“Sessue Hayakawa is one of the greatest film artists of our time.” That’s how L’Ouest-Éclair, a newspaper that covered Rennes and the surrounding area in Northwestern France, described the Japanese movie star in March 1927. By that time, Hayakawa had been a major celebrity in France for at least a decade, since the sensation of his starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s Forfaiture (The Cheat ). When that film opened in Paris at the Omnia-Pathé cinema in the second arrondissement in July 1916, Le Figaro claimed, “It’s better than theatre!” and then called the movie “a pure marvel,” and made perhaps the first claim for Hayakawa’s genius. In this film, Figaro insisted, Hayakawa attained “the highest summit of art.” In fact, for the rest of the teens, 1920s, and 1930s, Hayakawa remained one of the greatest stars in the country, and probably ranked second only to Josephine Baker as the leading “exotic” in French culture.
By the end of the 1920s, Hayakawa had come to stand for the end of a cinema that, for some, could never be surpassed. In April 1930, the film journal Cinéa published an issue on sound cinema, with film entrepreneur Jean Tedesco lamenting in an opening editorial that “silent cinema is in its death throes.” In another article, Henri Baranger wrote that, regardless of how performers might now speak, he himself still thought of the great faces of silent cinema, and the two he mentioned as the most memorable, the ones that best signified the value of a now-lost art form, were those of William S. Hart and Sessue Hayakawa.
During the transition to sound, Hayakawa remained a major star in France. Throughout the early-1930s, newspapers and magazines often sold publicity photos of stars like Suzy Vernon, Nazimova, Mae Murray, and Huguette Duflos, and Hayakawa was always among them. Indeed, he seems to have enjoyed a more sustained popularity than many other French film stars, certainly greater than another Asian actor who spent most of his movie career in France, Valeriy Inkijinoff, who was himself both celebrated and objectified throughout the period.
Hayakawa made three films during the 1930s that generated intense excitement in France. In 1931, he went to Hollywood to make La Fille du dragon (The Daughter of the Dragon ), and the French press gushed again and again over this film, in which the great actor’s co-star would be another of the country’s exotic favorites, Anna May Wong. As a sign, perhaps, of Hayakawa’s sex appeal at the time, the woman’s magazine Femina told readers in October 1931 that “we wait with great anticipation for Sessue Hayakawa in La Fille du Dragon.” But his popularity was nothing if not broad, and in March 1938 the leading Jewish periodical in France, La Tribune Juive, ran an oversized advertisement when another of his great films from the decade, Forfaiture (1937), appeared in Mulhouse, in Eastern France. Hayakawa played the same part in this remake, directed by Marcel L’Herbier, that he did in DeMille’s original from 1915, and the ad showcased his name in much larger font than that of either of his costars, Victor Francen and Louis Jouvet, as if Hayakawa was the central reason to see the movie.
It was Yoshiwara, however, Max Ophüls’ film from 1937, that especially excited French film journalism. Newspapers began talking about the movie well before it started filming, with the very highbrow Journal des débats politiques et litteraires telling readers, in January 1937, that Ophüls would direct from a screenplay by Maurice Dekobra, and that the film was of special interest because it would “mark the return to the screen of Sessue Hayakawa” (even though the actor had been active throughout the decade). A year later, when the film finally had appeared, L’Ouest Éclair emphasized Hayakawa’s role, and noted the performance of this “universally regarded Japanese artist.”
When they weren’t praising his artistry, French newspapers emphasized Hayakawa’s mastery of the Oriental arts.In May 1939, for example, Figaro ran an article ostensibly written by Hayakawa, Danse Japonaise, et esprit samouraï, in which the actor informed readers that he would be performing a demonstration of kendo “on the occasion of the Japanese gala at the dance archives” in Paris. Asserting his own expertise on the subject, Hayakawa wrote that, “if the samurai chose the épee as an emblem, that’s because, for them, it symbolized purity, loyalty, and courage.”
Mostly, though, French newspapers stressed Hayakawa’s intense mystery, in fact quite literally, as that of a man who seemed, occasionally, to just disappear. In May 1931, L’Ouest Éclair ran a photo of the actor on the front page, and breathlessly let readers know that “the famous Japanese cinema artist, presumed dead or missing,” had been seen in a stage production in Tokyo. Six years later, in 1937, numerous sources announced that Hayakawa was indeed still alive after having been a presumed suicide, committing “hari-kiri,” as La Gazette de Bayonne put it, when he lost two million francs at a casino in Monte Carlo. I have yet to find any original article announcing Hayakawa’s death, but there were many pieces retracting the story, assuring readers of Hayakawa’s health and well-being, and attributing the original news to the actor’s inscrutability, to the difficulty of knowing anything about him.
Hayakawa claimed to have joined the French resistance during World War Two, but it’s difficult to ascertain the truth of this. We do know, though, that he remained in France, unable to leave because of the German occupation. He made a few films there and maintained enough of his celebrity status to turn up in Nazi movie publicity. The Germans hoped to use the cinema as a sign that everything remained normal in France, and particularly in Paris, and published a gossipy movie magazine, Ciné-Mondial, mostly about films and stars and the benevolence of the Germans now in charge of the film industry (see my post from March 22, 2016, at https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/332). Through the magazine, they began a ciné-club in Paris, less to show movies than to have gatherings of fans and their favorite performers. In July 1944, Ciné-Mondial alerted readers that Notre Club would be hosting a gathering of stars telling stories about their careers, including Louis Jourdan, Bernard Blier, and Sessue Hayakawa.
The actor may well have been a member of the resistance, or, at the very least, his work with the Germans during the war didn’t seem to have counted, in postwar France, as active collaboration. French newspapers, however, reported far less frequently about Hayakawa after the liberation, probably a sign of the vagaries of stardom and a general diminishment of Hayakawa’s fame rather than anything else. When they did take notice, it still tended to be to praise Hayakawa. Combat, for instance, which had been founded during the occupation and called itself the newspaper of “the resistance and the revolution,” and which could hardly be accused of celebrating collaborators, ran a piece in July, 1950, congratulating Hayakawa on his award as best actor, for Captives à Bornéo (Three Came Home ), in the first Vichy film festival (the best actress that year would be Anna Magnani, for her role in William Dieterle’s Vulcano ). That Hayakawa remained such a great star in France for almost thirty years starting around 1915, and then subsequently still enjoyed a lesser form of celebrity, is remarkable enough.
Between the wars, the period of Hayakawa’s greatest fame in France, the French cinema produced a broad range of leading men who defined various forms of masculinity; from the brooding Jean Gabin, the middle-aged Michel Simon, the heavy, tragic Harry Baur, the everyman Fernandel, and many more. Hayakawa, however, seemed to represent something different from any of them, and to generate a particular fascination in his audiences. In a combination of his extraordinary skill as well as France’s racism and determined exoticization of Japan and the rest of Asia, only Hayakawa, among the actors who achieved such a great celebrity in France, could be described as he was in that article in L’Ouest-Éclair, the one at the opening of this post that referred to him as among the “greatest film artists.” Hayakawa alone, the article insisted, embodied “all that the human soul can know of the sublime.”