Sessue Hayakawa: Pioneering East Asian actor in Old Hollywood
Progress is never a straight line.
Gains are made and lost, breakthroughs braked by backlashes. Lasting change is less a result of revolution than evolution – minds slowly won, hearts gradually softened.
Which is why the enlightened past can sometimes feel like the far-off future.
Today, Asian actors are coldly marginalized. Yet 90 years ago, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was Japanese. He co-starred opposite white actresses. He even ran his own production company – a first for a minority performer.
His career as an American leading man ended before the silents did. He recaptured his old celebrity only once, decades later, getting an Oscar nomination for playing the Colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
And yet Sessue Hayakawa still seems far ahead of us today.”
Sessue Hayakawa: Featured in ‘exotic’ star vehicles
Venutolo’s article is definitely worth reading, though strangely there’s no mention of Sessue Hayakawa’s actress-wife, Tsuru Aoki, who also had a following in the 1910s. In fact, she played opposite her husband in about a couple of dozen films, among them The Wrath of the Gods (1914), featuring a spectacular volcanic explosion; Alien Souls (1916); and The Call of the East (1917).
As for the demise of Sessue Hayakawa’s Hollywood career in the early 1920s, that was hardly unique. One could always blame xenophobia and the “yellow peril,” but most major stars in those days lasted about five or six years at (or near) the top.
Hayakawa (born on June 10, 1889, in Nanura, Chiba, Japan) had been around since the mid-1910s. By 1920 his star vehicles had become repetitive – he appeared in about 60 movies between 1914 and 1920; so he went down just like most everybody else in that period, e.g., his The Typhoon (1914) co-star Gladys Brockwell, reduced to supporting roles by the mid-’20s, and much of the featured cast in the Hayakawa star vehicle The Jaguar’s Claws (1917): Fritzi Brunette, Tom Forman, and Marjorie Daw, long past their heyday even before the arrival of sound. (Tom Moore was an exception to that rule, as he remained a mid-level leading man until the late ’20s.)
Also, when it comes to “progress,” let’s not forget that even though Sessue Hayakawa was a Hollywood star, numerous areas in Los Angeles County were off-limits to him whenever he wanted to buy real estate. He discusses the prejudice he faced in his private life in his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way.
Cecil B. DeMille’s overwrought melodrama The Cheat (1915), starring Fannie Ward, and revolving around interethnic relations, kinky sex, and (quite literally) branding, is probably Sessue Hayakawa’s best-known silent film. But of the few Hayakawa movies I’ve seen, my favorite is The Wrath of the Gods, directed by the prolific Reginald Barker. Watching that rudimentary but intriguing movie, it’s easy to see why the charismatic Hayakawa became a top Hollywood star.
Sessue Hayakawa died at the age of 84 on Nov. 23, 1973, in Tokyo.