Everybody loves Sessue

Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa, from The Evening Class

The silent star of the moment is Sessue Hayakawa. The Japanese-born star of American silents has been the subject of a critical study, film season and DVD releases, while an archive has announced that it has recently preserved a number of his films. This is a round-up of Hayakawamania.

The critical study is Daisuke Miyao’s Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Duke University Press), which has already been the subject of a post on the Bioscope. There’s an online interview with Miyao on The Evening Class blog. Miyao’s work inspired a Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When the Twain Met, which ran September 5–16, 2007 – details of the films shown are on the web page.

The Dragon Painter

The Dragon Painter, from http://www.milestonefilms.com

The new DVD release is The Dragon Painter (1919), issued by Milestone. This is the blurb from their site:

Remembered mostly for his magnificent performance as the Japanese officer in The Bridge over the River Kwai, few filmgoers realize that Sessue Hayakawa was one of the great stars of the silent cinema. In many films he played a dashing, romantic lead — a rarity for Asian actors in Hollywood, even today. Hayakawa became so popular and powerful that he was able to start Haworth Pictures to control his own destiny. The Dragon Painter was the finest of the Haworth productions. Beautifully acted, gorgeously shot (with Yosemite Valley filling in for the Japanese landscape), and lovingly directed, the film is an absolute marvel.

Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an artist living as a hermit in the wilds of Japan. Thought mad by the local villagers, he believes that his princess fiancée has been captured by a dragon. His obsession leads to artistic inspiration. It isn’t until a surveyor comes across Tatsu in the mountains that his genius is discovered. The surveyor informs the famed artist Kano Indara about his discovery. Kano is desperate to find a male heir to teach his art, but when Tatsu meets Kano’s daughter (played by Hayakawa’s wife, Tsuru Aoki) and sees only his lost princess, a clash of wills brings the household to the brink of disaster.

Long considered lost, The Dragon Painter was rediscovered in a French distribution print and brought to the George Eastman House for restoration with the original tints. The film survives today as a tribute to Hayakawa’s great artistry and a shining example of Asian-American cinema.

The DVD comes with a remarkable set of extras, including the full-length feature, Thomas Ince’s The Wrath of the Gods (1914), starring Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki and Frank Borzage; a copy of the script for The Wrath of the Gods; a 1921 short subject, Screen Snapshots (1921) with Hayakawa, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Charles Murray; the original novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa in PDF format; and the stills gallery includes Herbert Ponting’s exquisite images for his 1910 book In Lotus-Land Japan: Japan at the Turn of the Century (Ponting went on to be cinematopgrapher to the Scott Antarctic expedition).

You can download a presskit for the DVD from www.milestonefilms.com/presskits.php.

Other Sessue Hayakawa films available on DVD are The Cheat (1915) (from Kino in American and Bach Films in France) and The Secret Game (1917) (from Image Entertainment).

His Birthright

His Birthright, from http://www.filmmuseum.nl

Three Hayakawa films, or what remains of them, have recently been restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum: The Man Beneath (1919), His Birthright (1918) and The Courageous Coward (1919): only The Man Beneath survives as a complete film. There is background information on the films, their restoration and Hayakawa’s career on the Filmmuseum site.

Finally, there’s information on The Cheat and Forbidden Paths (1917), shown recently at the Pacific Film Archive.