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Forbidden Paths

Readings on Cinema: Daisuke Miyao on Sessue Hayakawa

Sunday, February 10, 2008
2:00 p.m. Forbidden Paths
Robert Thornby (U.S., 1917)

Archival Print
Lecture and Booksigning by Daisuke Miyao
Judith Rosenberg on Piano

An off-kilter male melodrama, Forbidden Paths allows Hayakawa to play a chivalrous hero caught up in the contradictions of love and loyalty. Imagine Hayakawa’s art collector from The Cheat reborn as Sato, assistant to a wealthy San Francisco importer of Japanese art, and redeemed by a new sense of virtue. The accomplished Sato, whose “grateful devotion to his employer burns like a steady flame,” is charged with protecting the older man’s daughter Mildred (Vivian Martin). When romantic complications involving a Mexican temptress threaten Mildred’s happiness, in the hierarchy of race relations the restrained Japanese emerges as civilized hero, ennobled by an extreme sacrifice. As Daisuke Miyao documents in his book, an emphasis upon the refinement of Japanese culture was part of the Lasky Company’s deliberate strategy in creating Hayakawa’s star image. Hayakawa’s sensitive performance as Sato shows how this alien actor won the hearts of American women, even as his role cheats him of that fulfillment on screen.

• Written by Beatrice C. de Mille, Leighton Osmun, from a story by Eve Unsell. Photographed by James Van Trees. With Sessue Hayakawa, Vivian Martin, Tom Forman, Carmen Phillips. (60 mins, Silent, B&W, 35mm, From Library of Congress)

Followed by:
The Devil’s Claim
Charles Swickard (U.S., 1920)

Archival Print

In The Devil’s Claim, produced at Hayakawa’s own Haworth Pictures, Hayakawa plays a Greenwich Village novelist of Indian extraction who becomes involved in a tale of devil worship while in a relationship with a young Persian girl (Colleen Moore, in her pre-flapper days). With this story-within-a-story structure, Hayakawa was able to display both of his alluring star images: the villainous and the virtuous. At the same time, the film showcases Hayakawa’s unique acting style. Critics of the time tended to praise Hayakawa for his “restrained” acting and connected it to Japanese cultural traditions that, according to them, involve showing less emotion than Western people. But in Hayakawa’s acting, the moments of restraint are also moments of exaggeration. Hayakawa’s face is not simply expressionless, but like a mask, both hard to read and designed to conceal. With tightened mouth and unmoving eyes, Hayakawa projects ambiguous intensity and freezes actions in intense ambiguity.⎯Daisuke Miyao

• Written by J. Grubb Alexander. Photographed by Frank D. Williams. With Sessue Hayakawa, Rhea Mitchell, Colleen Moore, William Buckley. (70 mins, Silent, B&W/Tinted, 35mm, From George Eastman House, restoration funded by AFI/The Film Foundation)

• (Total running time: 130 mins)