by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film we saw “live” on TCM last night was The Cheat, one of Cecil B. DeMille’s earliest films — though he’s credited as producer rather than director, it’s clear he directed it — a wild 1915 melodrama from the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which was later absorbed into Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players studio and eventually assumed the name of the company that distributed both studios’ films, Paramount. (The titles for this version, a 1918 reissue, show both the Famous Players-Lasky and Paramount logos.) The star is Fannie Ward, a well-known stage actress of the day, and TCM was showing it mainly because of the villain, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, whose only well-known credit today was as the Japanese prison camp commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai 42 years later.
A good deal of the interest in this film is being able to see what this very interesting actor looked like young, and also in terms of DeMille’s overall directorial style. He was the first director consciously to use half-shadow lighting in scenes — when his company’s sales manager, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), said exhibitors were complaining about how DeMille kept great chunks of the screen in darkness, DeMille told him, “If they’re too dumb to recognize Rembrandt lighting when they see it, to hell with them!” Accordingly, Goldwyn — who was nothing if not a born salesman — made “Rembrandt lighting” a selling point for DeMille’s pictures. One of the peculiar perplexes of DeMille’s career is how his technical skills as a director actually declined over his career — explained in the TCM documentary on him by the fact that his most personal, most “artistic” films were his only box-office flops, and he realized that if he was going to make it as a commercially successful filmmaker he shouldn’t bother with quality and should go all-out for sheer spectacle instead.
Fortunately, The Cheat was early enough in DeMille’s career that he felt he could go for broke with artistic visuals — including the marvelous use of silhouettes on the rice-paper walls of Hayakawa’s home — making this a dazzling-looking film that seems more like something from the film noir era than from 1915. Still, it’s dated not only by the fact that it’s a silent film, but also by the sheer loopy melodramatics of the plot — indeed, this film is so off-the-wall I had assumed it was a stage play that DeMille and his writers, Jeanie Macpherson (whom he worked with virtually his whole career) and Hector Turnbull, had adapted, and I was startled to find that (at least according to its imdb.com listing) it was actually an original.
Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward) is the wife of wealthy stockbroker Richard Hardy (played by Jack Dean, her real-life husband at the time — though he’s so doughy-looking, tall but ill-defined and with a really silly movie moustache, that heaven only knows what she saw in him off-screen). Jones (James Neill), a friend of theirs who’s really a con-artist, tries to get the Hardys to abandon their investment in the D & O company and buy United Copper. Richard has the good sense to ignore him, but Edith takes the plunge, stealing $10,000 she has collected as a fundraiser for the Red Cross and giving it to Jones to invest in United Copper. The very next day, she learns that United Copper has gone belly-up and she’s lost her entire investment overnight (maybe the plot of this movie isn’t so dated after all!) — and what’s worse, the Red Cross official she was working for as a fundraiser tells her that he’ll be presenting the $10,000 to representatives of the Belgian government for war relief the next day.
Unable to raise the money from her husband or anyone else (she’s overheard him tell someone that he couldn’t raise a dime at the moment), she turns to Haka Arakau (Sessue Hayakawa), a Burmese ivory merchant who’s been living in New York with an Asian houseboy (Yutaka Abe, who interestingly looks more visibly “Asian” than Hayakawa does!) and trying to crash white American society. (In the original 1915 release, Hayakawa’s character was called Hishuru Tori and was Japanese, as Hayakawa was himself, but the Japanese Association of Southern California complained to Paramount and so he was changed to a Burmese when the film was reissued in 1918.) We first see Arakau in his study with a pencil-length branding iron with which he is inscribing the bases of antique statuettes to show, as he explains to his houseboy, that “they belong to me.” After the writers have planted that clue for us big-time, we pick up the thread involving the white characters as Edith, having nowhere else to turn, comes to Arakau for the money — and he makes it clear (as clear as he could under the early days of movie censorship, anyway) that, like Baron Scarpia in Tosca, his price for helping out the heroine is her body.
She takes Arakau’s check, the Red Cross and the Belgians get their money, and the next day her husband’s investment in D & O comes in and she asks him for $10,000 so she can pay off Arakau and won’t have to Give Herself to Him. He’s not interested in money as a substitute, and in the scene from this film everyone who’s seen it remembers, he takes his little branding iron and inscribes his brand on her shoulder to show the world that … and when he advances on her to claim his “property,” she pulls out a gun and shoots him. Meanwhile, her husband, who’s traced her there, comes on the scene and goes to the bloody body of Arakau, gets his blood on his hands, then picks up the gun — and just then the police come in and arrest the husband for Arakau’s (almost) murder. “Almost” applies because it turns out Arakau, who spends most of the scene after he’s been shot flapping around like a fish literally out of water, survives his wound and lives to testify at Richard Hardy’s trial. Mr. Hardy is found guilty of attempted murder after both he and Arakau insist that he was the shooter, but the sight of her husband’s conviction and imminent prison sentence unhinges Edith, who announces in court that she is the killer and, to show off her motive, pulls her dress down off her shoulder and reveals Arakau’s brand. The court sets aside the verdict and rules that Edith shot Arakau in self-defense, the rather stupid white couple get back together and Arakau presumably slinks back to Burma to make more money off ivory.
The open racism of this plot, while not quite as bothersome as that of The Birth of a Nation, is still pretty raw — especially since for much of the film Arakau comes off as the most sympathetic character, a man of genuine refinement and culture amidst a bunch of white people seemingly motivated only by greed. For most of the movie Hayakawa wears Western dress and doesn't look particularly “Asian” — it’s only in his attempted seduction of the heroine that he’s shown wearing classic Asian garb, an obvious symbol of his primitive, creepy “Yellow Peril” nature coming out under the guise of refinement and culture, and for this scene they might have accentuated the makeup around his eyes to make them even more slanted than nature did.
The acting in The Cheat is generally surprisingly good for a film made in 1915 and featuring a stage actress as star; most of Ward’s gestures are restrained, though in her two big scenes (when she realizes she's lost all her money and when she shoots Arakau rather than have sex with him) she suddenly lapses into the stagy, obvious gestures that were the stock-in-trade of most actors on stage as well as in films at the time. Hayakawa’s performance is also chillingly restrained, though in the only other significant part Jack Dean flops around and does some of the phony gestures most people who haven’t seen a silent film start-to-finish think all silent-era actors used — still, it’s clear that DeMille at this stage in his career still gave a damn how his actors performed and used his power as director to tone them down. The Cheat was remade in the early 1930’s (that version is in a boxed set of pre-Code Paramounts recently released by Universal Home Video that is definitely on my want list) and, if someone could find a way to work around the racist elements of the plot, it could probably be updated for a modern remake as well — certainly the desperation of people in the investment business suddenly losing all their money and susceptible to all manner of schemes to get it back is a quite credible motivator for fiction in today’s economy!