The Toll of the Sea
It also represented a major career advance for Anna May Wong, a 17-year-old actress who had already appeared in six films in supporting or bit parts. To say there were few Asians being given starring roles at this time would be an understatement; really there were just Sessue Hayakawa and now Anna May Wong. And Wong was actually a third-generation American, born and raised in L.A.'s Chinatown where her father ran a laundry.
In The Toll of the Sea, she plays Lotus Flower, a Hong Kong girl who rescues an unconscious American named Allen Carver (Kenneth Harlan) whom she finds washed up on the seashore. Despite a wise man's warning that the sea takes more sorrow than the joy it gives, she falls for Carver and they marry. Eventually, however, he abandons her and returns to America alone, thinking it inappropriate to continue their interracial romance. He has left her pregnant, and Lotus Flower raises their son while clinging to the hope that Carver will return. When he does, it's with his new American wife; a grief-stricken Lotus Flower stoically gives them the child to take back to America and then throws herself into the sea.
The picture was a big hit and Wong's sensual and touching performance did much to advance her future career in Hollywood; Joseph Schenk, and later Adolph Zukor, signed her to contracts. Wong's beauty and grace were complemented by an intelligent, expressive use of Chinese costumes and hairstyles.
Furthermore, Wong could cry on cue. Wong biographer Graham Hodges has written that this "was considered a rare talent in Hollywood, and Anna May was considered among the best... Her crying scenes overwhelmed viewers... Many years later, she acknowledged that she lacked acting technique in this and other early films. She remembered that she 'drained [her] emotions trying to live the part out.'" Even trade paper Variety, which praised Wong effusively, called her "an exquisite crier without glycerin."
The Toll of the Sea was written by the renowned Frances Marion. According to film historian Cari Beauchamp, Marion was asked by Metro Pictures to write a script specifically for a color movie. She consulted with representatives from Technicolor to come up with something that would showcase color especially well. Ultimately, she chose a Chinese setting and lifted the plot from Madame Butterfly. "The story itself," she said, "was of little importance compared to the widespread interest in the potential of color."
Director: Chester M. Franklin
Screenplay: Frances Marion (credited for story not for scenario)
Cinematography: J.A. Ball
Film Editing: Hal C. Kern (uncredited)
Cast: Anna May Wong (Lotus Flower), Kenneth Harlan (Allen Carver), Beatrice Bentley (Barbara 'Elsie' Carver), Baby Moran (Little Allen), Etta Lee (Second Gossip), Ming Young (First Gossip).
by Jeremy Arnold