Wednesday, July 8, 2015

DVR Diary: THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922-85)

Chester M. Franklin's film was neither the first color feature nor Anna Mae Wong's film debut, but its place in history depends on its early use of both Technicolor and Wong. It's not just a technological milestone but a document on race relations spotlighting a pioneer Asian-American actress. Wong was only 17 when Toll of the Sea came out, making male lead Kenneth Harlan a transgressor by modern standards as well as one, for different reasons, by the standards of his time. The story, by future Oscar winner Frances Marion, is kin to stuff like D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms in its presentation of a sympathetic Oriental as an object of pathos. It's more obviously kin to Madame Butterfly in its portrayal of an American who loves and leaves an Asian woman. The redundantly named Lotus Flower (Wong) gets Harlan virtually dumped in her lap when he washes ashore without explanation in her coastal village. He's handsome, she's pretty, and in 1922 Hollywood lets nature take its course. Inevitably the white man's idyll must end and he must take up responsibilities, including marriage, back home. He must leave Lotus Flower, and their son (who takes after the father) behind with a blithe promise of his eventual return. Lotus Flower's faith in that promise, and her hope that he'll take her to America with him eventually, makes her something of a laughingstock in her village, where one woman boasts sardonically that she's been forgotten by four American husbands already. LF doesn't help her situation by writing fake letters to herself to read to her boy, in which "hubby" boasts of his success and promises anew to return. Who's laughing now, however, when Harlan does return? Unfortunately, he's brought his wife along with the thought of making a clean breast of everything to both the women he's loved. Naturally, LF is crushed, but selflessly she seeks to avoid further embarrassment for Harlan by denying that the little white kid who clings to her is her (and thus his) son. He's the kid of the neighborhood missionaries, she says -- but Mrs. Harlan (Beatrice Bentley) isn't buying that. Fortunately, she's a good sport, and the film, to its credit, emphasizes that both women are good women whose natural empathy allows the American to understand the truth without rancor. The right thing to do seems to be for LF to turn the boy over to the Harlans, her noble lie now being that she was only ever his nurse. That done, we come up against the title of the film. The white man had been the sea's gift to Lotus Flower, and now she must pay the sea's toll with her life. In the new footage shot in 1985 (with 1922 tech) to replace a missing final reel, we have tasteful shots of the ocean waves and a title card explaining what LF is going to do. I don't know whether the original ending was as tasteful, and in any event this resolution can't help but be distasteful by modern standards.

In its own time I suppose the film was progressive in its solicitation of sympathy for a Chinese girl, though it is also inescapably condescending toward her naivete, which extends to her antiquated notion of American fashion. But insofar as Toll of the Sea is a tearjerker and a textbook example of silent-era pathos, it exposes the complacency behind pathos. Whether it's the hopeless dream of a Chinese girl or the hopeless dream of a tramp, the point of pathos seems to be: you don't have a chance; you never can; you never will. Pathos stands quietly weeping at the insurmountable social barrier separating otherwise deserving heroes and heroines from their due. There may have been something realistic about it, but it's the sort of realism that often takes too much for granted. It's one thing to pity Lotus Flower, as 1922 audiences certainly did, and another, most likely, to think she deserved better and should have demanded it. It's the difference between watching this and thinking it's sad and watching it and thinking it's wrong. That Marion and Franklin didn't necessarily intend the latter response doesn't make Toll a bad film --especially given Wong's precocious star quality and the spectacle of its blazingly restored (or enhanced) Technicolor -- but it does mean they could have made a better one, morally if not aesthetically. But if you concede that they could do no better back then, I suppose that only adds to the pathos of the thing.

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