The Cheat (1915)

Sessue Hayakawa had an interesting life, as detailed in his Wikipedia entry; after an almost accidental start to his film career, this, only his second film, pretty much sealed his stardom until, you know, things changed and now hardly anyone remembers him except for Bridge on the River Kwai… mind you, the loss of most of his films probably hasn’t helped his later reputation. But this survives in nice condition to give us an idea of him back in the day… I was actually slightly taken aback at first sight, you know, an actual Asian performer in a 1915 Hollywood film rather than some white person in yellowface, and a leading role too, not just a minor subservient thing. Hayakawa plays the Burmese “ivory king” Arakau (originally a Japanese character, but changed to Burmese for the film’s 1918 reissue—whence all extant prints apparently derive—because the US and Japan were wartime allies by then; I presume the Burmese people’s sensibilities were of comparatively lesser concern), who comes to the rescue of Fannie Ward’s society wife; the latter embezzles $10,000 from a charity she patronises, and when she loses the lot in a dodgy investment Arakau covers the debt… but he’s going to make her repay him in spades. This is pretty lurid melodrama, right up to the literally riotous courtroom climax (which is actually made kind of disturbing by the suddenly unleashed undercurrent of race hatred that drives it), but it’s not bad to watch if you accept it accordingly… it’s an earlyish work for Cecil B. DeMille, low-key by his later standards, but there’s some really good lighting effects at work and the controversial branding scene actually still retains a certain nasty edge even now. Hayakawa helps put it over, of course, it’s his show in many ways, but DeMille does pretty good work, though Carl Bennett does make a not invalid point here about the film’s concluding moral…

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