TCM’s recent spotlight on Asian Images in Cinema has got me reminiscing about some of my own favorite Asian actresses. There’ve been quite a few over the years. And those that set their sights on Hollywood careers have all – to one degree or another – faced the same hurdles, dilemmas and frustrations that confronted Anna May Wong during her assault on stardom.
One of the ladies I like – and I like her a lot – was pretty much a contemporary of Anna May’s. A silvery beguiler called Toshia Mori. If anything, her story’s even more intriguing because it remains largely – almost wholly – unrecorded. Onscreen you might describe her as a fleeting apparition. Sightings were rare and unexpected enough to make her seem like some sort of beautiful ava raris. Traces of her presence evaporated like dew drops leaving behind an impression of brief incandescence.
One version of her story has her born in Kyoto, Japan on January 1, 1912 and emigrating to America (with her family, one would imagine) at the age of ten. Her birth name (allowing for the usual phonetic roadbumps in the journey from Japanese to romanji) was apparently Toshia Ichioka. Perhaps her family settled in the Los Angeles area. Because – by the late 20’s - she was getting work as a bit player in Hollywood films. Who knows what avenues led her there? It definitely wasn’t what the average Japanese-American teenager was up to. But, certainly, in appearance at least, Toshia was anything but average. She’d developed into a striking beauty. Looking in her own mirror might’ve been enough to convince her she had a future in pictures. And in a town full of agents and operators, it’s not unlikely that somebody noticed her and gave her his card. Maybe she was blisteringly ambitious (though – when she's onscreen – gentle and languid are the words that come to mind). Maybe her father was a carpenter at one of the studios and somebody spotted her bringing him his lunch. Who’s to say? Still – somehow – she was there. Occasionally she even got billing, though they never seemed to settle on a consistent spelling. The last name, Ichioka, stays the same but in MR WU(1927) she’s Toshia, in STREETS OF SHANGHAI(also 1927) it’s Toshyie, and in THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE(1928) they juggle it around a little more to come up with Toshiye. Whatever, she persevered. And unlike so many others survived the transition to sound. Not in any kind of glorious "Garbo Talks!" way, with studio trumplets blaring and cymbals crashing. But when she was given a line to speak, she spoke it beautifully,revealing a lovely voice – cool ,clear, low and refreshing. Toshia also embarked on her talkie career with a new moniker. Oddly enough, though her last name was the one the billing-fairies had always managed to spell right, that’s the one she elected to change. She entered the sound era as Toshia Mori.
For any young girl – and Toshia would be nineteen or twenty now – Hollywood was a minefield.
The streets were lined with smooth talkers, con-men, lechers, tricksters and just plain bad eggs , usually promising a career in pictures . Mostly these promises were empty. Ferreting out the legitimate job opportunities was a task that required determination, sharp instincts, a strong stomach and lots of luck. And those who actually made it through the brambles then had to prove they had talent or at least a marketable substitute for it. There were a finite number of roles. And an infinite number of girls angling for them. Conservatively speaking, for all practical purposes, 99% of those roles were off limits to Toshia Mori purely on racial grounds. Theoretically she could serve tea to Madge Evans or sell her a jeweled Buddha or plunge a dagger in her back. But she couldn’t be Madge Evans. In Hollywood, leading lady roles were strictly the preserve of Caucasian actresses. One can only imagine the frustration someone as genuinely talented and beautiful as Toshia Mori must have felt watching pallid namby-pambies play roles she could’ve glistened and gleamed in. Even if the character was supposed to be Asian, casting directors’ imaginations inevitably ran to Myrna Loy or Loretta Young and dollops of exotic eye make-up. For example, Young negotiated her way prettily through 1932’s THE HATCHET MAN as Sun Toya San, beloved of China’s favorite son Edward G.Robinson. But an uncredited Toshia Mori had to settle for a silent bit as somebody’s secretary. In the same year’s ROAR OF THE DRAGON she fared slightly better. True the spotlight was firmly on RKO’s latest candidate in the Dietrich/Garbo sweepstakes, the alluring but unlucky Gwili Andre. But Toshia Mori at least got to play a character with a name – even if that name was the none too imaginative Butterfly.
Still, 1932 was to offer Toshia Mori brief, unexpected prominence on another front. The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers was a Hollywood group that (from 1922 to 1934) gave itself an annual pat on the back with an affair called "The Frolic". One pictures a bunch of noisily cavorting conventioneers with prominent pot-bellies, cigars and fezzes. Whatever, the main feature of the event was the annual announcement and subsequent parading of the WAMPAS BABY STARS, thirteen lucky? ladies who’d been chosen as the year’s most promising starlets. It remains a matter of queasy speculation as to who chose them and how. But there was a lot of giddy press coverage. And tons of photo ops. Over the years, some of the group’s choices had been pretty impressive. During the 20’s, Clara Bow, Eleanor Boardman, Jean Arthur and Joan Crawford had all been WAMPAS babies. In 1932 one of the chosen was nifty Lillian Miles (who later got to sing "The Continental" in THE GAY DIVORCEE and take a memorable header from a tall building in REEFER MADNESS). But apparently an impulsive last-minute wedding made her drop out of the proceedings. WAMPAS Central immediately went into over-drive looking for a replacement. And either Toshia Mori – or her agent – must have been doing something right. Because she got the golden phone call. Whisked straight into the hub-bub, she posed endlessly alongside fellow anointees Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, Patricia Ellis et al. She perched on a float, shook hands, smiled at a sea of gawkers and generally radiated glamour. And if the actual activities of a WAMPAS baby entailed as much gritting of teeth as basking in glory, it was still perceived as a red-hot opportunity for any ingenue who wanted to swim with the goldfish instead of the minnows. And it was heartening to see a non-Caucasian face among the elect. What’s more, for Toshia Mori the whole WAMPAS jamboree may have actually led to the most promising role of her career. For shortly afterwards, she was cast in Frank Capra’s THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN. The story involved the erotically charged relationship between a lady missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) and a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther). But the script also featured a vital character called Mah-Li, a gorgeous concubine whose sophisticated scheming throws a spanner into the plots and plans of those around her. The picture was beautiful to behold – drenched in exotic Sternbergian atmosphere. And though, of course, Capra’s more famous today for his Americana, BITTER TEA still maintains a neat reputation among vintage film fans. What's more, Toshia Mori delivered the goods – taking charge of all her scenes with an insinuating and silky authority. She also looked glorious – a flash-point of beauty in an already good looking film. Capra and Columbia, both extremely happy with her work, awarded her third billing. And the final icing on the cake came with Time Magazine’s review: "Stanwyck is satisfactory … but the most noteworthy female member of the cast is Toshia Mori, a sloe-eyed Japanese girl…" Things had never looked brighter for her. Even if Time couldn’t resist saying that Capra had discovered Mori working in a Los Angeles curio shop. Publicity poppycock, I’m sure. But if she was moonlighting in retail, I’d say any magical little curio shop with Toshia Mori installed behind the counter would’ve had to cope with some pretty awesome line-ups.
Her triumph in BITTER TEA should’ve been the first of many. But it wasn’t. The racial rigidity of Hollywood’s casting system couldn’t bend to accommodate even someone as gifted and as special. She continued to work. But as a sort of Oriental Toby Wing, popping up momentarily - sometimes billed, often not – to add a visual kick to conventional proceedings. These were "blink and you’ll miss her" appearances. But those lucky enough not to blink saw one of the great beauties of the era – captured - if ever so briefly – on the silver screen. In THE PAINTED VEIL(1934), one of my favorite Greta Garbo films, Toshia Mori’s not part of the plot, but she suddenly materializes as the centerpiece of "The Moon Festival" sequence, an extravagant slice of Cedric Gibbons chinoiserie. She’s only there for a minute or so – but during that minute you don’t think about Garbo.
Then in 1936 something curious happened. Fox’s Charlie Chan series had been underway for some years, offering reliable entertainment to audiences and regular employment to Asian actors (albeit in supporting roles). Part of the fun in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS comes from eager beaver son Lee Chan’s romantic pursuit of Su Toy, a sexy contortionist – highly resistant but with a neat line in snappy comebacks. Every bit of onscreen evidence identifies Su Toy as Toshia Mori. But the name on the end credits is Shia Jung(???). Then a year later in CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY, the ever-enthusiastic Lee gets himself hooked up with Ling Tse, pert employee of the Hottentot Club, obviously played by the same delightful eyeful he’d pursued at the circus. Except this time the name on the credits is Tashia Mori. That’s right, as if matters weren’t complicated enough, the "o’ in Toshia gets kicked out to make room for an "a". After this – silence. Except that two years later, Monogram tossed out a quickie called PORT OF HATE with Polly Ann Young (Loretta’s sister). I’ve never managed to see it. But fourth in the cast list is a character called Bo Chang played by one Shia Jung. Wrapping up our girl’s career, it seems, in a see-saw of confusion, complicated identity switches and possible spelling mistakes.
The internet’s done very little to clarify matters. Moviefone.com mentions that Toshia Mori sometimes appeared in films as Shia Jung, casually seeming to confirm the onscreen evidence. But they also say that after her movie career, she worked as a research assistant on Robert Ripley’s "Believe It or Not" short subject series. Yet, as far as I know, the Ripley films didn’t extend past 1932. There was a brief TV series in ‘49/’50. But I’ve found no evidence of Toshia Mori’s involvement in that. Nor in the program’s 80’s manifestation with Jack Palance.
Furthermore – and here’s where the thickets get really deep – imdb.com doesn’t include CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS or PORT OF HATE among Toshia Mori’s credits. Not only do they list Shia Jung as a completely different actress. They give her a totally different career, mainly in China. For them, Shia Jung was born on March 10,1916 in Lantau, Hong Kong, China and died on March 26,2003 in Victoria, Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic. While Toshia Mori first opened her eyes in Kyoto, Japan on January 1,1912 and closed them for the last time somewhere in the Bronx on November 26, 1995. What’s more Shia Jung’s career graph, as presented by imdb, seems highly suspect. Born in China, she somehow manages to make her movie debut in a Hollywood silent. Then after decamping to China to continue her career, suddenly gets beamed down in Hollywood for CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS speaking perfectly snappy English and looking exactly like Toshia Mori. The Chinese career continues until it’s interrupted for an emergency trip across the Pacific for the all-important Monogram cheapie PORT OF HATE. Then back to China for good. It just doesn’t sound right.
There are any number of possible keys to the muddle. For instance, in the mid-30’s, Toshia Mori, weary of treading water career wise, may have decided to jump-start things with a name change. Perhaps it seemed judicious to make her name sound more Chinese. Because the Charlie Chan series was in full swing, offering regular opportunities for Chinese actresses. Lee Chan was assuming increasing importance in the pictures and the very modern Toshia was born to banter with him. Or maybe the impetus for a name change came with the much ballyhooed casting search for MGM’s superproduction THE GOOD EARTH. Pearl Buck’s novel had been a blockbuster and the movie promised to be one too. What’s more, all the characters were Chinese. Anna May Wong certainly considered the role of O-Lan the part she was born for. And campaigned vigorously. In the end, MGM cast Austrian Luise Rainer (whose work in the film, it must be said, was pretty terrific. It won her an Oscar). Wong was doubly disappointed when MGM refused to give her the subsidiary role of seductive second wife Lotus, (some said) on the grounds that she wasn’t beautiful enough. Certainly Toshia Mori could never have been disqualified on that score. Lotus would’ve been a perfect fit for her. The critical reaction to her similar role in BITTER TEA proved she was more than up to the dramatic demands of the part. And MGM had their own PAINTED VEIL as proof positive that Mori was a vision onscreen. It’s impossible to think Toshia Mori didn’t yearn for the role. As it was, in the end, MGM cast Austrian dancer Tillie Losch - an odd duck who looked like what you’d get if you asked for a side-order of Sondergaard at a place that couldn’t supply the real thing. Indicating , ultimately, that MGM was bound and determined to confine its casting of the major female roles in THE GOOD EARTH strictly within the Vienna city limits.
Maybe – and this is a long-shot – Toshia Mori was politically prescient enough to sense decaying relations between the U.S. and Japan. And thought a more Chinese sounding name would be advisable all-round. If so, she was way ahead of the rest of Hollywood – and the country . Because Fox was just launching its popular series about Japanese detective Mr.Moto, pictures which continued to pack‘em in till the end of the decade. And, by the way, wasn’t Mori a natural for the Moto series? Certainly dour Peter Lorre could’ve used the kind of pulchritudinous pick-me-up she’d have undoubtedly supplied.
As for the choice of name. Perhaps she’d somehow heard of Shia Jung. Maybe even seen one of her Chinese films. Or just read the name and liked the sound of it. And "shia" could stand as a contraction of her own name. Maybe it was just a coincidence that she picked the name of an actress already working on the other side of the world. Yet a year later in CHARLIE CHAN ON BROADWAY she’d reverted to her own. Sort of. Because at this point it’s impossible to know whether Tashia (with two a’s) was her choice or just a studio typo.
All in all, it’s a case for Charlie Chan. But he can’t assemble all the involved parties in a room and tease the truth out of them. Because the parties involved - including Toshia Mori/Shia Jung -are no longer with us. And what happened to Toshia Mori post-Hollywood? Did she leave the country? Did she spend time in a Japanese-American internment camp? One hopes not. Did she marry a plumber and have lots of little WAMPAS babies? Or a potentate – and spend the rest of her life living on velvet? Who knows? Except that somehow the story seems to have ended in 1995 in the Bronx. I’ve never found evidence of a Toshia Mori interview. Maybe there are children or grand-children who could supply the answers. But no one’s ever asked them the questions. At least in print. Leaving us with a fragrance of mystery – and a few light but ever so luminous footprints in the sands of Hollywood’s past.