“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The Untameable, 1923 – Etta Lee on screen

Posted: July 15th, 2019 | No Comments »

One of the good things about spending the summer working in Los Angeles is going to the movies – not just some beautiful old cinemas but a great range of old Hollywood to see too. Managed to see the 1923 silent movie (with a great live piano accompaniment) The Untameable at Sid Graumann’s 1920s Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard last week…a tale of a woman suffering from dual personality syndrome and being manipulated by her doctor to get her fortune…

What really interested me though was that The Untameable was a big film for Hawaiian-born Asian American actress Etta Lee. I’d read about her but never seen her on the big screen.

Born in 1906 Lee was of Chinese and French descent; her father was a Chinese medical doctor and her mother was of French ancestry. She grew up in California, studied at Occidental College in LA, Lee moved back to Hawaii to be a teacher, and then returned to LA to begin her career as a silent movie actress. In The Untameable she plays Chinese maid named Liu. In a sense this was her break through movie – her next would be The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks Snr. Born around the same time and appearing in a number of early movies together Lee was contemporary of the better remembered Anna May Wong.

Most of her roles were rather stereotypical and exoticised. She herself complained about this and also that she was sometimes passed over for roles as ‘not being Chinese enough’ due to her mixed race heritage. She retired in 1932 after getting married.

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