Madame Chiang in a film clip at the Hollywood Bowl, beginning at the 4:22 mark on a newsreel posted on YouTube.
Seventy years ago, film producer David O. Selznick staged an over-the-top extravaganza April 4, 1943, at the Hollywood Bowl honoring Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and China Relief, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. Featuring high showmanship and a cast of thousands, this stage show celebrated a woman as beautiful and tough as Selznick’s Scarlett O’Hara.
Selznick served as one of Hollywood’s most prominent supporters of China Relief, a cause championed by his friends Henry and Clare Luce. He agreed to organize two prominent Los Angeles events to publicize and raise funds in support, desperately needed after the vicious attacks by Japanese soldiers for more than six years. These events would occur near the end of Madame Chiang’s 1943 tour of the United States.
Madame Chiang, the wife of Chinese President Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek, easily facilitated the bridging of relations. Soong May-ling, born in 1897, was one of six children of Charlie Soong, a wealthy businessman and former Methodist missionary educated in the United States. Madame Chiang and her siblings sailed to the United States in 1907 for an American education, and she graduated from Wellesley College in 1917.
Returning to China, the intelligent, attractive young woman met the older, ambitious Chiang Kai-Shek in 1920, marrying him in 1927. Madame Chiang actively joined him in politics within a few years. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Chiang functioned as her husband’s eyes and ears, particularly to the outside world. She served as his English translator, advisor, secretary and muse.
On Feb. 18, 1943, Madame Chiang became the first Chinese person and second woman to address a joint session of Congress before traveling West, making appearances. Her Los Angeles’ visit commenced March 31, 1943, including a large banquet at the Ambassador Hotel and culminating with a live appearance at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, April 4.
Madame Chiang and her party arrived at Union Station from San Francisco at 10 a.m., March 31, greeted by Mayor Fletcher Bowron and a military squad. Driven to City Hall, she was presented with a key to the city, following the ceremonial raising of both the United States and Chinese national flags, with KFWB exclusively broadcasting the ceremony on the radio. Following the event, Madame Chiang and her party were escorted on a short parade of downtown streets en route to the Ambassador.
For days, Los Angeles newspapers trumpeted the grand finale of the visit, a lavish pageant organized and produced by Selznick. Stories announced tickets costing $1 to $5 each were for sale by the Hollywood Bowl Assn. at Southern California Music Company and other locations. Authorities also waived security cautions limiting attendance to 10,000 after Pearl Harbor, opening the full house.
Once he agreed to head events, Selznick dictated all details of the programs, creating an elegant spectacle worthy of a powerful Asian heroine. He arranged his office staff like a military unit organizing an invasion. Studio manager Raymond Klune was named general manager, Joseph Steele carried out publicity duties and longtime friend, actress Aileen Pringle, managed protocol, seating arrangements and the like. Hands-on Selznick designed menus, floor plans, music, décor, programs, invitation designs, everything involved with the event.
Only 314 people had RSVP’d a few days before the Ambassador Hotel banquet on April 2, and Selznick called out supporter James Cagney to help round up big-name celebrities. More than 400 people attended the elegant dinner that night, including Claudette Colbert, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Edward G. Robinson, Deanna Durbin, Irene Dunne, Greer Garson, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young. After dinner and Madame Chiang’s speech, Garson and Cagney performed in the radio drama, “A Flying Tiger Writes Home,” composed by screenwriter Stephen Longstreet, and staged by director John Cromwell. KHJ broadcast the event live at 10 p.m..
Hollywood Bowl festivities for Madame Chiang on Sunday, April 4 rivaled those of a presidential inauguration, with hundreds if not thousands of people participating in the event. Selznick hired director William Dierterle to stage all events that day, and signed art director Mark-Lee Kirk to design the stage production, with studio staff again called to action. Production manager Klune again managed the large crew. Heavy security cordoned the area, second only to that of President Roosevelt’s recent visit. The overflow crowd of 30,000 was told to arrive no later than 2:45 pm for the 3 p.m. program start to aid in security matters.
Panels 100 feet long of the Chinese and United States seals decorated the sides of the amphitheatre as the extravagant celebration began. Actor Spencer Tracy introduced the film actresses to receive Madame Chiang that day as they paraded across the stage: Mary Pickford, Joan Bennett, Ingrid Bergman, Ida Lupino, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Judy Garland, Janet Gaynor, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley Temple, Lana Turner, and Loretta Young.
Henry Fonda introduced Cmdr. Corydon M. Wassell of the Navy Medical Corps, who had rescued 12 wounded men in Java. The Army band played while infantrymen marched in, followed by the Marine Corps band playing the “Marine Corps Hymn” as Marines carrying full field packs and fixed bayonets entered. The Navy band played “Anchors Aweigh” as seamen strode in. All bands, under the direction of Chief Petty Officer Rudy Vallee, played the Army Air Forces song as 200 cadets from the Santa Ana Army Air Base entered the bowl. Madame Chiang was then driven onto the stage.
To kick off official proceedings, a squadron of bombers flew overhead, followed by Pickford presenting Madame Chiang with a bouquet of roses. The Los Angeles Philharmonic played both countries’ national anthems, with the Methodist bishop of California offering an invocation.
Author David Thomson called what followed next “Scarlett in China,” a solemn pageant titled “China: A Symphonic Narrative,” detailing the actions of Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, with over 500 Chinese performers taking part. The presentation was written by Harry Kronman, narrated by Walter Huston, with Edward G. Robinson providing the voice of Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek. Musical conductor Herbert Stothart composed the special music emphasizing the heroic nature of the event’s special guest, as Huston intoned the words, “…These two small hands – a woman’s hands – have swept the cobwebs from a nation’s past. These hands have lit dark corners in its homes – have built its schools, cared for its young, and nursed its war-made wounds. These hands – a woman’s hands – have helped to shape a nation’s destiny. This heart – a woman’s heart – whispers a simple woman’s hope, and all the world must pause and heed.”
Madame Chiang followed with an impassioned 45-minute speech, the longest of her tour, describing the Rape of Nanking, injured and dying children and inexperienced Chinese soldiers fighting against vicious and trained Japanese. The Los Angeles Times described her talk, “It was a voice that must be heard.”
The three-hour pageant raised more than $31,000 for Chinese Relief. Ten members of Local 659, the photographers’ union, graciously donated their services to photograph and film all aspects of this celebration, which were made into the film “A Day With Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.” The motion picture was distributed to Latin and South American countries in a shortened form by the summer of 1943, and the documentary was presented to John Grierson of the National Film Board of Canada. Madame Chiang was presented with a copy by Selznick and the MPAA, along with a projector to view it.
Though long forgotten, the massive event helped deepen understanding of China and its people here in Los Angeles, showcasing the importance of this mighty nation.