A to Z Reflections 2019

This was my eighth year doing the Challenge on my main blog, sixth on my secondary blog. Very uncharacteristically, I didn’t start writing my posts till March. Twenty came from my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, but they all required extensive editing and expansion, as well as gathering photos. Most of them read like entirely new posts!

I’d originally planned more double-topic posts, and a few triples, but realised that not only would unnecessarily bloat my wordcount, but pull attention away from one main subject. I could always go back later to spotlight these people another year.

I also originally planned to go against my theme of lesser-known silent stars for the V day, featuring my beautiful Rudy Valentino, but I’m glad I decided against that too. Conrad Veidt has been one of my heroes since I learnt about his heroic anti-Nazi stance in October 2015. He was more than an incredible actor, but a lion of a human being.

For whatever reason, I’ve had really bad luck with links clicked on for the last few years! So many blogs had interesting names or themes, but I discovered that person hadn’t blogged in months (or years!), or quit participating early. Others have also noticed participation seems to be down the last few years.

Other blogs were hard to navigate, like putting A to Z posts on an entirely separate page, or posting multiple times a day and not putting the A to Z post on top, or putting a hyperlink to it at the start of the top post. Still other bloggers had no commenting option, or there were a lot of big graphics and text blocks to scroll through before finally finding the A to Z post.

I was quite turned off by bloggers using their theme to promote their businesses. I’m fine with a theme inspired by one’s business or art (e.g., fine arts brands, writing advice, recipes from your bakery), but not out and out telling bloggers to, e.g., hire you as a genealogical researcher or hawking merchandise from a pyramid scheme!

Having one big list was much more convenient than all the daily lists in different places, though its length and volume did prove a challenge in scrolling. I’d be happy to volunteer with maintaining next year’s list, as I did in 2015.

Post recap:

Art Acord (17 views)
John Bunny (28 views)
Eric Campbell and Charley Chase (20 views)
Marie Dressler (18 views)
Ernest Torrence and Julian Eltinge (13 views)
Pauline Frederick (10 views)
Raymond Griffith (13 views)
Bobby Harron (10 views)
Rex Ingram (7 views)
June Mathis (13 views)
Karl Dane (8 views)
Max Linder and Harold Lockwood (10 views)
Thomas Meighan (5 views)
Nita Naldi (12 views)
Olive Thomas (10 views)
Marie Prevost (12 views)
Lidia, Letizia, and Isabella Quaranta (8 views)
Wallace Reid (6 views)
Larry Semon (11 views)
Fred Thomson (14 views)
Lenore Ulric (13 views)
Conrad Veidt (10 views)
Anna May Wong (13 views)
Xuan Jinglin (6 views)
Yevgeniy Bauer (9 views)
Zhang Shichuan (5 views)

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.

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.