Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lotus Blossom: The First Chinese-American Film and Made in Boyle Heights, Part Two

This is the second part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez's post on the filming of the first Chinese-American movie, Lotus Blossom, right here in Boyle Heights:

On the evening of July 14, 1921, as the production on Lotus Blossom was nearing completion, a "Motion Picture Electrical Pageant" was held in downtown Los Angeles with an estimated crowd of 300,000 lining the streets. 

The pageant was a very public film industry showcase and numerous film studios and leaders such as Universal, Hal Roach, Louis B. Mayer, and the Selig Zoo (located next to Eastlake Park in Lincoln Heights) among many others, were represented by “electric floats,” each equipped with small generators and lights to illuminate the float displays. The Wah Ming Motion Picture Company also participated with a float showcasing their first production. The producers of Lotus Blossom might have seen this opportunity as a real publicity coup for their upcoming film, as a photo of the float was only one of a handful of images that was included in the Los Angeles Times July 15 article.    
The entire comment about the Lotus Blossom float in the Los Angeles Times: “Chinese players produced a “Lotus Blossom” float with many oriental men and maids in native costume. The production was by the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.”  Los Angeles Times, 15 July 1921, Los Angeles Central Public Library.
 On July 18, the Times published a story based on a reporter's visit to the Lotus Blossom set, mentioning that it was operating at the old mansion on Boyle Heights.” Though a supportive article, it was marred by an ugly attempt at humor with several racist cartoon sketches of some of the Chinese crew members, replete with “pigeon-English” dialogue. The inclusion of these caricatures in a major newspaper only underscored producer James B. Leong's point that Chinese Americans themselves needed to actively counter these kinds of degrading images.

The article also described a brief meeting on the set with cinema’s “first Chinese film star” (national exhibitors advertised her as “the screen's first and only Chinese star”), Lady Tsen Mei, who played the self-sacrificing young heroine, Moy Tai. By this time, the actress had starred in one film, 1918s For the Freedom of the East, and was a well-known performer on the vaudeville circuit, often billed as the “Chinese Nightingale.”  Her most noted role is in the first film version of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter (1929), her third and final movie. 

She was also widely admired for her sophisticated background, noted in many of her current biographies today.  For example, she was said to have been born to a noble family in China, then emigrated to America as a child, obtained a law degree from Columbia, and briefly attended medical school before studying at a prestigious music school in New York.  

However, according to Scott D. Seligman's well-researched book, Three Tough Chinamen, Lady Tsen Mei was actually born Josephine Chong in Philadelphia in 1888, the biracial child of Chinese immigrant, Moy Shoo Chong, and his mulatto wife, Jessie Whitehurst.  At twenty-one months she was adopted by another local biracial couple, Chinese physician Jin Fuey Moy and his Delaware-born white wife.  Josephine began her career as Lady Tsen Mai in vaudeville at age 24 and by all accounts was a multi-talented performer as a singer, actress and “voice mimic.” It appears she retired from show business by the late 1920s, though she lived almost a century, dying in Norfolk, Virginia in 1985. 
This is a photo still of Lady Tsen Mei as Moy Tai from the film, Lotus Blossom (1921), filmed at the former Bernstein Film Studio in Boyle Heights.  Courtesy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Looking back at the cast and crew members involved in the making of Lotus Blossom, the level of experienced talent the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company was able to gather together on the Boyle Heights set is quite impressive. To begin with, the two screenwriters, Charles Furthman and George Yohalem, who adapted Leong's story idea, which was partially based on the Chinese fable, The Soul of the Great Bell, went on to enjoy some degree of success in the film industry. 

Furthman had his biggest success adapting the screenplay for director Josef von Sternberg's silent film classic, Underwold (1929), considered the first great Hollywood gangster film. His brother was Jules Furthman, a 1935 Oscar nominee for Mutiny on the Bounty, who enjoyed a long career of his own as a screenwriter. George Yohlalem, a sort of jack-of-all-trades, was a veteran of the film industry, whose career lasted well into the 1950s. One of his last credits was production supervisor for Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). 

In a 1921 industry directory handbook, a photo can be found of actress Lady Tsen Mei, the film's director, Frank J. Grandon, and cinematographer Ross Fisher, posing together for a photo on the set. Grandon started his career as an actor. His most prominent role as Felipe opposite Lillian Gish's title character in D. W. Griffith's Ramona (1910), the first film version of the Helen Hunt Jackson novel. He switched to directing in 1916 and continued to helm films until he died in Los Angeles in 1929. 

Relaxing on the set of Lotus Blossom from left to right are, Ross Fisher, Lady Tsen Mei, and Frank J. Grandon. From The Motion Picture Studio Directory Trade Annual of 1921, Courtesy of the Internet Archive collection.
Cinematographer Ross Fisher went on to enjoy one of the most distinguished and important careers in the history of cinema. Born in Springfield, Montana in 1887, Fisher was the cameraman on many early Hollywood films before moving to Mexico in 1931. He worked as the principal or co-cinematographer on numerous beautifully-shot black and white Mexican films of all genres during a period often referred to as “the golden age of Mexican cinema.” In addition to working with such legendary actors as, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Armendariz, and Lupe Velez, Fisher worked with famed director Fernando de Fuentes. Fisher was also the cameraman for the first Mexican color feature film, Novillero (1937), using his Cinecolor processing method.   

A few months after production on Lotus Blossom wrapped, film distributors and exhibitors began to publicize the availability of theater screenings for the movie in various industry magazines, some with large picturesque ads. The November 5, 1921 issue of Exhibitors Herald actually showcased the film with a two-page spread that included one page dedicated to nine photos from the film and the second page containing three brief movie reviews. All are glowingly positive. 

The first page of a two-page exhibitors advertisement for Lotus Blossom featuring nine photos from the film. The names of two white actors in the film, Tully Marshall and Noah Berry are also listed. Exhibitors Herald 5 November 1921. Courtesy of The Media History Digital Library
Perhaps to assist in giving it more box-office appeal and meet public expectations, the film also featured two white actors: Tully Marshall and Noah Beery.  Both were made up heavily to look Chinese for two of the film's prominent roles, that of Moy Tai's father and a Tartar chief, respectively.  Beery was the older borther of Wallace Beery, the Academy Award-winning actor for 1931's The Champ.  He enjoyed a steady career as a working actor until his sudden death at his brother's home in 1946.  Marshall, who made his first film in 1914, also had a consistent presence in films as a character actor.  His last and one of his best-known performances was as the wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind in the noir classic, This Gun for Hire (1942), starring Alan Ladd.

With pre-release advertising and promotion efforts handled, it was time for Lotus Blossom to make history as the first Chinese-American film to be played in theaters.  More on that and further history on this ground-breaking movie in the third and final part of this post!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lotus Blossom: The First Chinese-American Film and Made in Boyle Heights, Part One

In 2015, the Chinese film industry’s box-office receipts skyrocketed nearly 50% and the recent Chinese New Year/Valentine’s Day seven-day take produced a new record of over a half billion dollars, beating the haul that was brought in during the opening week of the latest Star Wars film.  

In light of these leaps and bounds, it is interesting that, nearly a century ago, a Chinese-American entrepreneur, James B. Leong, became a pioneer in his field when he made Lotus Blossom, a 1921 film made here in Boyle Heights.  Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez has extensively researched the making of Lotus Blossom and here is the first of three parts of the series.

James B. Leong, producer of Lotus Blossom, ca. 1920.  From the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner photograph collection, Los Angeles Central Public Library.  Click on any image to see them in enlarged views in new windows.
On June 17, 1921, a time when film makers like Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, and Hal Roach were “making pictures” throughout Los Angeles, the following brief item ran in Variety magazine: “The Wah Ming Motion Picture Co., a Chinese business organization for the producing of films, has taken a site on Boyle Heights for a studio. James B. Leong, is at the head of the company.”

A short time later, the company announced that the first film they would produce would be based on an old Chinese fable and would be titled Lotus Blossom. With a production budget around $125,000, and using a mostly Chinese and Japanese cast, this ambitious new production company was aiming to make its first film a period costume feature on the same level of the work of other major studios. 

Although this silent film is little known today by the general public, film historians recognize Lotus Blossom as an important contribution to the heritage of American cinema. This Boyle Heights-based production is considered the first feature film to be produced and commercially released by Chinese Americans. 

A nationwide publicity campaign included a float for a local motion picture parade and a lavish theater lobby display during its Los Angeles world premiere in November 1921. Also noteworthy was that the movie featured an actor, Lady Tsen Mei, whom many considered to be the first Chinese screen star in American films.

James B. Leong was born Leong But-Jung in Shanghai, China in 1889 and emigrated to the United States in 1913. After briefly attending an Indiana college, Leong relocated to Los Angeles in 1914 and worked in the film industry as a translator and technical adviser in productions employing local Chinese as extras. He was reportedly an uncredited assistant director for D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919).  

After seeing mostly demeaning and inaccurate film depictions of the Chinese, Leong decided to produce his own films that would, in his words, “serve to correct the general impression that the present crop of pictures gives of Chinese life.” 

In its May 22, 1920 edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported the creation of the newly-formed company, James B. Leong Productions. The officers were Leong, president; Dr. Sui Chong, secretary; Low Song Kai, treasurer; and T. A. Russell, director. The firm’s office was at 804 North Broadway. For a year, Leong worked on several original scripts with such titles as Devil's Paradise, and Chinese Princess of Mexico

An article on the filming of Lotus Blossom, New York Clipper, 22 June 1921.  From Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.
In its issue of June 22 1921, the New York Clipper published a brief description about the work taking place in Boyle Heights just before filming began on Lotus Blossom. By this time, the company had been rechristened The Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.  With a flair for showmanship, the producers stressed the unique aspects a Chinese American company would bring to the film, as well as hinting at the physical scope of the production taking place on the Boyle Heights studio lot.

Technically speaking, Lotus Blossom is not the first film produced by Chinese-Americans.   Marion Wong’s The Mandarin Film Company, based in Oakland, produced The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1917).  Written, directed, and co-starring  Wong, the film appears to have encountered difficulties in publicity and distribution. No evidence exists that it was ever commercially released except for a one-time public screening in 1948 in Berkeley. Only two surviving reels of what was probably a six-reel feature exist today.

When Wah Ming began work on Lotus Blossom in May 1921, there were two studios in Boyle Heights. The two-acre Majestic Studio lot on Fairview Avenue, where Interstate 10 cuts through the Mount Pleasant Tract, was initially established in 1912 by the IMP Film Company and headed by future Universal Studios co-founder Carl Laemmle.   It was here that Charlie Chaplin made several films in summer 1915. The other facility was the former Bernstein Production Studios, established by Isadore Bernstein in 1917. This eight-acre lot was located at the northwest corner of Boyle and Stephenson (now Whittier Boulevard) avenues. It was at this location (click here to see what the property is like today) that Wah Ming set up production and made Lotus Blossom.

This 1924 aerial photo shows the landmark Los Angeles Orphans Asylum at the center.  The lot above that is the site of the Perry-Davis Mansion and what was the Bernstein Studios and the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company.  Lotus Blossom was filmed here in 1921.  At the upper right corner is the lower portion, including much of the lake, at Hollenbeck Park.  Boyle Avneue runs in a curved line at the right.  From the Los Angeles Central Public Library Photograph Collection.
Decades before it was a studio lot, the property was the site of one of the most lavish estates in Boyle Heights. In the early 1880s William H. Perry, lumber baron, organizer of Los Angeles' first gas and water utility companies, and a Boyle Heights resident (his home is now at the Heritage Square Museum in Lincoln Heights), had an opulent home built here for his daughter, Mary (or Mamie), and her husband Charles Davis. Charles died in 1885, and Mary married again in 1888 to Charles M. Wood. They lived on the estate for perhaps a year or so, before it passed to a succession of owners, including Fidel Ganahl, founder of Ganahl Lumber Company, which still exists today.

When Bernstein purchased this parcel in 1917, the former Perry-Davis/Ganahl mansion was still standing (it was later razed) and both the Bernstein Studios and the Wah Ming Motion Picture Company used it as their production offices. A further Hollywood connection to the Perry-Davis estate was that Charles and Mary Wood's daughter, Elizabeth, married James Stack, and their son, born in 1919, would become the well-known Oscar-nominated actor, Robert Stack. (click here to read a previous blog post with more detailed information on the Perry-Davis estate and the Bernstein studio).

Coming soon, part two of the story of Lotus Blossom!