Beatrice Bentley

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea Anna May Wong

One day, Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong) finds a man floating unconscious in the sea. She calls for help to rescue him and he’s nursed back to health. The man’s name is Allen (Kenneth Harlan), an American visiting China. As he recovers, Allen and Lotus Flower fall in love with each other and they decide to get married and Allen plans to bring Lotus Flower back to America with him. They’re both absolutely thrilled, but Allen’s friends don’t think he should bring Lotus Flower back with him and some women Lotus Flower knows are convinced he’s going to go back to America and forget all about her.

Lotus Flower is really looking forward to leaving for America, but Allen succumbs to peer pressure and tells her that he can’t bring her home with him at that time. She’s absolutely heartbroken and as the months go by, she spends every day waiting to hear from him. When her son is born, she names him after Allen, despite the fact that she still hasn’t heard from him.

Eventually, Allen returns to China and Lotus Flower is ecstatic. She can’t wait to introduce her son to his father. But he arrives with a guest she wasn’t expecting — his wife, Barbara (Beatrice Bentley), an old childhood acquaintance. She knew all about Lotus Flower and insisted the only honorable thing Allen could do was return and tell Lotus Flower the truth. The news is understandably devastating to Lotus Flower, who pretends her son is an American neighbor child. She later admits the truth to Barbara and insists she take the child back to America with her.

If you’re a fan of early Technicolor, Toll of the Sea is one you absolutely must see. It’s one of the earliest examples of a movie filmed in color that’s known to exist. But Toll of the Sea is more than just a technological milestone, it’s a great showcase for the wonderful Anna May Wong, who was very early in her career at this point. She was still a teenager when she made this movie and her performance is very heartfelt, sensitive, and sympathetic. Given that Anna May Wong wasn’t a big star at this point, I’m impressed the producers cast a real Chinese-American actress in the lead role and not a better-known white actress in yellowface, especially since I can’t imagine this was a low-budget movie since it was filmed in color. I really wish I heard this movie being discussed more than I do, because it’s a very good little movie.