Friday, July 31, 2009

Sessue Hayakawa Conquers TCM

Okay, so the headline on this thread was partly designed to get your attention. However, if you tune in TCM this evening, Friday, July 31st, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Sessue Hayakawa (as a young man at left) was far more than that Oscar-nominated guy giving Alec Guinness a rough time in the The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)--(though some of us probably think it was really the other way around!)

Beginning with some classic silent films, such as the still unforgettable The Cheat (1915) and the beautiful The Dragon Painter (1919), Mr. Hayakawa went on to make sixty silent movies that proved that race didn't always matter when it came to acting, at least for someone of his abilities and appeal. Making a reported $5,000 a week in 1915 (that's about $100k today), his stardom transcended stereotypical depictions of Asians, winning fans with his romantic magnetism in both Western and Asian cultures. His fascinating life, which included this international stardom, establishing his own production company with his wife, assisting the French Resistance in WWII, and becoming a Zen priest by the 1960s, when he retired from acting, could easily provide the scenario for several movies.

Tonight you can catch him giving two fine performances (Three Came Home & Tokyo Joe) and one that was just for fun and money, (as I suspect Swiss Family Robinson was for him).

Here's the rundown (with all times listed as EDT):
8:00 PM
Three Came Home (1950)
A woman fights to survive as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Sessue Hayakawa, Patric Knowles. Dir: Jean Negulesco. BW-105 mins, TV-14, CC

Well, this is the simply the very best role I've ever seen Hayakawa play during the talkie era--but that's just my opinion. Playing a Japanese commandant of a prisoner of war camp whose task is to ride herd on the British and American women and their children after the fall of Sandakan in N Borneo, Hayakawa is a divided man, trying to live up to his military obligations and his ideals, while missing his own family, whom he left in Japan. Hayakawa shines in two scenes toward the end of the film. In the first, he tells Colbert about the tragic effect of the war on his family and in the second he hosts some starving children from the prison camp at a lunch at his home. He is largely silent throughout this sequence, but devastatingly real. The halting exchanges between him and Claudette Colbert are also interesting as they seesaw back and forth from that of conqueror and prisoner, man and woman, and gradually evolve into something resembling mutual respect and concern.
I think that given the remarkably brutal record of wartime treatment of allied prisoners and the closeness of the end of the war to the production of this movie, it is noteworthy that there is such a concerted effort to depict the Japanese in their full, flawed humanity and the Allied women with some degree of dimensionality, (they are not all saints). While the movie is frank and fair about depicting the reality of the wartime circumstances,(within Production Code restraints), it also shows the individual acts of kindness that kept the prisoners going during their ordeal.

Claudette Colbert, who was scheduled to play a little role as an actress named "Margo Channing" just after filming on this Jean Negulesco project was completed, instead broke her back while filming an exceptionally realistic scene of an attack at night. One interesting note: though Colbert does a fine job in this role, and brings more than just her trademark intelligence to the part, her classic hairdo never changes throughout her five year imprisonment. Must've been in prison camp with some really good hair stylist!

10:00 PM
Tokyo Joe (1949)
An American in post-war Japan gets caught up in the black market. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Sessue Hayakawa, Alexander Knox. Dir: Stuart Heisler. BW-89 mins, TV-PG

It's been many years since I've seen this one, but I had hoped for something better from the combination of the director of The Glass Key, Stuart Heisler and Bogie with this one. The star looks a bit rough here, as I recall, as though he'd been out all night (though his domestic life with Lauren Bacall was probably at its happiest then). Bogart plays a nightclub owner who returns to postwar Japan to see what is left of the business he'd abandoned with the outbreak of war. He'd also left behind a wife (a pretty but bland Florence Marly*) and a daughter he never knew about. Struggling to stay in Japan and make a living, he is coerced into involvement with Hayakawa, who plays a financier and smuggler who offers to bankroll a freight airline with Bogie.
Below: Hayakawa with Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949)

Hayakawa is always an interesting actor, though his role as a mysteriously sinister survivor of Japan's catastrophic defeat is terribly underwritten, as is most of the script. One has the impression that Hayakawa's role might have been played just as easily by Broderick Crawford--though Sessue gives his role an added authenticity and suggests more dimension in a man looking to salvage his dignity as well as manipulate Bogart when he reveals that he has 'the goods' on the now remarried wife. Not Bogart's best nor Hayakawa's, but an interesting noirish glimpse of the postwar anxieties experienced by both winners and losers in WWII.

11:45 PM
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Stranded on a deserted island, a close-knit family creates a tropical paradise. Cast: John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur. Dir: Ken Annakin. C-126 mins, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format
Hayakawa planning a shot with the director, Ken Annakin.

A delightful, completely unlikely romp transforming the story of the desert island shipwrecked family into a marvelous cinematic thrill ride, served up in high Disney style. Sessue Hayakawa played a pirate leader using a language that he and his dress extra cohorts made up on the spot. The actor also arrived on scene in Tobago for filming accompanied by two young Geisha-type ladies, whose job seemed to partly consist of wafting fans near Sessue and keeping the torrid Caribbean sun off his brow with an umbrella. All the other male actors on board expressed their envy of this perk. You can see more about this film and a bit more about the actor and man, Sessue Hayakawa, in my previous blog on the topic.

You can see more about this evening's films at TCM here.


Wow, I stayed up late to catch the second of the three-header Hayakawa movies last night. I had totally forgotten how lame Tokyo Joe (1949) truly was! Not only could Hayakawa's role have been played more enthusiastically by Broderick Crawford, (an actor this blogger has an inexplicable weakness for), but perhaps Sidney Toler or Warner Oland might have come back from the dead to play the rather one-dimensional role of the sinister Japanese baron handed to Sessue H.

Hmmm, this must have been a way for Hayakawa to get his foot in the door as a supporting player following WWII for this excellent actor. Still, did they have to ask him to say "flozen flogs" quite so many times? For those who have yet to see this picture, frozen frogs were the culinary delicacies that were the reputed cargo that Hayakawa pressured Bogart to carry in his cargo planes . Yes, Sessue Hayakawa definitely brought a gravitas and veritas to the part of the crypto-fascist Japanese nobleman, but it was sad to see him play the kind of banal role that he had helped to dispel thirty years before during his first wave of success. Ah, well.

At least Mr. Hayakawa didn't have to pretend to be a judo master as Humphrey Bogart (or his double) did in several scenes nor did he have to pretend to be interested in the coy acting of Lora Lee Michel, who played the unfortunate fruit of Florence Marly and Bogie's pre-war loins! Lora Lee had much more appealing chemistry playing opposite Mighty Joe Young (1949). The child actress played the Terry Moore character as a kid growing up in Africa... who brings home a cute monkey one day. Maybe Bogie should have taken pointers from Ray Harryhausen and Willis H. O'Brien on feigning realism on screen.

The primary handicap of this film seems to be the script, which had the fingerprints of a suspected four screenwriters Steve Fisher, Walter Doniger, Cyril Hume, and Bertram Millhauser on its hackneyed pages. The uninspired direction doesn't seem to have been enhanced by the fact that exteriors of this movie were reportedly in the Tokyo area, which is neither freshly conveyed nor particularly picturesque. No physical signs of the recent war are really visible either, though the occasional shame-based resentments of certain characters may have been meant to convey that underlying tension. Or maybe those properly embarrassed actors had just read the script.

Above: Sessue Hayakawa, an actor with endurance, a quality he needed to get through Tokyo Joe.

The only actor who seemed to escape unscathed by the writing was the rather sarcastic Alexander Knox, who brought an understandable world weariness to the proceedings. I should also mention that Rhys Williams, the Welsh actor so fondly recalled as the blind boxer in How Green Was My Valley (1941), pops up as a very unlikely American military intelligence guy, bursting out of his snug Eisenhower jacket with ersatz authority and zilch credibility. The familiar Japanese character actor, Teru Shimada (in everything from Mr. Moto movies to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice) does a good job as Bogie's loyal Japanese business partner and friend. Whit Bissell has a nice moment as a slightly contemptuous Army clerk who ventures to explain to an oddly obsequious Bogart how the mills of the bureaucratic gods grind slowly and finely. We later learn that Whit is a brighter cog in the machine than he appears.

Btw, one of the positives I can report here are the beautiful Jean Louis duds worn by frozen-faced Ms. Marly, the Asian-influenced set design of Marly and Alexander Knox's house, created by Robert Peterson and James Crowe.

Years later, Humphrey Bogart, to his credit, later cited this film as an "utterly worthless picture". Well, I wouldn't say it was worthless. At least I got a few chuckles out of it.

* You might get a boot out of reading a bit more about the life and times of the obscure actress, Florence Marly, international glamour girl, here.


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