For me, true power in Hollywood is defined by this criteria: can you greenlight movies and distribute them? If I can go to you with a pitch or a script and you can snap your fingers and give me $50 million to make the film and have it in 2,500 theaters by next Christmas, then you have power, my friend. Only a very few wield the power to do this and, not surprisingly, none of them are Asian American. So it’s all the more amazing that back in 1918, an Asian actor named Sessue Hayakawa founded his own company—Haworth Pictures Corporation—and went on to produce, star in and distribute 23 movies under his Haworth banner.
By the time he started his company, the Japanese-born Hayakawa was already a bona fide movie star. Best known for playing the exotic villain in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, he was as famous as white stars like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino and was one of the highest paid actors of his time; making the then-unheard of sum of $5,000 a week in 1915. Hayakawa is probably best known today for his Academy Award-nominated role opposite Alec Guinness in the 1957 epic The Bridge On The River Kwai.
Although he was an established movie star by 1918, Hayakawa was dissatisfied with the stereotypical roles he was being offered by the Hollywood studios. So he decided to take his career into his own hands, borrowed $1 million from a friend and started Haworth. He not only produced and starred in these films but closely oversaw all aspects of the process from casting to editing to marketing. Because of the control he exerted, Hayakawa helped to create more three-dimensional portrayal of Asians, in particular, Asian men. There’s no doubt these films are still very much products of their time (anti-miscegenation laws prevented his characters from getting together with his white female leads, for example) but they were incredibly progressive by Hollywood standards.
The unfortunate thing is that most of the Haworth films are lost. Like many silent films of the era, they didn’t survive and no known copies exist of many of these pioneering works. That would usually be the end of that but a couple of years ago, the staff of the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam made a fortuitous discovery. They found three of the Haworth films previously thought to have been lost forever; buried deep in their archives–His Birthright (1918), The Courageous Coward (1919) and The Man Beneath (1919).
Unfortunately not all of the films are complete—only the last reel of Courageous Coward survives and the first and fourth reels are missing from His Birthright, but this was still a historic discovery. Elif Rongen, the Filmmuseum’s Film Collections project manager, was kind enough to keep me abreast of their progress as they struck prints of the films with new intertitles added to fill in the missing gaps in the plot. She even sent me DVDs of the three movies; happily reminding me that I would be one of the first to see these pictures since they were released almost a century ago.
In Courageous Coward, Hayakawa plays a Japanese American law student torn between his love for a Japanese woman (played by his wife Tsuru Aoki) and his white friend who is accused of murder. In The Man Beneath, Hayakawa is a successful Indian doctor who is rejected by the Scottish woman he loves because of their racial differences but comes to her aid when she gets in trouble. His Birthright is definitely the most interesting of the three and is a good example of how much more complex and richer Hayakawa’s roles in his own films were.
It’s never mentioned, but His Birthright can almost be seen as a sequel to the Madama Butterfly story. Hayakawa plays a hapa character (half Japanese/half white) whose Japanese mother killed herself after being rejected by her white lover. Hayakawa is the child of that ill-fated union and vows to avenge his mother’s death by going to America, finding his white father and murdering him. It’s basically the story of what would have happened had the child of Madama Butterfly grown up. Again, this picture is a reflection of its times so it must end happily as Hayakawa reconciles with his father instead of killing him, but the film provides a fascinating take on inter-racial relationships and its consequences on the resulting mixed-race children.
Rongen brought all three films to Los Angeles last November for their first public screening at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater and it was great watching them on the big screen with an appreciative audience. I know Rongen and her colleagues at the Filmmuseum are eager for the opportunity for more people to see these rare works. So I hope institutions like the numerous Asian American film festivals across the country might consider screening these films in the future. Yes, it’s important to support the work of our new artists but it’s just as vital to connect our community to our history.
At a time when Asians were less than second-class citizens in America, Hayakawa made his vision to produce non-stereotypical films about Asians a reality by starting his own company. That’s power. And almost one hundred years later, we have yet to match what he did.