Thursday 31 May 2007

The Cheat (1915) Cecil B De Mille

Jesse L Lasky presents Fannie Ward in The Cheat by Hector Turnbull, reads the title card. No mention of minor league industry name Cecil B De Mille until card three. He's the producer and the uncredited director, demonstrating the different set of priorities that was apparent back in the day. Sessue Hayakawa is the other name I know here. He's Haka Arakau, a Burmese ivory king in Long Island, and while it seems strange to see a male Japanese actor in a Hollywood film period, it's even more surprising to see him in a period Hollywood film.

Of course he's playing a Burmese man because it's the 1918 re-release, and the nationality was changed after a protest from the Japanese Association of Southern California. In the original 1915 version he was Japanese and called Hishuru Tori, but in silent movies you could change entire characters just by rewriting title cards. This is very early in Hayakawa's career, especially when you realise that the highlight of it came no less than 43 years later when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he's by far the best thing about it.

Fannie Ward is the most important character though. She's Edith Hardy, the wife of a Wall Street investor played by Jack Dean who gets to foot all the bills that she's been racking up for expensive dresses. She's even been using the maid's wages for her extravagances and she ends up losing ten grand in a completely stupid investment. To make matters worse she's the treasurer of the Red Cross fund and two guesses where the money came from. Ward does a pretty good job of the acting, given that it's 1915 and nobody was subtle in 1915, but her scene of shock and fainting is pretty awful. She makes up for it in her court scene when she flounces around looking like a cross between Lillian Gish and Stevie Nicks.

De Mille does an imaginative job here, with a clever use of split screen for the era, showing Fannie and her seeming saviour, Arakau, on the left, and the potential newspaper front page on the right. Very nicely done indeed. Of course Arakau isn't giving his money away for nothing and we can well imagine the sort of conditions he places on the secret loan. The branding scene is particularly powerful! Of course it all ends in tears and Richard Hardy, Edith's husband gets to show that he's the only decent character in the entire picture.

It's definitely a product of its time but it's surprisingly well acted for 1915. Ward may be the star but it's Hayakawa who impresses most. I really need to find some of the 68 other movies in between The Cheat and The Bridge on the River Kwai that also feature his talents. One of them is Forfaiture, a French movie directed by Marcel L'Herbier based on Le Forfaiture, an opera by Camille Erlanger which happens to be the first opera ever based on a movie rather than the other way round. Hayakawa reprised his role in Forfaiture, 22 years after his original portrayal.

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