erik lundegaard

Sunday January 01, 2023

Movie Review: The Cheat (1915)

It's just like me to start the new year with a review of a not-exactly new movie. I think I've reviewed only four movies older than this one. 


I know something about the history of movies, but it was only within the last five or 10 years that I learned about Sessue Hayakawa—and it stunned me. “Wait, there was a Japanese actor who became a matinee idol in Hollywood ... in the 1910s? So we’re not that racist? Or weren’t for a moment? Or something?” It upends so much. It raises so many questions.

“The Cheat” is the movie that did it. That’s nuts in its own way.

It’s nuts because in the film Hayakawa not only sexually assaults the leading lady and nominal star, Fannie Ward, but literally brands her. He burns his Japanese crest into her upper back as a way of saying, “I own you.”

It’s also not nuts since Hayakawa was like a modern movie star. He's not only handsome, there’s a stillness to him, and a subtlety to his acting. Everyone else thrashes and emotes in the manner of silent films, while he watches and broods. He seems to know, even at this early stage of film, that less is more.

Cheat what exactly?
The story is not much. Edith Hardy (Ward) is a spoiled society girl who spends more than her stockbroker husband, Richard Hardy (Jack Dean, Ward’s real-life husband), makes. How spoiled is she? Rather than pay the servants, she buys a new dress for the big Red Cross Ball—raising money for Belgians in WWI—for which she’s treasurer. Then she steals that money for stock market speculation. Her husband is working on a big deal, but one of his colleagues tells her, “D&O? Nah, he should buy United Copper,” and she trusts that guy over her husband. 

And she loses it all. Now she imagines the scandalous headlines.

Where’s Hayakawa in all of this? He plays Hishuru Tori, a rich Japanese ivory merchant (or in the 1918 rerelease, Haka Arakau, a Burmese ivory merchant), who has loaned his mansion for the big ball. He actually opens the movie—we see him quietly burning his crest into dolls—but for the first half of the movie he’s a genteel, well-groomed figure in the background, taking Edith here and there. It’s only when he overhears Edith’s plight that his eyes narrow in sinister fashion, and he offers the money.

The version I saw, streaming on Amazon Prime, was the 1918 rerelease—he’s Arakau—and it’s vague about the deal being struck. Before he signs the check, he says “Do you agree?” And we’re all like “Agree to what?” One assumes sex but it’s never stated. Whatever it is, she agrees. “Tomorrow,” he tells her. The next day, though, hubby’s deal comes through, and now they’re rich, rich, so she asks hubby for the $10k. Bridge debt, she claims. He’s remarkably calm about it, merely wagging his finger: Oh, you naughty girl, you. But when she tries to pay back Arakau, he refuses to accept.

I would’ve thought the title referred to Edith stealing Red Cross funds, but this is the chapter called “The Cheat,” so you get the feeling it’s because she tried to get out of whatever she agreed to with Arakau. Later in the film, for example, when she begs Arakau to drop the charges against her husband, he tells her: “You cannot cheat me twice.” So this is obviously the first time. In a way, the movie takes his side. She's the cheat. When he goes in for a kiss, she fights him off. Then he tells his servants to lock the doors behind them. When she says she’ll kill herself, he gives her a knife. She does that silent-movie thing: staring at the object in slow horror. 

Was the decision to brand her planned or impulsive? Feels like the latter. Earlier, he was branding a doll, then they struggled, and there she was on the table, like the doll, and the branding iron was hot. She may have recoiled from the knife, but after being branded with a hot iron, she grabs a nearby gun and uses it. She wings him and flees. Police are called. Now, of course, hubby shows up, figures everything out, and rescues his wife by taking the blame.

At the trial, everyone lies on the stand. Arakau fingers Richard Hardy, as does Arakau’s servant, and Hardy’s defense is that he was simply trying to disarm Arakau when the gun went off. Throughout, Edith wrings her hands. When the verdict comes back, “Guilty!,” she thrashes around, her hair comes undone, and she cries out, “I shot Arakau—and this is my defense!” and reveals Arakau’s brand on her upper back. Which is when the jury spectators turn into a lynch mob. But the judge protects Arakau, declares the verdict set aside (is that a thing?), and the Hardys walk through a gauntlet to cheers.

It's a little odd. She still stole Red Cross funds. He still lied on the stand. I don’t know if I’d be cheering them. But endings have to be made.

Rafu Shimpo
But this is how Hayakawa became a huge star, and, as a result, Japan, and Japanese-Americans, celebrated.

Kidding. They didn’t like the rare Japanese star being a sexual predator. From Wiki:

In particular, a Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, Rafu Shimpo, waged a campaign against the film and heavily criticized Hayakawa’s appearance. …  Robert Birchard, author of the book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, surmised that the character's nationality was changed to Burmese because there were “not enough Burmese in the country to raise a credible protest.”

That’s right, DeMille directed this—one of 14 films he directed in 1915 for Jesse Lasky’s Studio, which became, a year later, Famous Players‑Lasky Corporation, which eventually became Paramount Pictures. It’s an early silent film but some shots stand out—like this surprisingly empathetic one after Arakau is shot.

Hayakawa went on to stardom, formed his own production company, and then … I don’t know what happened, to be honest. He suddenly stopped making movies in Hollywood in 1924. He went to New York, Japan, Paris. He made “Daughter of the Dragon” with Anna May Wong in 1932. He didn’t really return to Hollywood until Humphrey Bogart sought him out for a role in “Tokyo Joe” in 1949. The 1950s weren’t bad for him. He starred in a two-part Japanese version of “Les Misérables” in 1950, starred in several other Japanese productions, had a role in “House of Bamboo,” a big Cinemascope epic set in Japan, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Col. Saito in “Bridge on the River Kwai.” 

“The Cheat,” meanwhile, kept getting remade with different sexual predators. After Valentino’s rise, for example, Famous Players-Lasky redid it in 1923 with Jack Holt playing a turbanned East-Indian prince lusting after Pola Negri. In 1931, it was the haughty Tallulah Bankhead’s turn to get it at the hands of a white Japanophile. And in 1937 the French got into the act with “Forfaiture.” There, the villain is a Chinese prince named Hu-Long. Who plays him? Sessue Hayakawa.

Posted at 09:07 AM on Sunday January 01, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - Silent  
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