Pavement Butterfly

Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was a popular Hollywood star in the 1920s and early 1930s: but though she had a considerable screen presence the studios tended to restrict her to playing enigmatic Chinese villainesses. Her most notable appearances were as a Mongol slave in the Douglas Fairbanks silent The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and as the prostitute who shares a railway carriage with Marlene Dietrich in the sound film Shanghai Express (1932) - in the latter she showed her ability to sketch in the character in moments, and with very little dialogue.

In Europe she was better appreciated: in Britain she starred in Piccadilly (1929), and in Germany in the same year starred in the silent film Großstadtschmetterling, released in the UK as Pavement Butterfly, shown yesterday evening at the National Film Theatre.

She plays 'Princess Butterfly', a dancer in a cheap carnival sideshow in Paris. One of the team, the malicious clown Coco, makes advances to her and, when she refuses him, implicates her in a fatal accident to another performer. Fleeing from him, she falls in with a young impoverished artists, Kusmin (Fred Louis Lerch). He paints her, and she helps sell his pictures in the street. Coco discovers her, and steals the artist's money, leaving her to take the blame: Kusmin throws her out. She gains the protection of a wealthy nobleman (Gaston Jacquet). She meets Coco, now the manager of a nightclub, and later steals from him at a casino in an attempt to repay Kusmin, with whom she has fallen in love. She is arrested for the theft, but saved by the nobleman who clears her name. However Kusmin is now in love with a rich white woman, and Butterfly tells him she does not belong in his world, but on the pavement, and sadly walks away as the film ends.

Though the plot starts well, it become increasingly unbelievable (with Coco moving from tatty clown to manager of a nightclub in about two days): however all the performances are good - particularly Tilla Garden as Kusmin's girl friend - though Lerch is a bit wooden as Kusmin. Wong herself has a luminous presence on screen, acting expressively and subtly and showing herself to be one of the finest silent actresses. Sensitively directed by Richard Eichberg, this is probably Wong's finest film and, despite the overheated plot, worth seeing for her alone.

Posted: Mon - February 11, 2008 at 09:46 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM