Though largely forgotten today, Sessue Hayakawa was one of the highest-paid movie stars of the silent-film-era. By 1922 he had made so much money he was able to start his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, which eventually netted him $2 million dollars a year, some of which he spent just before the beginning of Prohibition stocking the basement of his lavish mansion with (perfectly legal) alcohol. Not surprisingly, that made him a popular man in Hollywood. Hayakawa was also one of the best actors of his generation, developing a style of acting that combined Zen Buddhism with the Stanislavski Method, a technique that in many ways prefigured Stella Adler, Lee Strassberg, and the Actors Studio.
There was only one problem. California had an anti-miscegenation law that wasn’t repealed until 1947, and, as you’ve probably guessed by looking at his name, Sessue Hayakawa was Japanese. That meant he couldn’t play the romantic lead opposite a white actress. Had D.W. Griffith cast a Chinese actor opposite Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms he would have gone to jail. For a Hollywood director in 1915, therefore, there were really only two ways to use an Asian actor. The first, familiar from movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sixteen Candles, would have been to have cast Hayakawa as asexual comic relief. The second, most notoriously exemplified in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, would have been to have cast him as a hyper-sexual villain, a dark exotic man who desired white women so intensely it turned him into a monster.
For his 1915 film The Cheat, Cecil B. DeMille chose a much more daring approach. While Hayakawa’s character, Hishuru Tori, superficially resembles the traditional ethnic rapist –The Cheat so offended the Japanese government that they successfully lobbied Paramount Pictures to have the character’s name changed to Haka Arakau and his nationality changed from Japanese to Burmese – the film made him a star and, more importantly, a major sex symbol. Like Rudolph Valentino, Hayakawa was the dark, exotic movie star the white Anglo Saxon Protestant girl next door wanted to fuck. The Japanese government read The Cheat far too literally. Not only is Cecil B. DeMille is laughing at California’s stupid anti-miscegenation laws, he put an interracial kiss on screen fifty three years before Star Trek did it in Plato’s Children.
The Cheat isn’t about rape. It’s about adultery. Edith Hardy, the heroine played by the popular forty-three-old stage actress Fannie Ward is no ingenue. Rather, she’s a bored housewife, a fashion plate and a spendthrift, much closer to one of the middle-aged party girls in Sex in the City than she is to Flora Cameron from Birth of a Nation. Neglected by her husband Richard, a Wall Street banker who has all their money tied up in the stock market, Edith does what I assume many rich, bored housewives did in 1915. She volunteers at a local charity. She’s the treasurer for the local Red Cross. She chases younger men. Hayakawa was twenty-five, almost two decades younger than Fannie Ward. She shops, spending so much money on clothes that she neglects to pay the servants. One day Jones, one of her husband’s colleagues on Wall Street remarks that Richard is too cautious in his investments, that if she gave him $10,000 dollars, he could double it overnight. Foolishly Edith believes him. She embezzles $10,000 dollars from the Red Cross, and gives it to Jones to play the stock market.The next day, of course, all the money is gone.
While DeMille has been hinting from the beginning of The Cheat, that Hishuru Tori/Haka Arakau and Edith Hardy have been having an affair, it’s never been made explicit. Perhaps Edith has simply been treating him like an asexual Asian mascot. Suddenly, Arakau sees his chance. He’ll give her the $10,000, but it will come at a price. She has to fuck him. I think even people in 1915 got the joke. $10,000 dollars is a lot of money for quick fuck, especially back in 1915, and had she gone through with it, Edith Hardy would have been a well-compensated sex-worker indeed. Surely a good-looking young millionaire like Arakau could do better than a ditsy, forty-three-old embezzler with a taste for $500 dollar hats and $1000 dollar night gowns. Arakau, however, like Edith’s husband Richard, is a capitalist. He’s a collector who defines himself by what he owns. After Richard’s investments conveniently pay off the next day, and he gives Edith the money she needs without asking any questions, Arakau won’t let her out of the deal. He wrenches her into an arm lock, and “brands” her with a special symbol that, like a dog pissing on a tree, he uses to mark off his possessions. That $10,000 dollars isn’t about sex. It’s about beating the white man at his own game.
By transforming Edith from a adulterer and a prostitute into a rape victim, DeMille has cleverly side-stepped California’s anti-miscegenation laws. Even though Arakau kisses Edith, grabs her by her breasts, and puts his hands all over her in the dark, DeMille can throw his hands in the air and plead that his film is intended to support, not transgress the anti-miscegenation laws, that it’s a warning to white women everywhere. Don’t make friends with that handsome Japanese millionaire next door. When Edith threatens to kill herself like one of the virtuous Aryan maidens in Birth of a Nation, Arakau just hands her a 38 caliber revolver. Go ahead, he says, laughingly – he doesn’t have a mustache or by this point he’d be twirling it – kill yourself. Arakau’s victory over the white race is complete. Of course Edit has no intention of killing herself, and he knows it. DeMille could have ended The Cheat right there, and it would have probably been more effective as a movie. It might also have gotten him locked up behind bars. Edith’s refusing to kill herself might have been interpreted as “consent,” so she shoots Haka Arakau instead.
Cecil B. DeMille was no Luis Buñuel. He was not going to end The Cheat with the explicit message that ruling class white women are amoral, self-interested whores who embezzle large amount of money from Belgian war refugees, then shoot their Japanese lovers through the arm to cover up their own crimes, but he’s clearly ventured into same territory as Viridiana and Belle du Jour. Suddenly, Richard, who up to now has been a neglectful husband, and, if you were paying close enough attention, the mirror image of Haka Arakau, is utterly transformed. He confesses to shooting Arakau, who has survived with a minor flesh wound, himself. The trial that follows is a circus. First Richard is found guilty. Then Edith rushes to the front of the courtroom, and rips off her top to reveal Arakau’s brand. The judge sets aside the jury’s verdict before the courtroom audience can form a lynch mob, and hang Arakau from the nearest tree, letting Richard and Edith live happily ever after.
We never find out what happens to Arakau after the judge has a bailiff lead him to safety. Does he go to jail for branding Edith? We don’t know, but largely owing to Sessue Hayakawa’s excellent performance, he remains a sympathetic character. Indeed, looking at Hayakawa next to Fannie Ward and Jack Dean,the actor who play’s Richard and Ward’s real life husband, is a bit like looking at James Dean next to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1956 film Giant. Hudson and Taylor were both traditional, wooden Hollywood movie stars. James Dean was a pioneering method actor. Similarly, Fannie Ward and Jack Dean were both stage actors and it shows. Jack Dean’s performance is so over the top there are times when you think he’s insane. Fannie Ward’s histrionics are almost as broad. Sessue Hayakawa’s calm restraint almost seems to belong in a different movie altogether, the much better film that DeMille could have made, had it only been legal. At times he almost seems to be meditating on just how ridiculous it is that so many white people project their own kinky sexual obsessions onto a man simply because he has darker skin.