Like Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong was an American woman who had to go to Europe to find films worthy of her talent. The Pavement Butterfly, a German-British production set in Paris, is by no means a great film, but it provides a marvelous showcase for Anna May Wong, and ample evidence that she would have been one of the top stars of her era if not for the racial prejudice that limited her to "dragon lady" roles in America. Here she is absolutely stunning, going from carnival cooch-dancer to haute-couture-draped rich man's mistress, with a bohemian interlude in the garret of a starving painter. She proves herself a fine actress as well as a charismatic star, and looks throughout like the proverbial million bucks.
The film is strong on atmosphere and weak on plot. Settings include a seedy carnival complete with female boxers, the bohemian garret mentioned previously (which looks exactly like the one in Seventh Heaven), Paris nightclubs, and the French Riviera. The cinematography is stylish, with flashy montages introducing the various settings. The leading man (Louis Lerch) is a naturalistic actor and starts out likable enough before metamorphosing into a jerk; Anna May Wong's rival is a horse-faced, wealthy Daddy's girl rarely seen without at least one dead animal wrapped around her neck. S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, looking uncharacteristically trim, appears as one of the hero's bohemian friends. The plot is driven largely by a singularly loathsome villain, who seems to be motivated by a combination of greed, frustrated lust for the heroine, and sheer monstrosity.
The story suffers not only from improbability but from gratuitous sadism towards the heroine, who suffers unjust accusations of murder and robbery. (Maybe the fact that she's named "Butterfly" should have tipped me off that her fate wouldn't be happy.) Though little reference is made to her race, it's hard not to attribute the pervasive suspicion and ill-usage of her to the fact that she is Chinese. And when she winds up alone at the end, I was reminded strongly of the Josephine Baker vehicle Zouzou, in which likewise the gorgeous heroine winds up losing her man to a bland blonde.
I was lucky enough to see The Pavement Butterfly in the Museum of the Moving Image's current Anna May Wong retrospective (paired with a Josephine Baker retrospective, in which I recently viewed Zouzou), with a large enthusiastic audience and live music. The print was flawless, and I hope this film will be released as Piccadilly recently was, since it, and especially its star, deserves to be more widely seen.
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