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The Dragon Painter

Director: William Worthington
Cast: Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki

(Haworth Pictues; US DVD: 18 Mar 2008)

The Dragon Painter offers a fine example of how film history is continually forgetting and rediscovering itself. Sessue Hayakawa is generally remembered, if at all, for his Oscar-nominated role as the commander of a POW camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Very few people remember what a star he was during the silent era, although buffs sometimes recall his role in Cecil B. DeMille’s sensational The Cheat (1915), which has become easier to access since the film was issued on DVD. Even people who were aware of his stardom often didn’t realize how he took his career in hand and produced many of his own films through his own company. The Dragon Painter is our best legacy of this part of his career.


First, The Cheat. DeMille was Hollywood’s first purveyor of exotic sexuality, meaning sex as something invented by foreigners, to the rapt American masses. He created this festival of mixed messages starring Hollywood’s only Asian hunk. The Japanese Mr. Hayakawa plays the suave, smouldering, elegantly Westernized figure who does a favor for a married woman and demands “payment”. But she’s a cheat, this sterling example of midwestern American womanhood. That is, she cheats on the deal, not on her husband, and the story demonstrates how racial prejudices rewrite justice and fair play.


It’s possible to see the film as endorsing, exposing, or merely documenting the prejudices it explores, because it’s content simply to exploit the nexus of attraction and repulsion it captures so masterfully. That’s why the film could be simultaneously protested by the Japanese-American community for its stereotypes (Asian man repulsive to white woman) at the same time that a wide audience recognized a hot object of fantasy.


This was before Rudolph Valentino, so Hayakawa represented a new type of star: the non-Caucasian sex symbol. His roles were limited and limiting, if popular, and he took advantage of his success to found his own production company in order to broaden his roles. It was a bold step, but not unusual in that era before the final consolidation of the Hollywood studios. Haworth Pictures produced over 20 features, but these have mostly been lost to time and memory, along with his pioneering career as the first male Asian star.


In the late ‘80s, a print of The Dragon Painter was found in France and caused something of a sensation in the world of film restoration; I was lucky enough to catch a screening at the Pacific Film Archive at that time, but it’s taken another 20 years for this eye-catcher to find its way to video.


Lost masterpiece? Well, not quite. In its lovely and picturesque way, it avoids the negative Asian stereotypes (the sinister “yellow peril” hysteria of Fu Manchu—actually a more paradoxical trope than usually given credit for—the obsequious servants, the comic relief with pidgin English) and replaces them with a fresh slew of “positive” high-cultural stereotypes drawn from the romantic cherry-blossom-picking of Western writers. It’s not unlike how the “Indian romances” replace bloodthirsty scalphunters with noble savages in tune with nature. If we can’t escape cultural stereotypes, we might as well have pleasant ones.


The film is based on a novel by Alabama writer Mary McNeil Fenollosa, who visited Japan with two husbands (consecutively, not simultaneously), including noted art-historian Ernest Fenollosa. It’s quaint as all get-out, a story of a crazy artist (Hayakawa) who roams the countryside painting pictures of dragons (where the dragons are hiding so you can’t see them) in search of his lost love. A venerable old artist (Edward Peil Sr.) catches wind of his talent and fools him into thinking his daughter (Tsuru Aoki, Mrs. Hayakawa) is the reincarnation of his lost princess. This settles him for a while but more problems ensue in a story based entirely upon everyone conspiring to trick and lie to the hero for their own interests, not that there seems to be anything wrong with that.


One curious note is that although Hayakawa founded Haworth to create vehicles for himself and other Asian actors in his company, he seems to have had no problem casting an obviously Caucasian actor in a major role. The IMDB list for Edward Peil Sr. shows that he played many Asians in a career that lasted for decades but seems to be a white actor from Wisconsin; his other roles include Sam Houston, and it’s hard to believe an Asian actor was cast as white guys.


Significantly, he played another major Asian role that same year in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. Perhaps one job got him the other? It’s a subject for further research. It’s also noteworthy that even though Peil plays a Japanese man, there’s seemingly no effort to make him up as Asian (unlike, for example, in the casting of Caucasian actors in the MGM productions of The Good Earth or Dragon Seed). He’s simply in the cast and everybody pretends, which seems to mirror the notion of color-blind casting more commonly practiced in amateur or school theatricals.


This feature runs less than an hour, and a bonus feature is slightly longer. A Thomas Ince production directed by Reginald Barker, The Wrath of the Gods (1914) stars Aoki, Hayakawa (in a supporting role), and several Asians in a story set on a Japanese island where Aoki is the heiress of a curse against her family by Buddha (!) until she falls in love with a shipwrecked American sailor played by future director Frank Borzage. He converts her to Christianity, but it turns out there’s life in the old pagan curses yet, which leads to a climax of volcanic pyrotechnics.


You might think that marrying outside her culture could bring on the wrath of the gods, but it’s her literal salvation no matter who else gets swept to hell. The print isn’t as sweet or complete as the sharp and tinted main feature, but it’s a pleasant and watchable example of early Hollywood’s negotiation of foreign cultures and inter-racial romance, a popular topic in some ways that became largely taboo in the early ‘30s. Both features have serviceable new scores.

Other extras are a short with an impromptu and unfunny comic skit by Hayakawa, Fatty Arbuckle, and Charles Murray, and stills from the novel and from a contemporary book of photos of Japan that emphasize the same pictorial aesthetic used in the film. Features accessible on DVD-ROM include the script for The Wrath of the Gods and Fenollosa’s novel of The Dragon Painter. (This public-domain work is also available online at Project Gutenberg.) Also included is an essay by Brian Taves called “Hollywood’s First Asian Cycle”, which we hope to read if we get a DVD-ROM someday; no doubt it also discusses the stardom of Anna May Wong.


The 2007 publication of Daisuke Miyao’s Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Duke University Press) has helped prompt projects like this DVD release, a Museum of Modern Art retrospective, and a partial restoration of three more Haworth films by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Hayakawa’s intriguing and paradoxical “transnational” career extends to French, British and Japanese films, including films made in Europe during World War II (in other words, cinema of the occupation where he was a national from an Axis power) and a flurry of post-River Kwai appearances in Hollywood films and TV. He was in episodes of Wagon Train and Route 66, not to mention a Jerry Lewis movie. We hope more of his fascinating career is unearthed.

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Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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