SESSUE HAYAKAWA Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom
By DAISUKE MIYAO
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-3958-8
Chapter One A STAR IS BORN
The Transnational Success of The Cheat and Its Race and Gender Politics
on December 13, 1915, a film titled The Cheat, produced at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and starring Fannie Ward, a renowned stage actress in New York and London, was released in the United States. The Cheat soon achieved big box office success and opened a gate for the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa to become a "full-fledged star." Before the success of The Cheat, Hayakawa had already appeared in many films, but it was The Cheat that paved the way for him to achieve superstardom.
In The Cheat, a rich Japanese art dealer on Long Island, Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa), offers money to Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward), a white middle-class woman, who has invested money from the Red Cross Fund and eventually lost it, in exchange for her body. When Edith tries to return his money after her husband's success in the stock market, Tori assaults her and brutally brands his mark on her shoulder. However, Edith fights back and shoots Tori in the shoulder. Knowing everything, Edith's husband decides to be arrested on a charge of attempted murder in order to save her name. During the trial, Edith confesses the truth, and the excited court audience attacks Tori in the end.
Not very many reviewers and audiences were impressed by the film's leading actress. What fascinated them most was the supporting Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. The New York Times insisted, "Miss Ward might learn something to help her fulfill her destiny as a great tragedienne of the screen by observing the man who acted the Japanese villain in her picture." Variety agreed: "The work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting of Miss Ward and Jack Dean that he really should be the star in the billing for the film." Moving Picture World (MPW) noted that Hayakawa had "a prominent role" in The Cheat and added, "It is rumored he is soon to be starred by the Lasky Company in a big feature production." Sessue Hayakawa thus became an overnight sensation to the moviegoers in America.
Cecil B. DeMille, the director of the film, recalled later that The Cheat was "Sessue Hayakawa's first giant stride on the road that made him within two years the peer of such contemporary bright stars as Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Mary Pickford." The New Orleans Times in February 1916 reported how prominent Hayakawa was after the release of The Cheat: "Undoubtedly the greatest success ever scored by a Japanese actor on [sic] American moving pictures was that of Sessue Hayakawa in the Lasky-Paramount production of "The Cheat," and so strong an impression thot [sic] make on New Orleans spectators that when the Japanese appeared for the moment on the screen in the part of a valet in "Temptation," at the Crescent, a murmur of recognition such as we have never known to greet any other player went through the audience-a most sincere tribute." Similarly, Wid's Films and Film Folk Independent Criticisms of Features pointed out that Hayakawa was used in an inappropriate way in a minor role in Temptation (Cecil B. DeMille, 30 December 1915), the film that was released right after The Cheat: "Our Jap friend, of 'The Cheat' fame, is brought in for a very small 'valet' part at the finish. I think this is wrong. That boy is too big and too clever to be shoved into such films to do a small bit. It hits you in the eye like it would be to see Blanche Sweet come into the film as a maid."
The Lasky Company dared not miss this opportunity. Right before the release of The Cheat, the studio head, Jesse L. Lasky, praised The Cheat as "one of the very best" films ever made, even though his claim should have contained a promotional intention. He said he was "so impressed by his [Hayakawa's] performance" that he "immediately signed him for a long term" contract. After the box office success of The Cheat, the company came to recognize Hayakawa as its new potential moneymaker and to undertake a specific strategy to establish, publicize, and promote his star image.
Motion Picture News (MPN) reported on 15 April 1916: "Partly in response to the hundreds of requests from exhibitors and photoplay goers all over the United States, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company announces that it will present as a star early in May the well-known Japanese screen player, Sessue Hayakawa, in a photoplay production entitled 'Alien Souls.' Hayakawa's work in 'The Cheat,' in which he appeared in leading support of Fannie Ward, stamped him immediately as a proficient figure in motion pictures." Lasky spent five months before releasing the first star vehicle for Hayakawa, Alien Souls (Frank Reicher, 3 May 1916). This long five-month gap indicates the extent of Lasky's well-prepared publicity for the company's new star. When Alien Souls was finally released, reviews of the film appeared in various local papers such as the New York Sun, Philadelphia Telegraph, Detroit News, Evening Wisconsin, Louisville Times, Springfield Mirror, Cleveland Daily, Atlanta Constitution, Los Angeles Examiner, Chicago Tribune, Toledo Blade, and Washington Star, and they unanimously called Hayakawa a "star." After Alien Souls, Hayakawa's star vehicles were released in approximately two-month cycles.
But stardom has more than a national perspective, and Hayakawa, like Charlie Chaplin, was one of the first stars whose international reputation forms an essential part of his story. American spectators were not the only ones who were immensely impressed by Hayakawa in The Cheat. Hayakawa's performance was sensationally received in Europe and in Japan. In France, when The Cheat opened at the Omnia Pathé Cinema in Paris in the summer of 1916, French intellectuals were "dumbfounded" by Hayakawa and the innovative aesthetics of The Cheat. On 3 June 1918, the drama critic Louis Delluc claimed, "No one actually wanted to see anything in it [The Cheat] except the Japanese.... [The film] inspired nothing but pro-Japanese polemic." In Excelsior, on 7 August 1916, the renowned poet, novelist, and essayist Colette reported, in an excited tone, on the impact of Hayakawa's performance in The Cheat on many artists:
In Paris this week, a movie theater has become an art school. A film and two of its principal actors are showing us what surprising innovations, what emotion, what natural and well-designed lighting can add to cinematic fiction. Every evening, writers, painters, composers, and dramatists come and come again to sit, contemplate, and comment in low voices, like pupils. To the genius of an oriental actor is added that of a director probably without equal.... We cry "Miracle!" ... Is it only a combination of felicitous effects that brings us to this film and keeps us there? Or is it the more profound and less clear pleasure of seeing the crude ciné groping toward perfection, the pleasure of divining what the future of the cinema must be when its makers will want that future ...? ... This Asiatic artist whose powerful immobility is eloquence itself. Let our aspiring ciné-actors go to see how, when his face is mute, his hand carries on the flow of his thought. Let them take to heart the menace and disdain in a motion of his eyebrow and how, in that his life is running out with his blood, without shuddering, without convulsively grimacing, with merely the progressive petrifaction of his Buddha's mask and the ecstatic darkening of his eyes.
As mentioned in the introduction, Hayakawa's acting, which Delluc and Colette fervently described, inspired certain French intellectuals to generate a concept, photogenie, the unique aesthetic qualities that motion picture photography brings to the subject it films. For them, the concept of photogenie was the basis of a new idea of film as a unique art form, thus Hayakawa of a new form of acting. According to Delluc, using the camera and the screen, photogenie changes "real" into something else without eliminating the "realness" and makes people "see ordinary things as they had never been before." It is a mystical and theoretically incoherent concept due to the fact that photogenie is "designed to account for that which is inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the very essence of cinematic specificity." Yet, such a theorist as Delluc believed that the cinema would give viewers access to a realm beyond everyday experience and show them the souls of people and the essence of objects. The concept of photogenie later became a significant theoretical basis of the French impressionist film movement, filmmaking that "displayed a fascination with pictorial beauty and an interest in intense psychological exploration." As a result, by 1921, French intellectuals achieved a consensus that The Cheat's "revelation actually initiated the greater French public's education about the cinema."
This enthusiastic reception of Hayakawa in France had a certain connection to the popularity of Madame Sadayakko, a Japanese actress. Sadayakko, who was in fact the aunt of Hayakawa's wife, Tsuru Aoki, was sponsored by the popular dancer Loie Fuller in the 1900 Exposition in Paris, together with her husband Kawakami Otojiro, who tried to modernize Japanese theater by dissociating it from the dominant world of kabuki and pleasure quarters. Sadayakko's geisha dance and act of dying and Kawakami's act of hara-kiri, which were in fact added at the request of Fuller, were sensationally received not only by the popular audience, but by some intellectuals and artists, including the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin. Moreover, their acts were captured by a motion picture camera, which was another sensational form of entertainment at the Paris Exposition. After the Kawakami troupe returned to Japan, even Japanese-style dresses became fashionable in Paris. They were called "Yacco" style because Sadayakko always wore a kimono at parties. Sadayakko's fame was such that Guerlain introduced a perfume called "Yacco."
Without Sadayakko, Kawakami, and Aoki, Hayakawa would never have entered the film business. In 1899, when Aoki was eleven, she went to the United States as a part of the Kawakami troupe. It was the first time a Japanese theater troupe had toured in the United States. Aoki stayed in the United States as an adopted daughter of Aoki Toshio (Hyosai), an artist in San Francisco, and later, after Aoki Toshio died, of Louise Scher, a journalist at the Los Angeles Examiner. Aoki started her film career much earlier than Hayakawa and quite possibly introduced him to an influential producer in early Hollywood, Thomas H. Ince.
In 1925, the filmmakers Henri Fescourt and Jean-Louis Bouquet dated "the origins of the cinema around 1915-1916, with the appearance of the first good American films," and stated that "the most striking was The Cheat." In 1937, Marcel L'Herbier remade The Cheat, entitled Forfaiture, using Hayakawa in the role of a Mongolian prince who attracts a French engineer's wife and entraps her using her gambling debts. The images behind the opening credits of Forfaiture, a compilation of notable scenes with Hayakawa from The Cheat, clearly indicate the immense popularity of Hayakawa and The Cheat in France. Forfaiture thus presupposed the viewers' knowledge of the original.
Moreover, Excelsior, on 28 August 1917, reported that The Cheat was about to be staged as an opera. André de Lorde of the Théatre du Grand Guignol and Paul Milliet wrote a music drama based on The Cheat, for which Camille Erlanger wrote the music. The opera, entitled La Forfaiture, was in fact produced by the Opéra-Comique in 1921, after Erlanger's death, and became the first opera to be based on a motion picture scenario, even though the opera was not successful and played only three times. Colette's reaction to this announcement of the stage production of The Cheat, written in a conversation style, indicates how highly she valued Hayakawa's eloquent performance. Colette's insight even predicts Hayakawa's future, his loss of popularity after talking pictures arrived:
"And who will play it? Have they already found people worthy of taking over for Hayakawa and Fannie Ward?" "Ah ... that's the difficulty. What do you think of Mary Garden for the role played by Fannie Ward?" "Mary Garden would be fine. And the Japanese?" The friend of film leaned forward, with an anxious face: "The Japanese, the Japanese ..." He looked at me steadily. "It's strange," he said, "the Japanese ... I don't conceive of that role, you understand, as being sung. Or, let's say there'd be very little singing. One would need a great artist capable of mime. Gesture, stage presence ... Very little voice. No vocal effects, no melodic phrases. Everything in recitative. But silence, you understand, above all, silence. Jean Périer, perhaps ..." "Of course. Besides"-I insinuated with a poisonous sweetness-"really, the Japanese has nothing to say in the story." "That's quite right. My opinion exactly. He has nothing to say. The first, the glare, that's the whole role. I see so clearly what's needed. I can see it as if I were there." "I think you were there. Wait, one moment, I have an idea. Supposing that the Japanese, in your opera, were made evil, seductive, and ... mute?" "Mute?" "Mute. As mute as a screen. He could, by mime, make himself understood just as easily-perhaps better-and then ..." "I've got it, I've got it!" the friend of film cried. "We'll get Hayakawa to create the role in the opera!" "I hoped you'd say that." "Magnificent! Magnificent! That takes a weight off me ... It's foolish, perhaps, but the idea of hearing the role of the Japanese sung ... and even that of the woman, if it comes to that, in the great scene, the struggle between Fannie Ward and Hayakawa, I can't yet imagine how they would exchange the lines 'Be Mine!' 'No, never!' 'You swore it!' 'Pity, pity! Oh, the villain-!' and so on." "I share your apprehension. One could, though, get around the difficulty with those cries ..." "How?" "One could arrange, for example, a silent scene, very rapid, in the style of that lovely scene in the film ..." "Of course ..." "... and since the scene would be silent, there wouldn't be any difficulty in having it played by Fannie Ward ..."
Hayakawa's performance in The Cheat was sensationally received by Japanese spectators, too. However, the tone of the Japanese reception was not as favorable as that of the American and French ones. Japanese communities in the United States severely protested The Cheat, insisting that the Japanese character in the film was depicted unfavorably. On 23 December 1915, right after The Cheat was released at the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, started a campaign against the film. Hayakawa wrote in his autobiography, "Recalling my experiences in making this picture [The Cheat] brings to mind the opposition my playing the role of the villainous Japanese stirred among those of my nationality in Los Angeles and throughout the country after the film was released. For portraying the heavy, as screen villains are called, as a Japanese, I was indignantly accused of casting a slur on my nationality."
The Rafu Shimpo criticized The Cheat by insisting that the film "distorted the truth of Japanese people" and would "cause anti-Japanese movements." A report in the Rafu Shimpo noted, "The film depicts Japanese people as outrageously evil.... This film would have a bad influence on people, living in places where there are not so many Japanese. They would come to think that the Japanese people are extremely savage. The film destroys the truth of the Japanese race. It is unforgivable for Japanese actors to appear in such a film, even for money."
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