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).

Yevgeniy Bauer

Yevgeniy Frantsevich Bauer (22 January 1865–9/22 June 1917) was born in Moskva. His dad, Czech immigrant Franz Bauer, was a musician, and his mother was an opera singer. Though most sources give 1865 as his birth year, his biographer believes he was truly born in St. Petersburg on 7 January 1867.

He was interested in the entertainment industry from childhood, and his sisters were professional actors. In 1887, he graduated from the Moskva School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.

Bauer flitted from job to job—cartoonist, satirical journalist, artistic and portrait photographer, theatre director and impresario, scenographer, set designer, pilot—before turning to cinema in 1913.

He started out as a scenic director for the Drankov Trade House’s film on the Romanovs’ triumphant Tercentenary celebration (no one dreaming there weren’t even five more years left for the ruling dynastic house).

After this success, he directed four films for the company, followed by four films for a Muscovite branch of Pathé. He then moved to Khanzhonkov Trade House, Russia’s undisputed leading film company.

After Death, 1915

Bauer specialised in psychological and social dramas, with very dark themes and unhappy endings, though he also made comedies and a series of patriotic war propaganda films. He worked with many of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s leading actors, like Vera Kholodnaya, Ivan Mozzhukhin, Vera Karalli, Vitold Polonskiy, and Ivan Perestiani.

During WWI, he adopted the pseudonym Yegeniy Ancharov to avoid problems regarding his German-origin name. He took it from his wife, dancer and actor Lina Ancharova, whom he married in the 1890s. Lina starred in several of his comedies.

In 1917, Khanzhokov moved to Yalta, and Bauer began working on what would become his last completed film, For Happiness. During shooting, he broke his leg. This injury compelled him to direct his final film, King of Paris (which he wrote the script for), from a wheelchair.

The Dying Swan, 1917

Bauer caught pneumonia during the making of King of Paris, and was taken to hospital, leaving the film to be completed by Olga Rakhmanova. Not long afterwards, Bauer passed away at age 52.

Like many pre-Revolutionary people and things, Bauer’s films too were swept under the rug for decades. The new Soviet authorities dismissed his work as “bourgeois escapism,” though his films so clearly are a damning criticism of the bourgeoisie and wealthy.

After the February Revolution, he was more at liberty to openly express such themes. One of his films from this era was the first Russian film to expose the tyranny of the Okhrana (Tsarist version of the KGB) and the cruelty of Siberian prison.

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, 1913

Had he not died prematurely, he probably wouldn’t have been automatically damned by association with the old world and may well have gone on to become one of the leading lights of Soviet cinema.

French film critic Georges Sadoul called Bauer “the first true cinematographic artist not only in Russia, but perhaps all over the world,” describing his films as “painting in motion.” Many other film historians and critics consider him one of history’s greatest directors, whose name deserves to stand next to luminaries like D.W. Griffith and Fritz Lang.

The Dying Swan

To date, 26 of his 80+ films are known to survive. In 2003, Milestone released Mad Love, containing The Dying Swan, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, After Death, and a 37-minute visual essay. Milestone’s Early Russian Cinema series also features his films on volumes six, seven, nine, and ten.

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.

Lenore Ulric

Lenore Ulric (née Ulrich) (21 July 1892–30 December 1970) was born in New Ulm, Minnesota. Her dad, U.S. Army hospital steward Franz Xavier Ulrich, reportedly named her after the tragic lost love in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

As a teen, Lenore began acting with a Milwaukee stock company. She also acted with companies in Chicago, Grand Rapids, and Schenectady, NY. In 1911, she made a few films for Chicago’s Essanay Studios.

Lenore’s big break came when David Belasco, famed theatrical producer, director, playwright, and impresario, discovered her in The Bird of Paradise in 1913. He came to see the show after Lenore wrote him a letter.

Belasco frequently went on “fishing trips” to discover talented actors, and hadn’t had a “bite” for a long time. Though he didn’t find stars so often, he enjoyed the chance to “hook a big one.” And that he did on that night.

Belasco offered her the lead role in The Heart of Wetona, and became her manager. He saw true, raw, natural, born talent, which was all the more remarkable because Lenore wasn’t from an acting family or pursuing acting out of vanity, exhibitionism, or desire for money. Acting was her inborn calling.

Lenore quickly became one of America’s biggest theatre stars. On both stage and screen, she usually played Vamps (i.e., femme fatales). People went to her shows just to see her, and cared less about the actual plays.

Though she did most of her acting onstage, Lenore made seven more films from 1915–17, this time for Paramount. Her final silent, Tiger Rose (1923), was made for Warner Brothers.

Her first two talkies, 1929’s Frozen Justice and South Sea Rose (made for Fox), are lost. Lenore’s Fox contract paid her $650,000.

Lenore’s next foray into film was a supporting role in the 1936 version of Camille, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. She made four films during the Forties.

Lenore starred in two more Broadway shows in 1940 and 1947. Her swan song was a revival of Antony and Cleopatra.

Lenore died of heart failure at age 78, in Orangeburg, NY. Most of her surviving films are only available at the Library of Congress.

Fred Thomson

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

Frederick Clifton Thomson (26 February 1890–25 December 1928) was born in Pasadena, California, the third of of Williell (a Presbyterian minister) and Clara’s four sons. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary from 1910–13, and won the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship in 1910, 1911, and 1913.

In September 1913, Fred was ordained by L.A.’s Presbytery. Shortly afterwards, he married his college sweetheart, Gail Jepson. Fred also served as Nevada’s state commissioner for the Boy Scouts.

Sadly, Gail died of TB in 1916. This tragedy caused Fred to leave the ministry and join the military. Fred served as a chaplain in the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, composed of the California Army National Guard. Their nickname was the Mary Pickford Regiment.

While Fred was in the service, he broke his leg playing football. His regiment’s informal namesake, Mary Pickford, and her venerable screenwriter and director friend Frances Marion visited him in hospital. They were two of the most powerful women in Hollywood.

Fred had previously met them while serving as a technical advisor for Mary’s war-themed film Johanna Enlists. In hospital, Fred and Marion promised to marry after the war.

The 143rd were sent to France in August 1918, but never saw action. Just as promised, Fred and Marion married on 2 November 1919, after his term of service ended. Mary was their matron of honour.

Frances and Fred had two children, Richard (who was adopted) and Frederick, Jr.

Fred originally wanted to become a director, but wound up in front of the camera during the making of Frances’s film Just Around the Corner (1921) when an actor failed to show up. His acting earned him much attention, and Fred quickly became hugely popular.

Fred started in Western after Western, both features and serials. He was more popular than fellow cowboy actor Tom Mix, and earned a huge amount of money every week. Fred performed his own stunts, like many other early actors.

In 1926 and 1927, he was the next-biggest box office draw in the U.S.

The head of Fred’s studio, Film Booking Offices of America, Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s dad), hoped to make more money off Fred by loaning him to Paramount for four films. Paramount had to return $75,000 in financing, plus $100,000 more, and pay Fred $15,000 a week. This would wipe his salary off FBO’s books.

Paramount, however, had a lot more money than FBO, with more luxurious, prestigious theatres. Many charged premium ticket prices, and were largely in big cities. Ticket prices were jacked up to cover the costs of the shady deal and Fred’s salary.

Fred’s fans in small towns and rural areas, which were FBO’s bread and butter, had to wait months to see his latest films. Many of these theatres never got the Paramount pictures, which compelled some fans to travel to big cities for Paramount theatres.

Additionally, many film critics felt Fred’s B-movies were incongruous with Paramount’s expensive, prestigious theatres. Kennedy’s deal wasn’t the cash cow of his dreams.

Fred’s white Palomino horse Silver King, seventeen hands high, was a great Western actor too. He did everything he was asked to do in their films—falls, chases, jumps, mouth work. Silver King also knew how to wink, nod, push people with his head, lift bars, untie knots, and perform other tricks.

Silver King’s acting career continued after Fred’s untimely death.

In December 1928, just as Fred was about to begin making the transition to sound, he stepped on a nail while working in his stables and contracted tetanus. His doctors originally misdiagnosed him.

There was little hope in this pre-antibiotics era, and Fred passed away on Christmas. (And some people claim tetanus isn’t dangerous and we shouldn’t be inoculated against it. ) Fred was only 38.

Of Fred’s few known surviving films, only one, The Love Light (with Mary Pickford), is widely available.