FilmWeekend

Asians in Hollywood

An Asian playing the part of a hero was inconceivable to Hollywood producers.

Sessue Hayakawa (photo: Apeda Studio, 1918, [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)
In her New York Times review (September 7, 2007), of the Museum of Modern Art’s film program, Sessue Hayakawa: East and West, When Twain Met (September 5 – 16, 2007), Rachel Saltz wrote:

[Hayakawa] played his share of bad guys and also his share of non-Japanese. In this series alone he is an Indian rebel leader, an Arab donkey tender, an American Indian, a Chinese Tong warrior and, in The Cheat, the 1915 film that made him a star, a Burmese ivory trader. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and beautifully photographed by Alvin Wyckoff, The Cheat chugs right along, a model of streamlined silent storytelling. It has its racist elements, suggesting that the ivory trader’s civilized veneer – his spiffy suits and suave ladykiller manners – hides a sadistic depravity: In the most eye-popping, sensationalist scene he burns a brand onto the white heroine’s back. But it also shows off Hayakawa’s intensity and skill as an actor.

In The Cheat, the sadistic, smirking, sensual Hayakawa forces the corrupt, embezzling, stockbroker’s wife face down on his desk before ripping off the sleeve of her dress and, with a hot iron, branding her, and in the process searing his way into the public imagination. For a few years after The Cheat, Hayakawa was a sought-after film star, who paved the way for Rudolph Valentino as an exotic Other. He lived an extravagant lifestyle, threw lavish parties and drove a gold-plated Pierce Arrow. White women were his biggest fans.

In 1919, he and his wife, Tsuru Aoki, starred in The Dragon Painter. Produced by Hayakawa’s Haworth Pictures Corporation, the cast of the film was largely Japanese. The one exception was Edward Piel Sr., who played the painter, Kando Indara. According to his filmography, Piel Sr. also starred as the Tong leader, Wong Chong, in The Purple Dawn (1923) and had an uncredited role as an old Chinese railroad worker in The Iron Horse (1924).

In 1921, for various reasons, Hayakawa had to leave Hollywood and work in Europe and Japan. His fortunes changed further in the 1930s, when anti-Japanese sentiment began growing stronger. The hatred of Asians in the US dates back to at least the mid-19th century, embodied in the passing of the Naturalization Act of 1870, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Naturalization Act of 1870 enabled people of African descent to become citizens, while declaring anyone of Asian descent to be a permanent alien.

Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki (photo: uncredited, [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1949, at the age of 60, Hayakawa, who was one of the highest paid Hollywood actors in 1915, lamented, “My one ambition is to play a hero.” Although Hayakawa never got to fulfill his ambition, because an Asian playing the part of a hero was inconceivable to Hollywood producers, he received considerable attention in 1957 for playing an honorable villain, Colonel Saito, in David Lean’s film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Being an honorable villain meant that you were nearly human, which is better than being considered part of the Yellow Peril (code for Asian and non-Christian).

Hayakawa, who was nearly 70, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role, but the members of the Academy gave the Oscar to Red Buttons, who played Airman Joe Kelly in Sayonara (1957), directed by Joshua Logan, because a man who dies for love – forbidden love, in fact – will almost always triumph over a villain, no matter how honorable: this is the Hollywood economy of good and evil.

The cast of Sayonara, which is about interracial marriage, included Marlon Brando, James Garner, Patricia Owens and Ricardo Montalban, who played the Japanese character, Nakamura.

Kelly, who is stationed at the Itami Air Force Base near Kobe, Japan, is about to marry a Japanese woman, Katsumi (played by Miyoshi Umeki). He also introduces Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (played by Brando) to a Japanese woman, Hana-ogi (played by Miiko Taka).

Sayonara revolves around the fate of these two star-crossed two couples.

Chronologically speaking, Brando went from playing a wily Okinawan villager, Sakini, in the film comedy, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), to playing a decorated air force pilot named “Ace,” who falls in love with a soft, compliant Japanese woman.

It took more than two hours every day for the makeup crew working on the set of The Teahouse of the August Moon to make Brando look Japanese. It has been claimed that Brando was so good at disappearing into his role that viewers wondered why they never see him in the film.

When the United States military orders Kelly to return to America, while refusing him permission to bring his pregnant wife, they commit double suicide, causing “Ace” to further overcome his own earlier opposition to interracial marriages and propose to Hana-ogi.

Umeki also won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the doomed Katsumi. Between 1929, when the first Academy Awards were handed out, and 2018, Umeki has been the only Asian woman to receive an Academy Award for acting.

Anna May Wong (photo: Carl Van Vechten, [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
A variation of Madama Butterfly, the silent film, Toll of the Sea (1922) is set in China rather than Japan. It stars Anna May Wong, in her first leading role, as Lotus Flower.

Following in the tradition of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, which premiered on February 17, 1904, at La Scala in Milan, Asian women have routinely committed suicide (or, in some cases, been conveniently killed) so that order can be restored to the universe, as envisioned by Hollywood.

In this story of forbidden romance, Lotus Flower falls in love with the American, Allen Carver (played by Kenneth Harlan), who she finds floating in the water near her home and helps resuscitate.

Even though Lotus became pregnant with Allen’s child, he realizes their marriage can’t succeed and returns to America without her. A few years later, when Allen returns to China, he is married to Barbara, also known as “Elsie” (played by Beatrice Bentley).

Allen and “Elsie” convince Lotus to give them the child, as it would be better if he were raised in America. Ensuring that the child will not have to know of her existence, Lotus walks into the ocean and drowns.

This was the first time that Wong had to commit suicide in order to preserve the white race, but it would not be the last.

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