Fifty Shades of Yellow: DeMille’s Orientalism

January 24, 2016   •   By Thomas Doherty

THE CELEBRATIONS — scratch that, commemorations — attending the 100th anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) have inevitably overshadowed the centenary of another racially charged masterpiece of the early silent screen, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, released in December 1915. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, The Cheat is known mainly to film buffs and scholars of Asian American studies, which is a pity.


A brilliantly realized, sexually charged melodrama from a director whose name would soon become synonymous with a very different kind of Hollywood film, The Cheat reveals an astonishingly different DeMille, not the grand conductor of a cast of thousands, orchestrating lush pageantry and pretending to embrace Judeo-Christianity while wallowing in pagan idolatry, but an artist who might have gone on to direct moody film noirs or slow-burn melodramas. Silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, in his books Behind the Mask of Innocence, calls The Cheat “one of the most sensational films of the early cinema,” and no wonder: the plot traffics in interracial coupling, sadomasochistic desire, and lynch-mob anarchy. Critics admired it; audiences ate it up.


Produced and directed by DeMille for Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be incorporated as Paramount Pictures), it was shot by Alvin Wyckoff, a pioneer cinematographer who helped define the craft, and written by Hector Turnbull, a New York reporter who followed the money to California, and Jeanie MacPherson, actress, director, screenwriter, and DeMille mistress. The Cheat anticipated the full-bore Orientalism that came to dominance after the Great War. “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” instructs the prefatory intertitle — but we know better.


The curtain opens on Tori (25-year-old Sessue Hayakawa), a suave Japanese antiques dealer, tallying up his inventory. Lit by the hot coals of a brazier and framed in flickering close-up, he imprints his signature mark onto an artifact with a Japanese branding iron. (His sign is a picture of a Japanese temple gate — or torii — so someone on set was doing their homework.) He seems every inch the Oriental mystery man of the Occidental imagination, but outside of his incense-suffused, shoji-screened digs, Tori fits right in with the smart set in Long Island, especially the high-society gals. Nattily dressed, at the wheel of a roadster, he is at once forbidden fruit and yellow menace.


Tori has “long fancied the rosebud mouth and pale arms” (as a contemporary reviewer delicately put it) of society matron Edith Hardy, an airhead shopaholic with extravagant tastes (played by Fannie Ward, a popular stage comedienne making her way into film with a risky, unsympathetic role at age 43). While her indulgent, clueless husband Dick (Jack Dean, Miss Ward’s soon-to-be real-life husband) burns the midnight oil at the stock exchange, she burns through his money and steps out with Tori to luxurious garden parties. Is he protégé or lover?


Inexplicably, the ladies of the Long Island Red Cross have entrusted the bird-brained Edith with $10,000 in cash slated for Belgian war relief. She immediately invests the bundle in a sure-thing stock scheme. “I won it playing bridge,” she tells the surprised broker. Of course, the investment comes a cropper. Desperate to cover up her embezzlement and avoid scandal, Edith makes a bargain with Tori: he will give her $10,000 if she will agree to … an assignation.


Before the transaction can be consummated, however, Edith’s husband comes into a financial windfall, and he obligingly forks over $10,000. Why does she need to repay so much money? “I lost it playing bridge,” she explains.


Tori waves her payback check aside; he covets only his pound of milky white flesh. “If you don’t let me out of here, I’ll kill myself!” Edith vows. Knowing that Edith is only showboating (unlike the women in The Birth of a Nation, who really do prefer death before dishonor), Tori calls her bluff and coolly proffers a pistol. But if she won’t kill herself, she still puts up a fight when he moves in to collect. Furious, Tori brands her shoulder with his trademark, marking her like an objet d’art. Though nearly insensible, she grabs the gun, shoots him, and flees.


Finally buying a clue, her husband turns up at Tori’s, finds the scoundrel wounded and bleeding, and figures out the scenario. When the cops show up, he gallantly takes responsibility for the shooting.


A sensational trial ensues, with a packed courtroom hanging on every word of the salacious testimony, almost all of it un-intertitled and thus left to our sordid imagination. DeMille’s sure command of battalions of extras is already in evidence: the listeners in the courtroom lean in as a single organism, transfixed by the revelations. When the jury finds her husband guilty, Edith hyperventilates hysterically and confesses all, baring her shoulder to the courtroom to expose her literal scar of shame. Enraged, the crowd moves forward to avenge the desecration of white womanhood. But — again, unlike The Birth of a Nation — lawful authority intercedes and Tori escapes the lynch mob. With the racial order restored, husband and wife, arm in arm, walk out of the courtroom to the applause of the gallery.


Ripe as the melodrama sometimes is, DeMille renders the machinations with delicate brushstrokes, almost like a Japanese calligrapher. The Cheat favors low-key lit interiors over widescreen spectacle, smoldering stares over wild gesticulation, and chiaroscuro over cheesecake. The lighting — and how much of this can be attributed to director of photography Wyckoff is hard to say — is simply sumptuous. Not until the German Expressionist wave crashed onto American shores in the 1920s would domestic moviegoers see such an artful use of the monochromatic scale: radiant faces highlighted by pitch black blotches of screen space, silhouettes shadowboxing on Japanese screens, and embers glowing with a white-hot intensity that sums up the prevalent mood.


The visuals dazzled America’s first generation of film reviewers. The Cheat “was so novel that half the New York critics couldn’t believe it, and peppered it [with praise] accordingly,” reported Photoplay in a summation of the rapturous reception.


No less dazzling was the smoldering Japanese heartthrob. The Cheat rocketed Hayakawa into the top ranks of what was then a new creation: the matinee idol. Variety lauded him as “one of the best yellow heavies that the screen has ever had,” and protested the injustice of elevating the nonwhite actors over the real attraction in the screen credits. “The work of Sessue Hayakawa is so far above the acting of Miss Ward and Jack Dean that he really should be the star in the billing for the film.”


Born in 1889, Hayakawa came by his regal bearing naturally. Scion of Japanese aristocracy and a former philosophy student at the University of Chicago, he was drawn to the low-rent profession of acting while waiting in Los Angeles for passage back home to Japan. Motion picture producer Thomas Ince spotted Hayakawa’s charisma in a stage production in Little Tokyo and offered an exorbitant $500 a week for his services in an even more disreputable profession. Stealing the talent Ince had nurtured, Jesse L. Lasky upped the ante and cast Hayakawa first in The Typhoon (1914) and then The Cheat.


Throughout his acting career, Hayakawa blended the Stanislavski method with a samurai stance. In The Cheat, he internalized Tori’s lust for a woman he both desires and despises. Explaining his thespian philosophy in his 1960 memoir Zen Showed Me the Way, Hayakawa put a Zen spin on The Method. “I believe that in acting the mental attitude must be what is termed as a state of muga — an absence of the sense of ‘I am doing it,’” he wrote. “Speech and action come from the heart, without pausing on the middle ground of intellect.” He dedicated the book to his first Hollywood mentors, Ince and DeMille: “May the souls of these benefactors live in peace and everlasting glorious guidance.”


Though not reluctant to play the inscrutable Japanese (he was wont to pose for publicity photos wielding a traditional katana), Hayakawa also expressed qualms about embracing Asian stereotypes for the arousal of American audiences. “Such roles are not true to our Japanese nature,” he told an interviewer in 1916. “They are false and give people a wrong idea of us.” He hoped to “make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are.” Yet it was in an all too familiar guise that Hayakawa, decades later, achieved his greatest screen success playing the imperious prison camp commandant in David Lean’s A Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Ironically, he was beat out by Red Buttons, who appeared in another Japan-themed period piece, Sayonara [1957].)


By most accounts, Hayakawa’s color-blind female fans were utterly besotted. Though the miscegenation taboo applied to Asians no less than blacks in early 20th-century America, the sexual sparks denied by law might be suggested in the imaginative space of the motion picture screen. Before the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 — when, at the insistence of Southern exhibitors, Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, inserted a “miscegenation clause” into the document — the films of the silent and early sound eras could traffic in sex between the races far more explicitly than classical Hollywood fare. “The effect of Hayakawa on American women was even more electric than Valentino’s,” wrote screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, before venturing an opinion that would today get him mugged in cyberspace. “It involved fiercer tones of masochism as well as a latent female urge to experience sex with a beautiful but savage man of another race.” Indeed, DeMille’s notorious foot fetishism is replaced here by a kinky S&M motif. In the original prints, the fifty-shades-of-yellow tones were highlighted with red tinting.


Predictably, the interracial sexual sparks in The Cheat got the usual moral guardians overstimulated. The branding scene — during which women reportedly screamed and swooned — was a particular hot spot. Municipal and state censor boards across the nation ordered it cut. The racial sizzle also brought out the racist fangs of a few critics. “She gets the money and then goes to the Jap’s home to return his treacherous gift,” snarled the plot recap in Moving Picture World, which refused to even print Hayakawa’s name. “And now the beastliness in the Oriental’s nature leaps forth.”


Wary of nativist blowback, members of the Japanese American Association of Southern California filed a protest against the film with the Los Angeles city council. Less sensitive to the hurt feelings of special interest groups than later generations of political hacks, the council turned down the request on the grounds that “if the showing of the film [is] barred because it might hurt the feelings of the people of any particular race,” the precedent “might result in barring a great portion of the films.”


The Japanese were more effective in re-editing The Cheat. When the film was re-released in 1918, by which time the United States was allied with Japan in the Great War, the Japanese antique merchant had morphed into a Burmese ivory merchant. Intertitles were changed, Hishuru Tori was renamed Haka Arakau, and the $10,000 checks were updated. Not incidentally, Hollywood would continue to bow politely to Japanese censorship edicts until Pearl Harbor, editing out long kisses and mutinous rebellion from films slated for export to Japan.


The Cheat would have been swallowed by history — or the prints slowly dissolved into vinegar — had it not been for the farsightedness of DeMille and the tenacity of silent film historian James Card, co-founder of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. In 1959, upon DeMille’s death, Card secured from his daughter Cecilia 3,000 35mm nitrate positives from the DeMille back catalog: the producer-director had preserved his legacy in cold storage. When Card unspooled the loot back in Rochester, The Cheat was the big revelation in the collection. “A towering masterpiece of 1915,” marveled Card, “a film [that looks] as though it could have been made by Kurosawa rather than the underappreciated DeMille.” He became a tireless evangelist for The Cheat, screening it at film festivals, where it steadily gained a following.


Card’s missionary work was a tough sell given DeMille’s reputation for (in James Agee’s arch phrase) “splendiferous vulgarity.” In 1974, as Card gushed about the film, old-school critic Dwight Macdonald scoffed at the notion that The Cheat was a forgotten gem. But had he seen it? asked Card (in an anecdote recounted in his 1994 book Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film). “No!” shot back Macdonald. “I don’t have to see a DeMille film to know it’s garbage!”


In the very early days of Hollywood — a place DeMille had as much to do with putting on the map as anyone, having moved out from New York in 1913 to produce and direct The Squaw Man (1914), the first feature-length film produced on site — DeMille confided to his niece Agnes that he and the other trailblazers in the wide-open territory were not themselves great artists, but they were paving the way for the great artists who would surely follow. He got that wrong: The Cheat shows that, even in 1915, Mr. DeMille was ready for his close-up.


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Thomas Doherty is professor and chair of the American Studies Program at Brandeis University.