What Happened to Hayakawa: This Japanese Gentleman Reveals Why He Forsook the American Screen

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What Happened to Hayakawa

This Japanese Gentleman Reveals Why He Forsook the American Screen

Sessue Hayakawa. Once a name to conjure with in the motion picture world. Star of the first magnitude. His fame comparable to that of Valentino. His admirers legion. The star who opened the great Strand Theater in New York, and kept it packed for months.
One of the mysteries of Hollywood has been for four years why Sessue Hayakawa suddenly dropped out of pictures. What were the causes that led to his exit at the very peak of his popularity and fame? Why, literally overnight, did he close his magnificent residence, discharge all of his servants, except a couple of caretakers, and disappear from Hollywood?
A recent announcement in the newspapers gives forth the information that Hayakawa is about to return to the screen. His first picture is now in process of production.
Perhaps, thought I, Hayakawa will now speak. It may be he will want his host of friends and admirers to know the reason why he deserted the work he loved so well. With this thought in mind I called upon him. Almost the first question I put to him was:
Why did you leave the movies?
He looked somewhat startled by the direct question. He stared a moment, and then gazed off absently into space, as though turning the question over in his mind. After a moment, hesitantly and as if temporizing, he replied:
Perhaps several reasons contributed. I did not like the stories I was required to play in.
He smiled slightly.

Any Story at All

The last story was picked like the toss of a penny. I was given three stories to choose from. I do not like any of them. Still they insist I must choose one of these. So I say: ‘Eenie, meenie, mynie, mo!’ and put my finger on one. A story picked like that cannot be good. It is a gamble. Impossible to put the warm heart into it. I do not play well where is not my heart.
Surely you did not drop out of pictures because of that? I asked incredulously.
Oh, no; oh, no! said Hayakawa, hastily. That was just one of many irritations.
He thought a while, his face somewhat stern. Suddenly and almost roughly he spoke:
I will tell you. I will tell you the true reason. It was something deep. It strike me inside!
Hayakawa smote his chest hard. His dark eyes were smouldering now like black coals.
It was something said to me that no true man should speak, and no true man can hear. Something that should not come out of the mouth. It was, you understand—not decent.
I was associated with certain men in motion picture enterprise. They owe me $90,000. I never ask for this money. I think there is plenty of time to pay. Perhaps it was that they think too much about this debt. They 90think it good to goad and humiliate me—to pick a quarrel. I do not mind a quarrel. It is all one side, you understand. I let them say this, that, or what they wish, and I do not make reply with my mouth. Then it is that one of them—the chief one—get very angry, and he called me by a name. It is something should not come out of the mouth. Something that is unpardonable insult to me and an affront to my nationality. No man can help where he is born—what is his blood. Only an ignorant coward throws up to a man that he does not like his race. I come of a proud people—a man of my quality could not endure such insult. Still I did not speak. I stare at his face, but I say nothing. He say then People in this country have no use for Chinks.. I am not Chink. I am Japanese gentleman, and the word Chink is not fit to be spoke. I continue merely to stare at him, and speak no word. Every man in that room look uncomfortable. Then I bow with politeness to all and I leave that room.

Leaving Hollywood for Home

That night they send me a letter to my house. How much I will settle my claim for $90,000 for? I disdain to reply, but next day this is how I answer: I attach every piece of property of that company permitted by law. That same day, I dismiss all my servants—I close up my house and put caretaker in charge; I cancel all engagements. I said to myself: ‘Now I am all through.’ I take many little insult and humiliation—but no—nothing so big as this. I do not wait for any legal consequence of my action, but that night I take train for San Francisco, and from there, immediately I sail for Japan!
I remain in Japan for three months. I pass back through America, by San Francisco, but I do not even stop off at Hollywood. I go straight on to New York and from there to France.
Hayakawa drew a great breath. I think he was glad that the thing was out—out of his system. He had nursed a hurt so long that it had rankled intolerably. He had thrown over his career for an insult.
Did you get the $90,000 back? I asked practically.
Hayakawa shrugged, as though money were but a detail.
Oh, yes. That is settled inside of half hour, with representative of new company that buy the assets. All that money paid to me when I am in France.
He moved restlessly, offered me a cigarette, lit one; smiled through the smoke. I knew he wanted to change the subject.

His Film Runs Three years

How did the French treat you?
Too kind! In Paris I made a Japanese picture called ‘The Battle.’ I had expected to return to Japan to make that picture, as it was necessary to have many battleships. The French Minister of War solve my problem. He put at my disposal seventeen French battleships. He made me a Commander in the French Navy. Already I am a Japanese naval officer. Every day come to me the captain, salute and ask: ‘How many ships today, sir? How many men you require?’ They put the Japanese flag on the French battleships. The French sailors and officers put on Japanese uniforms. Even the daughter of the Minister plays in picture as compliment to me. It was marvelous! Such generosity! What enthusiasm and exquisite consideration! What inspiration! We create a great picture. In one theater alone in Paris it runs for three years.
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About a year ago Hayakawa returned to America. He admits to homesickness—a nostalgia. He wanted again to come to the land where he had made his greatest success and where he had been so cruelly hurt. Before returning to pictures, he determined to discover to what extent his popularity had waned during his long absence. He tested this out in a coast to coast vaudeville tour, where he was the headliner, and played to packed houses. Wherever he went, he was enthusiastically acclaimed.

The Colony is Kinder

You find things changed?
Human nature does not change, but time mellows and softens our natures. Prejudices vanish like smoke. Today I find a broader, friendlier feeling. There is even a marked desire for Oriental pictures. They may become a fad. Dolores del Rio will play The Darling of the Gods; Metro Goldwyn prepares a Japanese picture: Norma Talmadge considers Madame Butterfly: A Japanese Nightingale will be revived.1 Oriental pictures lend themselves to Technicolor, moreover. They will be beautiful.
And sound? You will use sound in your pictures?2
I do not know. I am not sure. Perhaps sound to the extent of the roar of waves, the wind, native chanting, booming of bells and so forth, but as to dialogue—
He shook his head, sighed, troubled.
What do you think of the talkies?
Hard to say. One should not express an opinion too soon. Any prediction premature. Much development will be needed. Stage plays are rehearsed two weeks, then played on road till the actors know their lines and their parts perfectly. In picture we rehearse but a day; then shoot. The players who must speak lines will be too conscious of their voices; they will fear their effect and grope for the lines. This doubt will register in their faces. Their minds instead of on their motions and the acting will be concentrated on their lines—unless very careful. The result might prove automatic, puppet-like, mechanical motions. The players will miss the guidance of the director, who may not speak, since his voice would register in the microphone. Ah! We are but at the beginning.

The Ticklish Talkies

He pondered the matter, walking up and down a bit restlessly, as though troubled.
In my own case. Suppose I use speech in my picture. Then it must be pidgin English, since I speak with accent.
He changed the subject abruptly. Began to talk of books—he is widely read; of golf—he is an addict, and says his idea of Nirvana is that moment when after a fine shot the ball drops into the hole. He talked of psychology, reincarnation, of his wife, who makes things pleasant at my home,3 of his former scenarist, Eve Unsell—A charming lady of great talent and beauty.4 (Incidentally, Eve Unsell has said of Hayakawa that he is one of the greatest actors the screen has produced—a man possessed of that rare quality–genius!)
Sessue Hayakawa has changed little since he left America. He is still in his twenties, a man above the average height, possessed of a figure as lithe as an acrobat’s. He was born in Tokyo, of Samurai ancestry; is a graduate of the Imperial University, a naval officer, an amateur boxer, wrestler, fencer, ju-jutsu expert and swimmer.
The Bandit Prince is the name of the story in which he will make his reappearance in pictures. Hayakawa himself wrote the novel.5 It has to do with the capture of two American girls by bandits. There are two heroines, the blonde American girl and a little Manchu princess.

Notes

1
Eaton here is most assuredly fabricating this part of the Hayakawa interview, as this paragraph refers to several projects from Eaton’s distant past: The Darling of the Gods was a play by David Belasco produced by him in New York in December 1902, and far surpassed in popularity the dramatic version of Eaton’s own novel, A Japanese Nightingale which opened the following December and closed after only 44 performances. As a publicity stunt, Eaton sued Belasco for plagiarizing from her work; Belasco, in turn, sued Eaton for libel. (For more on this colorful episode, see Diana Birchall, Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton; U of IL P, 2001: 79-84.) The story of Madame Butterfly by 1929 was, of course, well known, given the continuing popularity of Giacomo Puccini’s 1906 operatic version of the original 1898 novella by John Luther Long, as well as the 1915 film, directed by Sidney Olcott and starring Mary Pickford (a 1932 version—sans Norma Talmadge—starred Cary Grant in the role of B. F. Pinkerton). A Japanese Nightingale was produced as a film in 1918 but flopped; although Eaton attempted several times to revive interest in the film when she worked at Universal and MGM in the 1920s, she never succeeded.
2
The first talkie, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, created a sensation when it was released in 1927; by the early 1930s, nearly all films were produced with synchronized soundtracks.
3
Hayakawa’s wife, Tsuru Aoki, was also an actor and frequently played opposite him in his films.
4
Eve Unsell (1887-1937) was actively involved in the film industry from the mid-1910s through the mid-1930s, receiving writing credit for nearly a hundred films (in contrast to Eaton’s six). Eaton worked with Unsell in 1930, on a project titled Texas Rangers—possibly an early precursor to King Vidor’s 1936 film version.
5
Hayakawa wrote The Bandit Prince in 1925, and later turned it into a play. It is not clear, however, if a movie version was ever produced. If it did, Hayakawa did not star in it.

People Mentioned

Jean Lee Cole

Jean Lee Cole is Senior Consultant on The Winnifred Eaton Archive, author of The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (2002), co-editor of A Japanese Nightingale and Madame Butterfly: Two Orientalist Texts (2002, with Maureen Honey), and editor of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive (2004). She is Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland.

Greg Murray

Greg Murray is the Director of Digital Initiatives at Princeton Theological and has a MA in Literature and Religion from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Ethan Gruber

Ethan Gruber is the Director of Data Science at the American Numismatic Society and has an M.A. in Art and Architectural History from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

John Ivor Carlson

John Ivor Carlson is the Digital Production Editor at Yale University Press and has a PhD in Medieval Literature from University of Virginia. He assisted in the development of the original Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Jolie Sheffer

Jolie Sheffer is Associate Professor in English and American Culture Studies and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at Bowling Green State University. She was a research assistant on the original Winnfired Eaton Digital Archive created by Jean Lee Cole.

Winnifred Eaton

  • Born: August 21, 1875
  • Died: April 08, 1954
See the Biographical Timeline for biographical information on Winnifred Eaton.

Pseudonyms used in this text

Joey Takeda

Joey Takeda is the Technical Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive and the User Interface Developer at the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab (Simon Fraser University). He is also an M.A. student in English at the University of British Columbia where his research focuses on Indigenous and diasporic Canadian literature; he is currently completing a digital edition of His Royal Nibs.

Mary Chapman

Mary Chapman is the Director of The Winnifred Eaton Archive, a Professor of English, and Academic Director of the Public Humanities Hub at University of British Columbia. She is the author of the award-winning monograph Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism (Oxford UP) and of numerous articles about American literature and women writers. She has also edited Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton (McGill-Queen’s UP) and published essays on the Eaton sisters in American Quarterly, MELUS, Legacy, Canadian Literature, and American Periodicals. Her current research project is a microhistory of the Eaton family. For more information, see http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/mchapman/.

Organizations Mentioned

Motion Picture Magazine

An American movie fan magazine published from 1911 until 1977 under various names. Similarly named Motion Picture Classic Magazine was its sister publication. Headquartered in New York.

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