NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
The name of Sessue Hayakawa may be unfamiliar to most movie-goers today, but at the height of his fame from the mid-1910s to the late 1920s, the Japanese issei actor was as well known to audiences as Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks. He was Hollywood’s first Asian male movie star and to this day, no other Asian American actor has been able to sustain as long a career (he received an Academy Award nomination in 1957 for The Bridge on the River Kwai).
So when the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam announced that it had in its possession three of Hayakawa’s silent-era films that were thought to have been forever lost, it was major news.
All three works recently had their U.S. premiere through a Los Angeles screening sponsored by UCLA’s Film & Television Archive. The films are an essential look at early Hollywood and its representation of Asian images.
Elif Rongen, the Filmmuseum’s Film Collections project manager, said the three films — His Birthright (1918), The Courageous Coward (1919) and The Man Beneath (1919) — had actually been in their archives for a long time. “But it took a while for us to realize that,” she said.
In 2005, a staffer came upon a copy of a film that turned out to be The Man Beneath. Intrigued, she went through all of the Hayakawa films in the museum’s archives and found the other films — or what remained of them. Only the last reel survives of Courageous Coward, and the first and fourth reels are missing from His Birthright.
One of the most fascinating things about these films is that they were all made under Hayakawa’s own company, Haworth Pictures, which he founded in 1918. At a time when Asians in America were second-class citizens, Hayakawa was running his own production company and produced, starred in and supervised every aspect of his projects. He made 20 films through his company, often collaborating with director William Worthington (who directed these three films) and fellow issei actress and wife Tsuru Aoki.
These films are still products of their time and contain moments of out-dated “Orientalism,” but because Hayakawa exercised creative control, these works provide a more enlightened take on their Asian subject matter than a better known film like The Cheat, in which Hayakawa was only an actor.
In these films, Hayakawa is the leading man and proves he was more than capable of playing complex characters devoid of Hollywood’s overt stereotypes. In Courageous Coward, Hayakawa is a Japanese American law student torn between his love for an Americanized Japanese woman and a Caucasian friend accused of murder. In His Birthright, Hayakawa is the son of a Japanese woman and a Caucasian military officer who abandoned his mother before he was born. After his mother commits suicide, Hayakawa travels to America determined to kill his father.
In The Man Beneath, Hayakawa is a successful Indian doctor in love with a Scottish woman who rejects him because of their racial differences. But when the woman’s family finds trouble, Hayakawa must save the day.
Again, the racism of the times is very evident in these films. For example, in The Man Beneath, it is assumed by both the characters and the filmmakers that these two lovers cannot be together under any circumstances, reflecting the anti-miscegenation of the period. But these pioneering works also address issues like mixed-race identity with a maturity and insight that even today’s films lack.
According to Rongen, there are no future plans to screen these films in the United States, though she hopes interest will build and that will change. So, check out these films and help make them available to a new generation of movie-goers who have yet to discover Hayakawa’s brilliance.
Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. The company’s next show Lodestone After Dark runs Dec. 11-14 in L.A. For more info: lodestonetheatre.org