Sunday, April 01, 2007

Remarkable Cinema Discovery: First Asian-American Film Directed by Marion Wong, Mother of Arabella who Starred on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’

Documentary film maker Arthur Dong was invited to a house south of San Francisco. A family wondered if some old nitrate film they had might be of interest to Dong and the film community.

Dong discovered and was handed historical gold: two surviving reels of the first Asian-American silent film made in the United States: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1917) Or so speculates, with impressive scholastic authority, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Last Thursday in Hollywood, the Academy screened the digitally restored movie at the Linwood Dunn Theater on North Vine Street, accompanied on the piano by Michael Mortilla. Arthur Dong provided background information on his rare find and gift to the Academy.

Curse opens in a deceptively charming manner, and here we are interpreting without the benefit of subtitles, for not a one of them survived. A young man sets out to court and wed a woman (played by Violet Wong, right) by offering a gift to her mother. He succeeds. Then charm turns ugly in dramatic turns that invite speculation. The most interesting image for me was of the new bride fingering an elaborate necklace which turns into a chain. That alone was considered "high tech" for its time when the film was shot in Oakland. Does the bride feel imprisoned to a man she does not love —— or to an institution she secretly abhors? According to one analysis, because of her deceitful nature she is kicked out of the home by her disapproving mother-in-law, and she wanders off into the mountains. Next, an infant is discovered, and again we can only ponder its relationship to the principals. The husband is moved by the sight of the newborn to search for and reclaim his wife. His wife’’s sister-in-law, who has all along evidenced signs of jealousy, commits suicide.

Four to seven reels were lost. Disintegration of nitrate across time has left most silent films buried in the dust and gone forever.

Remarkably, this engaging movie was directed by 21-year-old Marion Wong (seen here in later years), a third generation American with only a third grade formal education. She was also one of precious few female directors ever to work in American silent cinema. Oft-maligned Oakland also comes in for some credit as the birthplace of Asian American cinema.

Marion Wong was the mother of Arabella Hong-Young, who starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’’s Flower Drum Song on Broadway. Had it not been for Marion’’s support, Arabella’’s father would have banned her from perusing a life in music and she never would have attended Julliard —— or introduced to Broadway "Love Look Away." In fact, without Arabella, Rodgers and Hammerstein might not have been inspired to write the wonderful song.

Hollywood’’s film historians and preservationists are passionate about finding whatever "lost" films are still out there that can be restored. So passionate, indeed, that at the door, unless you are a member of the Academy, you are put through security and patted down before you are allowed to buy a ticket. Now, that was a first movie-going experience for me!

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