History / Movies

Sessue Hayakawa: the most famous actor you’ve never heard of

Buried within an obscure silent film that hit movie theaters more than 100 years ago is a brilliant performance by Hollywood’s first Asian movie star. He was nominated for an Oscar, he was one of the highest-paid actors of his time, he was world famous—and you’ve never heard of him.

The Cheat silent film

Social butterfly Edith Hardy is terminally bored. Edith’s husband—Dick in both name and attitude—spends his time fiddling with an interminable stock ticker, scolding Edith for her frivolity, and sporting an off-putting Salvador Dalí moustache.

Edith fills her empty days by racking up staggering clothing bills, raising money for the Red Cross, and enjoying the company of a gorgeous young man who is everything her husband is not: rich, generous, and attentive to her every whim. It’s hard to believe he’s supposed to be the villain.

Released in 1915—the same year as Birth of a NationThe Cheat sets out to be a parable on the perils of miscegenation, but in reality it’s a classic rom-com that goes wildly off the rails into a shocking study of sadism and the parameters of sexual consent. The apex of the peculiar love triangle at the heart of this odd silent film is a Burmese ivory merchant played by a young Japanese actor named Sessue Hayakawa.

Fainting woman in the Cheat

Called “broodingly handsome” and “the world’s most noted Japanese photoplay actor,” Hayakawa found astonishingly swift success in the white-washed world of early Hollywood. After his first films, The Typhoon and The Wrath of the Gods, were released in 1914, Hayakawa found that he was famous—the first Asian star of the silver screen. As the New York Times noted in his 1973 obituary, “For some [Americans], the darkly handsome leading man was the first Japanese they had ever seen.”

Even as a newly minted heartthrob, Hayakawa had no illusions about his career, however.

“As great as has been his success in these roles, he does not like them. ‘Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature,’ he said. ‘They are false and give people the wrong idea about us. I wish to give characterizations which shall reveal us as we really are,’” he told Photoplay in 1916.

Though it’s tempting to see Sessue Hayakawa’s rise to stardom as an all-American bootstraps story, it was anything but. Hayakawa was born to a wealthy aristocratic family in Japan. His father was the governor Chiba Province; his mother counted members of the samurai class among her progenitors. They did not aspire to relocate to the United States, nor is it evident that they admired American culture.

As a youth, Hayakawa attended a naval academy and was destined for a career in the Japanese navy until a burst eardrum during a diving exercise damaged his hearing and disqualified him from service.

Hayakawa considered suicide, then opted for an acting career instead.

His uncle, recognized in Photoplay as a celebrated actor named Otto Kawakimi, welcomed young Hayakawa into his theater company. The troupe was also home to Madame Yacco, “the first Japanese woman to win recognition in the drama” and the aunt of Hayakawa’s future wife. When Yacco and her fellow actors went on an international tour, she took Hayakawa and her niece along. Hayakawa attended the University of Chicago during his sojourn in the U.S., studying English literature and drama. He translated several English-language classics into Japanese during his stay, performing them on stage to acclaim upon his return to Japan.

“Most of the Japanese understand English nowadays, and they did not really like your drama until I gave it to them in English,” he told Photoplay the year after the release of The Cheat.

Back in the U.S. in 1913, Hayakawa joined the Japanese Theater in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, where his adroit acting style caught the eye of movie producer Thomas H. Ince. Unlike the broad mugging of early silent films, Hayakawa sought to achieve muga, or no-self, the Zen state of total focus that causes the loss of the ego. When performing, Hayakawa “was the epitome of economy and stillness.”

In The Cheat, Hayakawa’s restraint is crucial to his portrayal of “Haka Arakau, a Burmese ivory king to whom the Long Island smart-set is paying social tribute.” Arakau is the focus of the white upper-crust’s interest because of his fabulous wealth. Even Edith is not immune to his appeal. In the midst of her husband’s perpetual penury, she finds herself facing first a $1,450 bill for two evening gowns and a lace negligee—that’s $34,900 in today’s dollars for just three garments—and then a loss of $10,000 (nearly $241,000 today) when she embezzles funds from the Red Cross to preemptively make up for her husband’s incompetent stock trading.

The Cheat lovers

The Cheat opens with Hayakawa wearing an elegant Japanese kimono (though his character supposedly hails from Burma) in a long sequence that depicts him heating a small brand over live coals, then using the hot metal to imprint a clumsy, Chinese-inspired character upon some trinkets. It is the sort of cinematic trope that should put the audience to sleep, but Hayakawa has the focused attention of a Noh actor, rendering the series of seemingly irrelevant gestures fascinating.

The payoff comes twenty minutes later, just before a histrionic outburst by actress Fannie Ward, who seems frequently to forget that director Cecil B. DeMille was not after the comedic affectations upon which she’d built her acting career. As he woos her with his suave charm, Hayakawa shows Ward the brand and, with minimal dialogue, gives us to understand that just as he brands his knickknacks, one day soon he’ll brand her. Improbably, in this scene Hayakawa manages to come across as dangerously sexy and a whole lot more appealing than Ward’s onscreen and real-life husband, actor Jack Dean. Though the idea of branding a woman to show both her and the world at large that she is a possession with no more self-determination than an ivory bauble is horrifying, Hayakawa subverts the audience’s revulsion with the sheer force of his charisma.

Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward

It was this charisma that made Hayakawa one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood during his heyday. Despite the rampant racism of the era, he was as popular as his white leading-man counterparts, often starring in films as an “ethnic” villain hell-bent on competing unsuccessfully with a white man for the affections of a white woman.

Hayakawa’s characters could not win the girl in the end because of the prohibition on romantic scenes between those of different races, eventually made official by the Motion Pictures Production Code of 1930. Hayakawa was limited to playing the forbidden lover, and this, naturally, lent him far more appeal than the drab, acceptable Caucasian heroes who represented mainstream American culture on screen. Hayakawa didn’t shrink from playing characters of other ethnicities, including an East Indian rebel leader, an Arab donkey tender, an American Indian, and a Chinese warrior. He even turned down the starring role in The Sheik—the film that made Rudolph Valentino a worldwide sex-symbol in 1918.

Red Cross embezzelment

The upshot of Edith’s embezzlement of Red Cross funds is an offer from Arakau that she can’t refuse: a loan of $10,000 to repay the Red Cross before anyone finds out what she’s done, in return for…something. Unfortunately, due to the paucity of subtitle cards throughout The Cheat, the details of the agreement are completely unclear. The only clue we are given is a subtitle card that reads, “Do you agree?” and a horrified grimace from Edith.

Throughout most of the movie, subtitle cards weren’t strictly necessary, thanks to Ward’s hammy gesticulations and Hawakaya’s intuitive acting. But at this crucial moment, the turning point of the film, their absence is keenly felt. He might have asked for insider trading tips from her husband. Or exorbitantly high interest on the loan. Whatever it was, the next subtitle card simply says, “Tomorrow.” At the time of The Cheat’s release, Japan had a better way of making up for a silent film’s auditory deficit. According to Hayakawa, “Subtitles are not used. Instead a man stands beside the screen and reads the lines, changing his voice for the different characters.”

The second half of The Cheat moves swiftly. Suddenly flush with cash, Edith’s husband hands over $10,000 to her, no questions asked. Edith sets out to repay Arakau in lieu of (presumed) sexual favors, but he’s having none of it. Alas, our forbidden hero turns rapey and brands her on the shoulder, then offers her a gun with which to kill herself, should she prefer death to sex with his handsome and still incongruously charming self.

To nobody’s surprise, she shoots him instead in a fantastic scene shot from the exterior of a shoji screen, which creates a shadow puppet effect: Arakau’s shadow slowly slides down the brightly lit screen, leaving behind a black streak of blood.

At this very moment, for some reason, Edith’s husband is strolling around the Arakau’s garden.  He spies the shadow puppet pantomime and bursts through the screen to help (his wife is long gone by now). Somehow, he figures out that his wife shot Arakau. We know this because actor Jack Dean very broadly mouths, “My wife! My wife!” and then starts choking Arakau, who is not quite dead. Servants and the cops show up, Edith’s husband is bundled off to jail, and his trial for attempted murder begins.

Perhaps the most shocking scene in The Cheat is the slow pan of the all-white, all-male jury; the testimony of Caucasian Dick juxtaposed with “foreigner” Arakau; and the good ol’ boys’ unanimous verdict: guilty. Cynical 21st century viewers will be excused for having presumed that Dick was going to be let off with a handshake and the parting comment, “Good shot, fella.”

But then Edith yanks her hair and her dress down in an unrestrained attempt at a Shakespearean mad scene and, according to the subtitle card, cries out, “I shot Arakau! This is my defense.” Arakau, who obligingly went along with Dick’s perjury about being the shooter, looks sour. Clearly he hoped to get his hands on Edith once her husband was locked away in the hoosegow.

A brawl breaks out in the courtroom, with disquieting lynch mob overtones. The judge proclaims “The verdict is set aside,” and both Dick and Edith are allowed to walk out of the courthouse to the applause of the onlookers. Whether Arakau is indeed lynched after the screen fades to black is left to the moviegoer’s imagination.

Unlike his Burmese ivory merchant character, Hayakawa’s story had a happy ending. His career included an Academy Award nomination for his role in the 1957 hit The Bridge on the River Kwai; work with big stars including Humphrey Bogart, Claudette Colbert, Jerry Lewis, and Audrey Hepburn; and even a 1937 reboot of The Cheat just for kicks. Upon retiring in 1966, he returned to Japan and became a Zen Buddhist priest. He even wrote a book, Zen Showed Me the Way, which is unfortunately rather difficult to come by.

The Cheat, however, is easy to find, free to watch online, and just an hour long. Check it out and become a Sessue Hayakawa fan.

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