A prolific character actor with numerous credits in Hong Kong during the two decades immediately after World War II was Wang Yuanlong, nearly always a major supporting character. Many of his earlier credits during this period were in martial arts and other action films, often as the hero's sifu; later, as he moved into middle age, he appeared more in dramas and romantic comedies, often as the father of one of the leads. But like early martial arts heroine Qian Siying, while his face and name were familiar to HongKong film fans, it is unlikely that many outside of the industry knew of his earlier career in Shanghai, when he and his brother Wang Cilong were silent era leading men, and important members of China's first generation of directors. (There were initially three Wang brothers in the Chinese movie industry, but like the Marx Brothers in Hollywood, not all had lasting on-screen careers.) In the annals of show business, whether movies, music, or whatever, we often read the sad stories of celebrities whose stars shone brightly for a while, but whose fame and fortune were accompanied by poor lifestyle choices that ultimately destroyed their careers, and in some cases, their lives. In the majority of cases, these one-time stars came from poor or modest backgrounds, and sudden success proved too much to handle; but the Wang brothers' story differs in that they were born into wealth, so perhaps the celebrity and power they enjoyed, combined with obvious character flaws, caused them to squander their talents. But historical chance gave one of the brothers a second chance he exploited; for the other, the chance came too late.
The wealthy Wang family of Baoding, Hebei, had three sons. Except for a few film credits in the late 1920s, nothing is known of the eldest, who adopted the screen name "Wang Bailong" (王伯龙). But it is recorded that second son Wang Yuanlong (王元龙), was born Wang Bingyu (王乘钰) in 1903. He was athletic, and the family decided a military career would be most appropriate for Yuanlong, sending him to the Baoding Military Academy at age 19. But two years later, in 1924, he decided on an alternate career path and went to Shanghai to seek employment as an actor in that city's new and growing film industry. His first two films were with the Da Zhonghua (Great China) studio, and after it merged with the Baihe studio, he quickly moved into lead roles, including such popular successes as "Young Factory Owner" and "Battle Exploits," two of 1925's more successful films.
He was soon joined by the youngest of the brothers, Wang Cilong, born Wang Xuean (王雪庵) in 1907. Probably using his elder brother's connections, Cilong joined the Great China studio in 1926, initially as a set designer, but soon moving into acting in minor parts. That same year, Yuanlong turned his hand to writing and directing, beginning with 1926's "A Visit Home," which also gave Cilong his first role of substance. In 1927, the three brothers decided to combine their movie experience with some of the family money and start their own production company. The new business venture was called the San Long (Three Dragons) Film Company, aiming to exploit the martial arts craze of the time. (龙, the second character in their adopted screen names, means "dragon".)
[right, Wang Cilong]
["left, Four Heroes of the Wang Family'."]
They produced several popular action films, beginning with "Four Heroes of the Wang Family," which featured the three brothers and another actor named Wang Zhengxin (王征信) [no relation] in the title roles, plus another Wang-surnamed non-relative, Wang Naidong (王乃东) as chief villain. It may have been due to his athleticism and military training, but Yuanlong in particular was well suited to hero roles, and soon became a very popular leading man in the late 1920s. Critics of the day were calling him the "Screen Emperor" several years before Jin Yan won that title in a newspaper fan poll. The brothers followed their early success with more action movies in which they co-starred, but it all fell apart in a few years after the Chinese government's passage of the 1930 Film Censorship Act effectively banned martial arts fantasies, forcing the brothers to disband their company and follow other pursuits. Bailong's next move is unrecorded, but Cilong joined the Lianhua studio as an actor and director, and Yuanlong moved to Beijing to start and operate an acting school. The two younger brothers were going downhill in their personal lives as well: Cilong and his actress-wife Zhou Wenzhu had become drug addicts, and while there is no record of drug use by Yuanlong, Chinese sources describe his lifestyle as "dissolute and unconventional," and suggest he was a practitioner of what Hollywood termed the "casting couch." Even in his Beijing period the stories of his numerous affairs continued.
[right, Wang Yuanlong with Han Yunzhen in 1926's "Transparent Shanghai." The pageboy haircut, copied from Hollywood movie flappers, was popular with young urban Chinese women at the time. Han (noted for her sexpot roles) may have been trying to project herself as the "Chinese Louise Brooks."]
It may or may not have been connected to his personal life, but for whatever reason Yuanlong closed his film school in 1933 and returned to Shanghai to attempt a comeback. He began by making a couple of minor films for his own, independent studio, then made three more for the Great Wall and Tianyi studios, but only one of these, 1934's "Give Back my Home" had any impact. One of his comeback problems was that his matinee idol good looks had faded. He disappeared from the film industry until 1939, when, somewhat ironically, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai revived his career by permitting Chinese studios to make movies that were sheer entertainments, and with the martial arts genre allowed again, he was in several productions that were popular with war-weary Shanghai residents hungry for escapist entertainment.
[left, in 1931's "A Spray of Plum Blossoms," Proteus (Wang Cilong) captures the heart of Julia (Ruan Lingyu), seemingly by teaching her the latest Shanghai craze, "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider."]
How the two remaining Wang brothers left Shanghai is unclear, but by 1940 they were in Hong Kong, prior to that city's occupation, starting a studio they called the Xinghai Film Company. Cilong had abandoned his wife and child in Shanghai but continued supporting them financially; however, his death in 1941 at the age of 34 left them to an uncertain and probably tragic fate. Whether he died of an overdose or from the cumulative effects of drug use is unrecorded, but his habit was certainly a factor.
[left, Two parents worried about their young adult children. Wang Yuanlong in the 1956 Hong Kong production "The Long Winding Road," with Chen Yanyan]
Meanwhile, Wang Yuanlong sat out the war in Hong Kong in professional inactivity. However, he did use the time to master the Cantonese dialect, which served him well in the postwar era. When the war ended, he returned to Shanghai and resumed his career, mostly as an actor. In 1949 he went back to Hong Kong for good, beginning a second career as a character actor and occasional director or writer. Learning the Cantonese dialect greatly broadened his opportunities, as he was available for casting in both Cantonese and Mandarin productions. While he never scaled the heights of his early career, Wang Yuanlong made (by my count) 110 films during this second phase, making the most he could of his second chance. On July 20, 1959, while on location in Taiwan making what turned out to be the last of his films, Wang Yuanlong suffered a fatal heart attack, dying at age 56.
[right, Wang Yuanlong in one of his later roles as a wizened elder]