Japanese-born Toshia Mori was one of classic Hollywood’s rare Asian stars with a series of successful films during the Thirties. Mostly forgotten today, her beauty, style and talent deserve to be remembered.

Born Toshia Ichioka in Kyoto, Japan in 1912, Toshia and her family emigrated to the US in 1922. As a teenager she started to appear in movies, although only in bit parts sometimes credited as Toshiye, sometimes as Toshia.

By 1932, she was Toshia Mori. She suffered the same fate as her fellow Asian actors and was relegated to playing stereotypical side-parts, often portraying Chinese characters, while leading roles were firmly reserved for white actors.

In 1932 for example she played a Chinese character called Butterfly in Roar of the Dragon, an action-melodrama produced by David O. Selznick, which follows a group of Westerners turning to an alcoholic riverboat captain  for help when they are trapped at a hotel in a Mandarin town under siege.

In 1932, Toshia became the only Asian and non-Caucasian actress to be selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star (see images and video below), an annual list of young and promising film actresses. She was listed alongside the likes of Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart.

Shortly afterwards, she was cast in Frank Capra’s film The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), playing a role which was scheduled for Anna May Wong at first. The story involved the erotically charged relationship between a missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) and a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther). The script also featured a vital character, “Mah-Li”, a concubine whose scheming throws a spanner into the plots and plans of those around her. Capra and Columbia Pictures, both extremely happy with her work, awarded her third billing. The final icing on the cake may have come from Time magazine’s review: “Stanwyck is satisfactory … but the most noteworthy female member of the cast is Toshia Mori, a sloe-eyed Japanese girl.”

She returned to minor characters in her subsequent films such as The Painted Veil (1934), starring Greta Garbo.

During the Thirties she married a Chinese-American actor from San Francisco, Allen Jung. Pearl Harbour and the war with Japan effectively put an end to her career. Mori worked as a researcher for Robert Ripley on his short films, ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’. She died in The Bronx, New York, aged 83.

 

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One Response

  1. Nora

    She’s beautiful! I think there definitely was a lack of asian actresses before the 60s – i could only really think of Anna May Wong!

    Reply

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