Sessue Hayakawa, Elegant Idol Of The 1910s

The typical leading man of silent films was a strong, dependable, clean-cut type, with names like Harold Lockwood or Earle Williams. By the 1920s Rudolph Valentino’s popularity had initiated a craze for “exotic” Latin lovers. But modern moviegoers might be surprised to learn there was another matinee idol even earlier than Valentino who seemed “exotic” to white audiences: the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, a major star of the 1910s.

Hayakawa’s early life was tinged by drama. He was born Kintaro Hayakawa on June 10, 1886 in the city of Minamiboso in Chiba, Japan. He had a wealthy family, his father being the provincial governor and his mother having aristocratic roots. At age eighteen Hayakawa attempted to join the Japanese naval academy in Etajima, planning on becoming an officer to fulfill his parents’ wishes. When he was rejected due to hearing problems (he had ruptured an eardrum while diving), he attempted to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by repeatedly stabbing himself in the abdomen. Fortunately, his father discovered him in time and he managed to make a recovery.

He later claimed his family sent him to the University of Chicago to study political economics with the goal of becoming a banker. But apparently there’s no record of Hayakawa attending the university, and he may have spent his time in the U.S. doing odd jobs instead. At any rate, while spending some time in Los Angeles he ducked into the Japanese Theatre in the Little Tokyo district. Enamored with the production’s artistry, he decided to try to become an actor and took the name “Sessue” (meaning “snowy continent”) as a stage name.

The dignified young man quickly made an impression on his fellow actors, including actress Tsuru Aoki, who would later become his wife (they would also adopt three children, Yukio, Yoshiko and Fujiko). The canny Tsuru convinced film producer Thomas Ince to attend the Theatre’s performance of The Typhoon and Ince quickly decided he wanted to make a film version with Hayakawa as the lead. The 1914 film was a hit and was soon followed by The Wrath of the Gods and The Sacrifice (both 1914). Hayakawa clearly being a star on the rise, he was signed by Famous Players-Lasky (now known as Paramount).

Image credit: Vintage Everyday

Hayakawa would prove his subtle skills even more in Cecil B. DeMille’s sensational drama The Cheat (1915), where he played a wealthy ivory merchant. The merchant’s approached by a married high-society woman for a loan, which she wants to use to replace a large sum of Red Cross money she lost in a bad investment. He agrees, but in return for sexual favors. When she tries to back out of the deal he brands her on the shoulder–a shockingly lurid scene for the time. The controversial drama was a critical and box office success and established Hayakawa as one of Hollywood’s top stars and an idol to many female filmgoers.

While his charisma and brooding, elegant good looks certainly explain his popularity, some of Hayakawa’s appeal was also bolstered by the strong interest in Asia at the time. People were drawn to the exoticism of the “Far East,” and it had a strong influence on fashion and interior decorating trends. However, concerns about miscegenation often limited Hayakawa to villainous roles, keeping him from being a regular hero or romantic lead. This made him controversial to some Japanese-Americans as well, who felt he wasn’t a fitting representative of Japanese culture. But admittedly, those same “heavy” roles did give his characters the gloss of “forbidden fruit” to countless enraptured women.

Soon tiring of typecasting, in 1918 Hayakawa decided to establish his own studio, Haworth Pictures Corporation. It was the first Asian-owned studio in Hollywood and in the next three years it would make twenty films, lauded for their subtle Zen-inspired acting. While most of them are lost today, the most famous one that survives is The Dragon Painter (1919). Co-starring Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru, it was highly praised for its authenticity and poetic story. 

By the late 1910s Hayakawa was commanding $3,500 a week and was happy to spend his money almost as fast as it came in. He drove a gold-plated Rolls Royce and hosted legendary parties in his mansion, which had been designed to look like a French castle. It was filled with art and antique Japanese weapons and had a replica of an authentic tea house on its grounds. Reportedly, he and Tsuru would host lavish dinners for hundreds of guests at a time. But by 1922 Hayakawa’s career was starting to slump, helped along by anti-Asian sentiment in the aftermath of World War I. Other issues included suffering a burst appendix during the shoot of The Swamp (1921) and more prosaic troubles involving insurance.

Deciding to leave Hollywood, Hayakawa returned home to Japan for a time and then started making films in France and Britain. Not one to waste his time, he would also have a starring role on Broadway, write a novel called The Bandit Prince, adapt The Bandit Prince into a play, produce a Japanese language stage version of The Three Musketeers, and–being practicing Zen Buddhist–open a Zen temple in New York City. 

By the early ‘30s he also found time to return to Hollywood, making his talkie debut in Daughter of the Dragon (1931) starring Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Unfortunately his heavy accent wasn’t well received, and he returned to making films in Japan and France. He would even star in a remake of The Cheat in 1937, also called The Cheat. 

Following World War II, Hayakawa was contacted by Humphrey Bogart’s production company for a role in the film Tokyo Joe (1949). This began the last leg of his acting career, where he often played “honorable villain” types of roles. The highlight was his famous turn as Colonel Saito in the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination. Following this, he began to wind down his acting career, only occasionally appearing in films and on television. He would also lose his wife Tsuru to peritonitis in 1961. His last film was the stop-motion The Daydreamer (1966). 

In later years Hayakawa decided to devote himself to becoming a Zen priest. He would also give acting lessons and write his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way…To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility.  In 1973 he passed away from a cerebral blood clot at age 87, leaving behind a proud legacy of being cinema’s first international Asian film star.

Note: This post was based on a previous article I wrote for my column at Classic Movie Hub.

9 thoughts on “Sessue Hayakawa, Elegant Idol Of The 1910s

  1. Thanks for this fantastic article, Lea…I remember Hayakawa as Col. Saito.

    But, my personal obsession arises: what fountain pen was Hayakawa using in that screen capture? 😜

    • The first time I saw him onscreen was probably in Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, of course I didn’t know until later what a major star he had been!

      Hmm, I was focused on those awesome “Mickey Mouse gloves” myself. 😀

  2. Hayakawa is one of my favorite figures from the silent era, both for his talent and his drive to get sympathetic presentations of Asian characters on the screen, even if Hollywood and society were all too often reluctant to play ball. His acting style was so ahead of the curve in the 1910s.

    • It really was. Apparently the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is showing a restored version of The Dragon Painter. I’m planning on attending and am really looking forward to seeing it!

  3. I enjoyed this excellent post immensely, Lea. I’ve only seen Sessue Hayakawa in one movie — Three Came Home — which I’d now like to watch again, now that I know who he is. What an amazing career he had! I’m also going to look for Daughter of the Dragon, as I’m a big Anna May Wong fan. I would love to see The Cheat — is it available somewhere, or is it lost, too?

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