This was considered to be a lost film until 1985 when they fully restored it in Technicolor. It is incredible to be able to see the original film in incredible shape, as many silent films I’ve seen are difficult to comprehend what’s going on in the scene because the quality is so bad.
Anna May Wong was exquisite. She was the first Asian American to receive both national and international fame as an actress. During a time of vast amounts of racism in the United States, Wong was truly the first woman to completely “humanize” the Chinese race. She was quoted in her frustration: “”I was so tired of the parts I had to play.” She commented: “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” Other frustrations were caused by the Anti-Miscegnation Law in the US that forbade her from sharing on screen kisses with those of other races. This also included the situation in which the male character was Chinese, played by a white actor. Needless to say, she was largely limited in her performance opportunities.
By the end of the 1920s, she grew tired of being stereotyped by race, and moved to Europe to seek other international film industries. While in Europe, she became a huge star, stripping herself of stereotypical roles. Ironically enough, the start of the 1930s brought European interest in Hollywood, and Wong was once again noticed. Unlike being typecast like her American career in the past, she was selected for roles that would cause her to outshine even stars like Marlene Dietrich.
She successfully proved to American society that stereotypes that she had been subjected to in her past career were incredibly false. She strengthened the role of Asian Americans in American society, and was largely influential in expanding the careers of other minorities.
The Toll of the Sea is based loosely on Madame Butterfly, having the story take place in China rather than Japan. Having seen the opera as well as being a relatively large fan of Miss Saigon, Wong‘s character in this film exemplifies pure strength in character and the self-sacrificing requirements of motherhood. Never before has there been a character that to me personally, shows a more pure and stoic disposition in her hopeless situation.
Though these stories are heart-wrenching, The Toll of the Sea has a different ending. In contrast to Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, the American man and his new American wife simply take the boy, insisting he’ll be better raised in the US. After they depart, she commits suicide not because she was making the sacrifice for her son, but because she simply had nothing left. Could this change in the story line be in reference to the times? Despite the rest of her career fighting the stereotypes of race, Americans are so quick to steal from the powerless race, holding themselves above both morally and culturally.
One can also look at this change in another way. By the end of the film, your heart breaks for her, allowing the audience to sympathize with the Asian race, resenting what the American way represents. It is through this change that perhaps this era in American history wasn’t as racially charged. After the release of Birth of a Nation, all other racist films would definitely be out-shined.
All in all, still the same heart breaking film. Anna May Wong made her debut in this picture, the beginning of a monumental career that would make her an inspiration for years to come.