On December 13, 1915, The Cheat, produced at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, directed by acclaimed theater director Cecil B. DeMille, and starring Fannie Ward, renowned actress from the London and New York stages, made its debut in the United States. Depicting an interracial relationship between a white middle-class woman and a Japanese art dealer that ends tragically, the film was a hit. Surprisingly, Fannie Ward was not the one who captured the audiences’ imaginations. It was supporting actor Sessue Hayakawa, originally from Japan, who became an overnight sensation—and not only in the U.S. When The Cheat opened at the Cinéma Omnia-Pathé in Paris in the summer of 1916, the French were bowled over by Hayakawa, including the writer Colette, then contributing to a Paris daily. She praised him effusively in her short review of the film, going so far as to recommend his performance as a kind of master class for actors: “As their first model, I offer this Asiatic artist whose powerful immobility can express everything. Let our aspiring cineastes see how, while his face is still, his hand continues the thought begun.”
Meanwhile back at home, The Cheat stirred up a considerable amount of negative controversy. From the white patriarchal perspective of the time, the sexual and economic transgressions of Fannie Ward’s character, who abandons Protestant ethics with her reckless spending, not to mention cavorting with a foreigner, represent the alarming consequences of the suffrage and reform movements of the early 20th century. As a result, women and immigrants were now more visible not only in the workplace but also in spheres of commercialized leisure. (For instance, in The Cheat, Hayakawa’s character hosts an evening ball for the Red Cross Bazaar of Long Island where Ward’s character works as a treasurer.) Such developments appeared to be loosening white masculinity’s privileged grip on political legitimacy, cultural authority, and social control. But by the end of The Cheat all is well is their world. The white woman is ultimately protected under the wing of her husband, and the non-white character is excluded from society. The film’s overarching story is an attempt to coerce the audience into accepting this racist and patriarchal stance as the natural order of things.
Some audiences recognized The Cheat for what it was and when it opened at the Tally Theater in Los Angeles in late December 1915, the Japanese American newspaper Rafu Shimpo started a protest campaign against it. Their hope was to prevent any further escalation of the racial prejudice their community already faced. Rafu Shimpo was particularly severe on the Japanese character played by Hayakawa. One anonymous report stated in an emotional tone:
No Japanese has ever put a burning branding iron on the neck of a beautiful white woman in the frenzy of disappointed love. Sessue Hayakawa did. None among the sixty million people of the Japanese race has ever been lynched miserably by white people … Sessue Hayakawa, who do you think you are? Don’t you have any blood of the Japanese race? Being used as a tool by anti-Japanese exhibitors and leaving a brutal impression on Japanese people, you are either foolish or insane. I have no idea what to think of you, you traitor to your country!
In response to the criticism, Hayakawa published a note of apology in Rafu Shimpo on December 29: “Sincere Notice: It is regrettable that the film The Cheat, which was exhibited at the Tally Theater on Broadway in Los Angeles, unintentionally offended the feelings of the Japanese people in the United States. From now on, I will be very careful not to harm Japanese communities.”
The Rafu Shimpo reporters had good reason to believe that the savage depiction of The Cheat’s Japanese art dealer would worsen anti-Japanese sentiment, especially on the West Coast where anti-Japanese movements had been concentrated since the early 1900s. While the American people largely admired Japan’s fast-paced modernization since welcoming Western trade in the 1850s, racism against the Japanese ramped up after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, which put the country’s growing military power on display for the whole world. Anxiety built at the prospect of Japanese imperialist expansion into China, the Philippines, Hawaii, and the U.S. mainland. The press stoked fears of a “yellow peril,” a term popularized in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm called for European colonization of China, and spread a negative image of Japanese immigrants as ruthless agents sent by Tokyo set on economic domination of the West.
Labor unions in particular latched onto the lie. The Union Labor Party in San Francisco, which had a strong influence on city policymaking, insisted that Japanese immigrants achieved their working opportunities “unfairly” or “dishonorably.” In February 1905, a series of articles that regarded Japanese immigration as the “problem of the day” appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle claiming that Japanese immigrants posed “a threat to American working men, American women, schoolchildren and the white race in general” because they were unable or unwilling to assimilate to the Anglo-American way of life. Valentine Stuart McClatchy, owner of the Sacramento Bee and an anti-Japanese agitator based in San Francisco, referred to Japanese immigrants as an “incoming yellow tide” and formed the Asiatic Exclusion League in May 1905 to influence policy. The organization changed its name in 1920 to the Japanese Exclusion League of California and lobbied against immigration, and for worse, through World War II.
The Rafu Shimpo reporters’ fears became a reality right away. Only a few days after the release of The Cheat, Rafu Shimpo reported an incident: “Bad boys, who were crowded in front of the Tally Theater and crying out anti-Japanese words, lynched a Japanese noodle shop owner, who came out of the theater as Hayakawa was lynched in the courtroom scene.” Its campaign against The Cheat continued after Hayakawa’s apology and news of it reached across the Pacific to Japan where the actor became introduced to his countrymen as someone recklessly enhancing anti-Japanese sentiment. When The Cheat was re-released in the United States in 1918, Hayakawa’s character was changed from Japanese to Burmese via intertitle in order not to upset the alliance formed between the United States and Japan during World War I.
For a long time the only version that circulated had the revised intertitles and murky imagery. In 2008 I was able to see George Eastman Museum’s 35mm restoration, with crisper images and Hayakawa’s character as a Japanese art dealer again. While the festival is showing a version by Lobster Films that retains the 1918 intertitles, it is derived from DeMille’s personal 16mm copy, the same source material used for the Eastman print. Both versions offer the opportunity to see the qualities that made the film such a revelation to French and American movie reviewers at the time, including the innovative Rembrandt-like low-key lighting, achieved by cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff, which bathes characters in stunning darkness but for a single source of illumination from the side. In the opening shot, this lighting technique is used to ominous effect, enhancing the villainy of the Hayakawa character.
Both versions also reveal the details of DeMille’s careful set design. The Japanesque shoji room where Hayakawa seduces a white woman is decorated with many Japanese goods. On the back wall is a painting of Fūjin, the Japanese god of the wind, which I first noticed watching the Eastman print and recognized again in Lobster’s version. While I can’t identify it conclusively, the style of the painting resembles the work of Toshio Aoki, a Japanese American artist who had adopted a seven-year-old Japanese girl in San Francisco in 1899. This girl, Aoki Tsuruko, later became the first ever Japanese motion picture actress and star. Aoki had studied at the Egan Dramatic School in Los Angeles before starting her film career in supporting roles in Fred Mace’s comedy films of the early 1910s. As Tsuru Aoki she played the lead in Majestic Motion Picture Company’s The Oath of O Tsuru San (1913). After the film’s success, she starred in numerous films about Japan made by Thomas H. Ince for the New York Motion Picture Company. There, she met her future husband, Sessue Hayakawa.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker