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.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many stars are known mainly for a scandal or unfortunate demise. A lifetime of triumph and failure, hard work and reward, love and struggle–all are scoured away the second topics like “mysterious death” or “addiction” enter the picture. The individual involved dwindles down to a name, a “character” from long-ago times.
A prime example is Wallace Reid, major leading man of the 1910s and early 1920s. As a performer, he’s known mainly to silent film buffs. As a name, he has the sad distinction of being the first major Hollywood star to die of a drug addiction. “Drug addiction”–what a sledgehammer of a phrase. Decades of scandals have unfortunately accustomed us to scandals in Hollywood, but back in the early ’20s Reid’s death truly shocked the world.
But before we cover the tragic aspect of his life–and it was truly a tragedy–let’s get to know “Wally,” the well-liked Renaissance man whose good looks are at home in any decade. Continue reading →
A version of this post was originally written for my Classic Movie Hub column Silents are Golden. Hope you enjoy!!
When Rudolph Valentino became a 1920s superstar thanks to the megahits The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Sheik (1921), he basically changed the definition of “matinee idol” forever. Unlike many popular actors at the time, who tended to be steady, “regular guy” types, the young Italian often played characters with a dangerous edge and definite air of sensuality. Even today, it’s not hard to see why women became obsessed with him.
“Yuck”–said no woman ever.
Which might make you wonder: before Valentino, which leading actors were considered major heartthrobs? After all, when we list handsome silent film actors today, 1920s personalities like John Gilbert or Ramon Novarro will spring to mind–but who were the “hotties” of the Edwardian era?