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EYE Film Instituut Nederland Discovers Unique Films
Starring the Silent Hollywood Star
Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa in His Birthright (1918).
Frame enlargement: courtesy EYE Film Instituut Nederland.
AMSTERDAM — Inspired by the renewed academic interest in the Japanese-Hollywood actor Sessue Hayakawa’s career, research within the archive of the EYE Film Instituut Nederland has revealed the only extant prints in the world of His Birthright (1918), The Man Beneath (1919) and The Courageous Coward (1919) — all three of them with Hayakawa in the leading role, and produced by his own company Haworth Pictures.

Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) is better remembered today as the Japanese Colonel in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Less widely known is the fact that he was the first nonwhite Hollywood star-cum-producer in the first decades of the previous century. Unfortunately, many of his silent films are presumed lost.

Hayakawa’s best-known screen appearance is undoubtedly as the cold-blooded Colonel Saito. That the same Hayakawa had already had an exceptionally successful career in the early days of Hollywood, had largely been forgotten, already at the time of his Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1957. However, as early as 1915, Hayakawa had already established himself as a Hollywood super star earning $5,000 a week; the first noncaucasian matinee idol to conquer the screens (before other exotic figures such as Rudolph Valentino or Ramon Novarro) and making his female admirers swoon with his good looks and intense gaze. His overnight success was partly due to the director Cecil B. DeMille, who cast Hayakawa — at the insistence of Hayakawa’s wife, the actress Tsuru Aoki — as the cruel and exotic lover in the extraordinarily popular silent movie The Cheat (1915).

Following the publication of Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom by film scholar Daisuke Miyao (Duke University Press) in 2007, the history of Hayakawa, as ‘the first Asian Hollywood star’ was revived in the public memory. Miyao also researched the holdings of the EYE Film Instituut Nederland and in his book refers extensively to His Birthright (1918), preserved by the EYE Film Instituut Nederland. In 2007, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a Hayakawa retrospective and drew the audience’s attention to the remarkable position of this Japanese actor and film producer in Hollywood and his willingness to negotiate between cultures and to disseminate American values.

Hayakawa at the EYE Film Instituut Nederland

Anticipating this revival, the EYE Film Instituut Nederland decided to reassess its Hayakawa-related holdings in the past years. This comprehensive research revealed that the holdings of three films, namely The Man Beneath (1919), His Birthright (1918) and The Courageous Coward (1919) represented the only remaining footage of these films in the world.

All three titles, produced by Hayakawa himself, reflect the constant negotiation between different cultures and identities in their plot, starring Hayakawa as the lead character in the centre of the action.

The nitrate prints, acquired through private donations in the eighties and nineties, are Dutch theatrical-release copies, carrying Dutch intertitles. Despite their overall good condition, and well-preserved tinted colours, the prints are missing footage. Only The Man Beneath can be considered to be complete. While the first and fourth reels of His Birthright are missing, nothing but the last reel of The Courageous Coward (costarring Tsuru Aoki) survives.

Considering their historical importance, the Filmmuseum has decided to make new prints of all the three titles, adding explanatory intertitles, in order to be able to present the films to new audiences.

About Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973) was born on the island Honshu into an aristocratic family. When he was declared unfit for the military because of hearing problems he joined his uncle’s theatre group. At nineteen he left Japan for the United States. He graduated in political science at the University of Chicago (1913) and was cast (together with his wife Tsuru Aoki) by film producer Thomas H. Ince for a role in The Typhoon (1914). Hayakawa grew quickly to be the first nonwhite Hollywood star; his restrained, untheatrical acting style was especially praised.

In 1918, joining forces with the director William Worthington, Hayakawa founded his own production company; The Haworth Pictures Corporation, where he produced about twenty films which broke through the type-casting of Asian characters as the ‘eternal villains.’ It is also remarkable that Hayakawa played the romantic hero opposite white women, as in the Hollywood of those days interracial relationships were very controversial.

In 1923, Hayakawa left Hollywood and worked in Britain and France. In 1931, back in Hollywood, he made his talkie debut with Daughter of the Dragon (director: Lloyd Corrigan) but his strong accent proved a serious handicap.

His appearances in later American productions such as Tokyo Joe (1949), Three Came Home (1950) and House of Bamboo (1955) assured him again of a respectable career in Hollywood, culminating in his Oscar nomination (best supporting role) for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Hayakawa continued to act to a very late age; appearing in the adventure film Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and the war film Hell to Eternity (1960). In 1966 he returned to Japan, where he died in Tokyo in 1973. Hayakawa apeared in around a hundred films and wrote many scripts, a novel (The Bandit Prince, 1926), a stage play (The Life of the Buddha, 1949), and his memoirs Zen Showed Me the Way (1960).

About the EYE Film Instituut Nederland

EYE Film Instituut Nederland is the national film archive of the Netherlands with a commitment to preserve and present the cinematic culture of the country. The Film Instituut is well-known worldwide for the extraordinary range of its film collection, varying from unique silent films to recent experimental cinema. Internationally acclaimed for its state-of-the-art preservations and restorations, the Film Instituut is the recipient of various prizes, the most recent one being the Prix Henri Langlois, awarded by Rencontres Internationales du Cinéma de Patrimoine et de Films Restaurés 2008 in France. In 2004, the EYE Film Instituut Nederland was featured in numerous publications and websites, following its spectacular discovery and restoration of Beyond the Rocks (1922), starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson.
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