessue Hayakawa. This law also applied to Asians kissing whites made up to look Asian.

In 1928, Anna May moved to Europe for greater opportunities. However, she was still legally barred from onscreen love scenes.

She returned to Hollywood in 1930, and found the same prejudices waiting for her. She later began speaking out against the stereotyping of her people, and how Asian roles were routinely given to white actors.

Finally, in the late 1930s, Paramount gave her the chance to portray sympathetic, successful Chinese–American characters.

Anna May died of a heart attack at age 56, on the eve of returning to film in Flower Drum Song.

Conrad Veidt

My Masquerade Ball Blog Hop post is here.

This is significantly expanded from the concluding section of a post I wrote in October 2015. The source material focused on Conrad Veidt’s strong anti-Nazi stance, not his overall life and career.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943) was born in Berlin, to Lutheran parents Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. He attended the Sophien-Gymnasium until 1912, when he graduated last in his class, sans diploma.

In 1913, Conrad took up volunteer acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, gradually moving up from bit parts to medium roles. His budding acting career was interrupted by WWI.

Conrad was sent to the brutal Eastern Front, where he caught jaundice and pneumonia. His poor health earned him a discharge in January 1917.

After recovering, Conrad resumed acting. Some of his films had a socially-conscious message and were quite ahead of their time, like Victims of Society, The Diary of a Lost, Dida Ibsen’s Story, Prostitution, and Different from the Others.

The lattermost is the world’s first known film to openly, positively depict homosexuality. Though it came out (no pun intended) after the abolition of film censorship, it was quickly banned after censorship returned in 1920.

In 1919, Conrad formed his own company, so he could choose his own roles. He acted, produced, and directed during this era.

His big break came in 1920, when he starred as creepy somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This first German Expressionist film made a huge international impact, though owing to lingering anti-German sentiment, many theatres didn’t immediately screen it.

Conrad went on to star in several other major German Expressionist films, such as Waxworks, Orlac’s Hands, and The Student of Prague (a remake of the 1913 original). He made dozens of films during this heyday of German Expressionist cinema, often typecast in eccentric, mischievous, or menacing roles.

In 1927, he was invited to Hollywood. Probably his best-known films from this period are The Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore) and The Man Who Laughs (whose title character became the Joker’s genesis).

The arrival of sound compelled Conrad back to his native Germany. His thick German accent and poor English spelled the end of his Hollywood career, but he did wonderfully in sound films in his mother tongue.

Conrad wasn’t to stay in his homeland for long, since he strongly opposed Naziism and anti-Semitism. His new love, Ilona Prager (Lily), who soon became his third and final wife, was also Jewish.

When Conrad filled out a mandatory racial questionnaire, he falsely listed his “race” as Jewish. He stood in solidarity with his homeland’s beleaguered Jewish community, and couldn’t fling Lily to the wolves.

Goebbels, who wanted to keep this very successful actor in Germany, told Conrad to divorce Lily and declare support for the new régime. If he did this, Goebbels would give Lily false Aryan papers.

Not only did Conrad refuse to do either, he also took the lead in British film Jud Süß (NOT to be confused with the anti-Semitic German film of the same name). He knew this would end his German film career and possibly result in a death warrant.

Conrad was put under house arrest, and there were rumours of a Gestapo plot to murder him. He and Lily fled to England one week after their marriage, just ahead of the death squad’s arrival.

When Conrad finally became fluent in English, he began starring in anti-Nazi films. He also starred in several films in his third language, French.

Though he became a British subject in 1938, he returned to the U.S. in 1940. Before he left, he gave most of his fortune to the British government to help the war effort. 

Conrad hoped his anti-Nazi films would inspire Americans to end their neutrality.

Since he knew he’d be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.

Conrad died of a massive heart attack while playing golf at an L.A. country club. He was only fifty.

Conrad Veidt was more than just a great actor, but an incredible lion of a human being, representing the best of what we’re capable of.

Marie Prevost

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Marie Prevost (née Mary Bickford Dunn) (8 November 1898-23 January 1937) was born in Sarnia, Ontario, to Hughlina Marion Bickford and Arthur “Teddy” Dunn. Sadly, her railway conductor dad died when she was an infant, from gas seeping into the St. Clair Tunnel.

As a toddler, Mary acquired a stepfather, Frank Prevost. In 1900, her halfsister Marjorie was born.

Frank moved the family to Denver soon after the marriage. He was a surveyor and miner who frequently forced them to move in pursuit of get rich quick schemes. Eventually, they settled in L.A., and Hughlina and Frank divorced.

Marie attended Manual Arts High School, which was then a vo-tech school. In 1915, she became a secretary for a law firm representing Keystone Film Company. It was through this job she scored a bit part in a Keystone film.

Mack Sennett was so impressed by her, he demanded she be brought to his office, and signed her to a $15 a week contract.

Marie initially played minor comedic roles as a sexy innocent, and became one of Mack Sennett’s famed Bathing Beauties in 1916.

Marie’s first lead role came in 1919, with WWI propaganda film Yankee Doodle in Berlin. Her popularity was immediate, so much so she soon desired to change studios to make the most of her potential. She felt Sennett only cared about making money, not quality and creativity.

Keystone released her, and she signed a $1,000 a week contract with Universal in 1921. Wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg, pre-MGM, helped to make her a star by giving her lots of publicity.

Among the publicity stunts he arranged was sending her to Coney Island to publicly burn her bathing suit, symbolising the end of her Bathing Beauty days.

Marie starred in light comedies during her time at Universal. When her contract expired in 1922, she signed to Warner Brothers for two years, $1,500 a week. Her future second husband, Kenneth Harlan, was also signed to Warner, and they co-starred as the lead roles of The Beautiful and Damned.

Jack Warner drummed up publicity by saying they’d marry on-set. In response, thousands of fans sent letters and gifts.

A less positive response came from The Los Angeles Times, who discovered Marie’s first husband, Sonny Gerke, had just filed for divorce. They ran the damning headline “Marie Prevost Will be a Bigamist if She Marries Kenneth Harlan.”

Jack Warner was furious Marie hadn’t told him she was legally married to someone else, though the publicity stunt was his idea.

The scandal didn’t sink Marie’s rising career at all. She gained great reviews for The Beautiful and Damned, and legendary director Ernst Lubitsch chose her for a starring role in The Marriage Circle, opposite Adolphe Menjou.

The New York Times highly praised her acting, inspiring Lubitsch to cast her in two more of his films.

Marie and Kenneth Harlan quietly married in 1924, after her divorce was finalised. Warner Brothers chose not to renew their contracts in 1926.

Tragedy struck when Marie’s mother was killed in a car accident on 5 February 1926. To try to cope with her great emotional anguish, Marie turned to alcohol and took on a grueling work schedule.

Her melancholia increased when she and Kenneth separated in 1927. A 1928 affair with Howard Hughes ended in another breakup, which compounded Marie’s depression even further.

Marie’s depression began manifesting in overeating as well as excess drinking, and she gained a lot of weight. This led to being cast only in secondary roles.

She signed to MGM in 1930, but wasn’t given any leading roles. However, she still received good reviews, and transitioned well to sound.

Marie made her last MGM film in 1933. Struggling with finances, she jumped at any film she was offered by other studios, no matter how small the role. To keep these jobs, she crash-dieted.

Her final film was in 1936.

Marie died of acute alcoholism at age forty. Her death was discovered two days later, after neighbours started complaining about her Dachshund’s excessive barking. Joan Crawford paid for her funeral at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

When Marie’s estate was found to be all of $300, her fellow actors were inspired to create the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. They were also motivated by several other sad fates of former stars.