|Fannie Ward and Sessue Hayakawa in 'The Cheat.'
Dir: Cecil B. DeMille (uncred.)
Prod: DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky (uncred.)
Scr: Hector Turnbull, Jeanie Macpherson
Phot: Alvin Wycoff
Premiere: December 13, 1915
From the start, Sessue Hayakawa was under the gun. The son of a powerful Japanese official, he intended to join the military, but a ruptured eardrum prevented him, after he dove too deeply on a dare. His shame led him to attempt suicide. After his recovery, it was decided he would become a banker, so in 1911 he was sent to the University of Chicago for studies.
After two years, he decided to quit school and return home. While waiting for a ship in San Francisco, he joined an amateur theatrical, The Typhoon. Producer Thomas Ince, always on the lookout for material to adapt, offered to make a film out of the production. It was a hit, and Hayakawa was a hot property, an early star who made ungodly amounts of money playing the prototypes of film’s “exotic” lovers and Oriental villains.
Hayakawa was charismatic, and a quiet and controlled actor. His underplaying (he later became a Zen priest, and cited its influence as a factor in his subdued acting) was perfect for film, and had a bit of impact in the transition from stage acting to a toned-down, more naturalistic acting style in film.
Nonetheless, he was chained to stereotypes. His work was despised and even banned in Japan, where it was felt he was reinforcing prejudices. He was hugely popular in America, but despite his stardom, the laws of the day wouldn’t allow him to become an American citizen and marry outside his “race.” He was a human place marker for the Other in American film culture. (He turned down the lead in 1921’s The Sheik, thereby making the career of the then-obscure Rudolph Valentino, who then became the stereotypical “Latin lover.”)
The Cheat could be a standard melodrama – the Asian villain is the only fresh element of a stale tale. The cheat of the title is Edith Hardy, the flight wife of hard-working stockbroker Richard. She spends his money as fast as he makes it, and seems to be perpetually dressed like a decorative top or Dresden doll. When she finds herself in a financial jam (she speculates on the market with the Red Cross funds!), one of her wealthy society friends Hishuru Tori offers to help her out – for a price (wink, wink).
When Edith tries to return his borrowed money to him, an enraged Tori tries to have his way with her, as they used to say. When she resists past the point of his tolerance, he grapples her and thrusts the burning, red-hot metal stamp bearing his seal into her shoulder. Gadzooks! She shoots him in the shoulder.
Fortunately, her suspicious husband is close behind, and Tori’s doors are made of rice paper. He bursts into the room, and quickly takes responsibility for the shooting. An extravagant amount of suffering goes on for a time save for the imperturbable Tori, who sullenly smokes with his arm in a sling.
Of course, Richard goes on trial for shooting Tori, and in a sweeping climax Edith leaps to her feet, confesses all, and bares the insidious mark on her scapula. Pandemonium erupts, as all the right-thinking people watching the trial spring to their feet as one and become a lynch mob hot for Tori’s blood. The verdict is set aside, and husband and wife embrace.
Clearly, insufferable Edith to blame for all that ensues here, but in keeping with American melodrama and racism, the villainy is projected onto the Other. As Tori, Hayakawa is scornful, haughty, untrustworthy, lustful, sly, mysterious, and grim – all qualities ascribed to any despised minority. When he is provoked, a sadistic streaks manifests itself – a kind of “barbaric” behavior that illustrates the idea that Asians are not quite human. His branding of Edith is like his branding of his collectibles earlier – “That means it belongs to me,” he says in intertitle – reduces her to an object, if not more accurately livestock.
But is the salvation much better? Throughout the film, Richard treats Edith like a silly, wayward child, which is disturbing when you remember that they are playing grown-up, married characters. Is it better for a woman to be treated like a slow child or an object? This no-win situation has not improved much in cinema down the decades.
The brisk story is expertly directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who made a splash the previous year with his rookie effort The Squaw Man, the first feature film to be made in Hollywood. (To show you the pace of production in early Hollywood, The Cheat was DeMille’s 23rd film in less than a year.) DeMille had much experience in theater under such top impresarios of the day as Charles Frohman and David Belasco. DeMille’s solid visual sense makes maximum use of silhouette and shadow, key lighting, close-ups, and pacing to create and effective and entertaining story. This quality, linked to others and harnessed to bigger and bigger extravaganzas, soon made DeMille the most successful producer-director of his era.
The racism is unfeigned and palpable. Complaints from the Japanese-American population led the villain’s identity being changed for the 1918 re-release. Instead of a Japanese person, Haka Arakau, a “Burmese ivory king” (presumably there was an insufficient amount of Burmese-Americans to be concerned about). Despite this distinction, the cultural damage is the same.
The phrase in the air at the time was “Yellow Peril,” a fear of Asian immigrants’ “invasion” (sound familiar?) common to Western culture but seeing its most intense manifestation in xenophobic America. It was encoded in prejudicial laws, immigration restrictions, and mob violence. Anti-Asian portrayals and caricatures continued at least until 1961, when Mickey Rooney’s “yellowface” performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s became the proverbial straw.
So did Hayakawa help or hinder Asian perceptions? He used his profits not only to live lavishly but to form his own independent film production company, and made 32 films in four years, Asian-American films that attempted to get beyond Asian stereotypes. They failed.
He became a journeyman artist. Trapped inadvertently in France when the Nazis invaded, he promptly joined the French underground. He gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Colonel Saito in Lean’s great 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai, then retired and focused on business and spiritual matters. He wrote, he painted, and he lived. He was quite a Renaissance man. Only lately are we able to see the man through the mas of contradictions he endured.
The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Fatty’s Tintype Tangle.’