Classic Movie Legend Tribute: Sessue Hayakawa


Happy Birthday to Classic Movie Legend, Sessue Hayakawa, born on June 10th, 1889!

Some stars, long after they are gone, manage to stay front and center in the scope of pop-culture. People like Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and Marlon Brando remain prominent figures in American life, even if their own lives have sadly ended. Other stars, however, seem to fade away into the background, their accomplishments forgotten as they remain trapped in the time period that made them. One such star is the multi-talented, groundbreaking Japanese silent film mega-star, Sessue Hayakawa.

Sessue Hayakawa TyphoonSessue Hayakawa in his film debut The Typhoon (1914, Reginald Barker director)

Hayakawa’s entrance into the world of acting was an interesting one: he just kind of stumbled into it. While traveling back to his homeland of Japan from Chicago, he got stuck in transit in Los Angeles for a short time. He then explored the area and ended up in Little Tokyo. It was there that he a discovered a Japanese Theater, quickly becoming fascinated with the stage and performance. After some time toiling around in the theatre, he eventually was noticed by Hollywood, who immediately cast him in the 1914 film The Typhoon and by the next year, Hayakawa was once of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Unfortunately for Hayakawa, being one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood doesn’t always mean getting the choice roles, especially for a person of color. Yes, although the ladies loved him, he never seemed to get the ladies. Although he was extremely popular, institutional racism within Hollywood and anti-miscegenation laws would limit what roles he was offered. For the first few years of his career he was constantly typecast as either the shifty, foreign villain or the exotic lover who would also lose the girl to the Caucasian hero by the end of the film.

The Cheat (1915) Sessue HayakawaSessue Hayakawa in his star-making role, The Cheat (1915, Cecil B. DeMille director)

Rather then sit by idly and watch his career be shaped by the fear of “yellow peril,” Hayakawa decided to create his own production company, Hayworth Films. Now with complete creative control over his films and his image, Hayakawa made it his goal to create a more fair and diversified view of Asians. He immediately dove head first into his new project, wearing multiple hats such as producer, director, actor, writer, editor, and even set designer of the pictures his company produced. Over the next few years the company released over 20 films, all depicting the many different aspects of Asian and Asian American life, thus giving voice and fair representation to an often-marginalized group. The venture proved not only to be socially relevant but a major success as well. By 1921 his company had made over two million dollars, thus making Hayakawa not only one of the most popular matinee idols, but also one of the highest paid as well. Not bad for someone who legally couldn’t kiss a white women on camera.


Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub

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