Asian American Silent Film Stars

The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is presenting a program celebrating the centennial of silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa, a “true Hollywood pioneer.” The program on May 4th includes two of his silent feature films, The Wrath of the Gods (1914) and The Dragon Painter (1919). The screening will take place on May 4, at 2:30 pm at the Director’s Guild of America.

In 1993, CAAM (then the National Asian American Telecommunications Association) premiered his restored The Dragon Painter with Izu’s score as the Opening Night film at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Hayakawa is also known for his role in The Cheat (1915), portraying an Asian American male as sexual and threatening against a white woman—the “yellow peril” stereotype. But beyond that, there was more to Hayakawa, who later formed his own film company.

Our Executive Director Stephen Gong will introduce the program on May 4th. Below is Gong’s essay on two pioneering Asian American silent film stars, Hayakawa and his wife, Tsuru Aoki.

Rediscovering Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki

This year marks the centennial of the first screen appearances of Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) and Tsuru Aoki (1892-1961), Asian American film actors whose place in film history, unprecedented and unique, is richly deserving of rediscovery.

Both were born in Japan but following different paths had, in 1913, both joined a Japanese theater group in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. There they were discovered and put under contract by the pioneering motion picture producer Thomas Ince, who was recruiting “exotic” performers for his new film studio in Santa Monica. (For instance, Ince had also negotiated with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which included a troupe of actual Sioux, to appear in his Westerns in exchange for winter grazing rights). After appearing in a couple of short films, Hayakawa and Aoki made their first feature, The Wrath of the Gods, released in May of 1914 just weeks after their marriage.

Wrath was one of the first feature length films in the emerging American film industry. It was advertised as a “super-spectacle” intended to capitalize on public interest in the devastating earthquake on the island of Sakura-Jima in Japan just months before the films release. It was also a morality tale with a melodramatic dichotomy between a Christian and civilized West and a primitive Buddhist East, a stock theme of many early Hollywood films set in Asia.

Thus began for Hayakawa a career in film that spanned three continents (North America, Europe and Asia) and over 50 years. His breakthrough came in the 1915 film The Cheat, directed by Cecil B. De Mille for the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Hayakawa played Tori, an unscrupulous playboy, who, in the film’s most shocking and most famous scene, brands the shoulder of Fannie Ward, in a cruel reaction to unfulfilled sexual extortion. Although he clearly played the villain in a lurid but conventional morality tale, Hayakawa emerged a movie star. His fan base—white and female—were fascinated by his good looks and dangerous, forbidden, allure.

His stardom and salary soon rivaled that of Chaplin and Pickford. But Hayakawa quickly found his career constrained by the social and racial codes of the day. Since the source of his appeal was romantic, he was usually involved with the story’s love interest. But unless Tsuru Aoki was his co-star, as was the case in The Dragon Painter, he was invariably obliged to relinquish the heroine in the final reel, usually through an act of self-sacrifice. American women were thus able to imagine the forbidden fruits of interracial love and yet stay within proscribed racial boundaries.

Although audiences in the teens were not aware of the source of Hayakawa’s acting inspiration, his unique approach, which he attributed to Zen Buddhism, brought to the silent screen an acting style characterized by intuition, naturalness and the eradication of conscious effort. In Zen this is termed the state of muga—an absence of self-awareness. Contemporary critics hailed it as a “repressed” method of acting (and as such suitably “Oriental”). And it surely stood in contrast to the approach that many other actors of the day – especially those recruited from live theater—marked by studied poses and broad gestures. Hayakawa once said, “If I want to show on the screen that I hate a man, I do not shake my fists at him. I think down in my heart how I hate him and try not to move a muscle in my face, just as I would in real life.” He further attributed to Zen and the art of kendo the discipline and mental clarity that enabled his actions and motivation to flow naturally to the camera without pausing in the middle ground of the intellect, explaining, “Through Zen I am able to empty my mind of all thoughts that may hinder my performance. What comes out of me comes out intuitively, unconsciously, and everything seems natural.”

Following several years with Famous Players—Lasky, and intent on maintaining greater control on his material, Hayakawa formed the Haworth Pictures Corporation in 1919. In the four years of its existence, Haworth released 23 features, each tailored to Hayakawa’s talents and unique acting style. The Dragon Painter, for one, allowed Hayakawa and Aoki a rare opportunity to present a different kind image of Japanese culture to American audiences: an allegory of love and the creative inspiration that wanes when longing and desire are fulfilled.

The Hayakawas were special celebrities even in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood in the 1920s, and they partook in the lavish lifestyle of the day. Their home, a mansion known as the “Argyle Castle” was the setting for extravagant parties, their success measured by the number of guests left lying drunk on the floor the following mornings. Hayakawa took up golf, polo, and high-stakes gambling, as his official past-times, all duly reported in the fan magazines. He later stated that this ostentatiousness was a calculated response to rising anti-Japanese feelings in the U.S., especially in the Western states. Even so, in 1922, Tsuru and their children moved to Japan while Hayakawa tried his luck on the New York vaudeville circuit and filmmaking in France and England, returning briefly to Hollywood in 1931 for The Daughter of the Dragon.

He spent the war years in France and returned to the U.S. for a renewed period of screen success in Three Came Home (1950) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). For the latter film, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his nuanced performance as Colonel Saito, commandant of the prison of war camp in Burma. “ In all of the films I have made, no character captivated or challenged me more. He came to grip me, to control me…I do not think of the Colonel as a sympathetic character, but to me he was a decent sort of man, one tightly hemmed in by the demands of his profession, his obligation to duty. His destiny was to battle within himself and lose. It was my destiny to portray him.”

– Stephen Gong

Main image: A studio publicity still showing the delivery of fan mail to silent film stars Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki in their home, the “Argyle Castle.”

UPDATE: The post previously stated that the films will include live music accompaniment by Mark Izu, a noted jazz composer and musician.


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