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Readings on Cinema: Daisuke Miyao on Sessue Hayakawa

Saturday, February 9, 2008
6:30 p.m. The Cheat
Cecil B. DeMille (U.S., 1915)

Archival Print
Introduced by Daisuke Miyao
Judith Rosenberg on Piano


The Cheat was one of the most visually sophisticated and elegant silent films ever made, benefiting from Sessue Hayakawa’s economical use of gesture. But at the time of its release it was notable above all for its sexually charged content. A society lady (Fanny Ward) gambles away Red Cross funds and borrows from a wealthy Japanese man (Hayakawa) on the implied promise of becoming his mistress. This she refuses, and he brands her with a red-hot iron from his collection. Retribution, honor preserved—these themes follow, but not precisely as one might expect. The character of the Asian became itself a “brand”—a source of sexual menace at once feared and desired. Initially banned in several states, the film was condemned by the Japanese American community. In Japan, although Hollywood movies were popular and other Hayakawa pictures were imported, The Cheat was not released.

• Written by Hector Turnbull, Jeanie Macpherson. Photographed by Alvin Wyckoff. With Sessue Hayakawa, Fanny Ward, Jack Dean, James Neill. (60 mins, Silent, B&W/Tinted, 35mm, From George Eastman House, restoration funded by the National Endowment for the Arts)