Chromatic Aberrations: The Toll of the Sea (1922)

In The Toll of the Sea (1922), a film lost for many years and only restored in 1985, an American named Allen Carver (Kenneth Harlan) washes up in the waves on Hong Kong’s shoreline. He is rescued by Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong), who plucks him from the tide. The couple fall in love and marry. As they prepare to leave for their new life in the United States, Allen says that he must go alone. She watches the sea as the seasons pass and gives birth to their child in the meantime. Like John Luther Long’s Madame Butterfly” — which Francis Marion loosely adapted in her scenario for the film — Carver returns with an American wife, Elsie, played by Beatrice Bentley. She bears no grudge against Lotus Flower and, with a slightly sinister degree of ease, agrees to give her child a new life in America.

It is not just unfaithfulness and geographical distance that wrench the couple apart: the film apparatus itself conspires (through text and color) to dissolve the union by emphasizing their insurmountable difference. In the intertitles, Carver talks in measured, grammatical English, while Lotus Flower is confined to a dialect that speaks at her own expense. “How would you like to go to America, Lotus Flower?” he asks early in the film. “You take me to those United States? Christian lady at Mission tell me America fine place. Women free — can spend all husband’s money.” The first US feature film to employ Technicolor II — a subtractive two-color process that splits light through red and green filters — The Toll of the Sea used this technology to create chromatic difference between woman and man, East and West, exotic and familiar. Allen and Elsie dress only in dull, muted tones, while Lotus Flower wears a vibrant green silk costume and her friends carry umbrellas that glow with a radiumlike intensity matched only by their nearly neon gardens. It’s telling that when Lotus Flower gets dressed for her voyage to the United States (using “a most chic American fashion book”), the outfit she chooses is so drab it nearly blends into the backdrop — her rouged cheeks alone rebound light. In this chromatic binary, scholars Sarah Street and Joshua Yumibe find “elements of contradiction within [the film’s] narrative closure”, which inadvertently reveal Orientalism’s instability as a defensible claim on reality. “Technicolor’s desire to highlight vivid color presented the East as an extraordinary locale, elevating the visual pleasure of those images far above the muted, unremarkable hues associated with America”, they write. Filmed entirely in Santa Monica, The Toll of the Sea almost seems to suggest that it’s only when triangulated through fantasies of foreign lands and their conquest that the United States can come alive in color.

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Lobby card for the film — Source

New color technologies too, speculate some critics, may have had a role to play in Anna May Wong’s casting. Often remembered as the first Chinese American celebrity in Hollywood, Wong was frequently typecast or beat out for parts by white actors in “yellowface” — circumstances that eventually led her to seek more-permissive roles in Berlin and London. As Anthony Chan argues in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (2003), Technicolor, “with its emphasis on color, needed performers of color to contrast with performers of ‘noncolor.’” Yet here too elements of chromatic contradiction arose, revealing the instability of the racial categories that early cinema often tried to fortify. A pearl-clutching reviewer in Variety, for example, watched with horror and fascination as race seemed to blur on the Technicolor screen.

The coloring runs without streaks, the camera catching the natural colors apparently, although what seemed something of a freak in this process is that the pallid color given to the complexion of the Chinese extended to the faces of the Americans as well. Perhaps white cannot be taken by this camera with its pallid shade enveloping all faces, white being open to question as a color or for coloring in specific connection.

The reviewer is so close to arriving on a truth much greater than the exaggerations of processed color. Yet, a bit like Allen Carver, he cannot clearly see what is right before his eyes.

Curiously, the final scene of the film, in which Anna May Wong’s character presumably gives her life over to the restless sea, the source of all her love and pain, has never been recovered. The film above features new footage of the Pacific Ocean, shot in 1985. From one vantage, Lotus Flower escapes death on the ebb tide of history.

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