Sessue Hayakawa in Cine Mundial.
Long renowned as one of the most mesmerizing, exotic actors of the silent screen, Sessue Hayakawa and his piercing eyes and sensual mouth stole women’s attentions and minds. Born in Japan, the son of aristocratic parents came to America plying his trade as an actor. When Hayakawa struggled in the late 1920s after returning from several years abroad, the actor turned to writing to make a living and maintain his fame.
While studying at the Eagan Dramatic School in downtown Los Angeles, the intense Hayakawa met and befriended sweet actress Tsuru Aoki, who had signed with producer Thomas Ince to appear in films and brought the acting troupe along. Aoki starred opposite Hayakawa in the 1913 film “O Mimi San,” with the two exhibiting great timing and chemistry. They fell in love during the making of the film “The Typhoon” before marrying on May 1, 1914.
Mary Mallory’s “Living With Grace” is now on sale.
An autographed copy of “The Bandit Prince,” listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $385.
Though Aoki became a star, appearing in films playing a woman often sacrificing herself for love, Hayakawa shot to major superstardom thanks to his smoldering good looks and passionate performances, especially in the Cecil B. DeMille film “The Cheat” in 1915. Hayakawa played an ivory merchant conducting an affair with Fannie Ward, eventually branding her for a gambling debt. His passionate performance established him as a romantic figure for women around the world. While he played charismatic heavies or dashing romantic figures, miscegenation laws prevented his characters from consummating relationships or settling down with Caucasian women.
By the late teens, Hayakawa set up Haworth Productions with partner William Worthington, starring in films as romantic and strong leads as exotic characters from around the world, but once again prevented from establishing romantic relationships with white women on the screen. The partners began wrapping up Haworth Pictures in 1920 and 1921 as racist sentiments arose around the country, accusing “the other,” particularly people of Asian descent, of economic problems.
Japanese Americans were added to the 1882 Exclusion Act which prevented immigration of Chinese laborers, denial of United States citizenship, and prevented romantic relationships with people of other races. The actor began freelancing, signing a deal with R-C Pictures to make six pictures, earning $20,000 per film. After only two films, R-C cancelled his contract, leading Hayakawa to sue them. After more than a year of legal wrangling, Hayakawa threw in the towel.
Hayakawa and Aoki left the country in 1923, living in Europe while the actor made films in Germany and France. When they returned to the United States in 1926, both discovered it wasn’t that easy to just step back into moviemaking. New stars were now popular, filmmaking was growing into a more organized, factory-style system, and less ethnic films were being produced.
Like many other celebrities then and now, Hayakawa decided to capitalize on his celebrity by “writing” a book, one to draw sales and make him popular and a household name again, but also hopefully one that could be adapted into stage or film productions in which he would star. Trades like Film Daily began reporting in the spring of 1926 that Hayakawa had turned novelist, with his book forthcoming.
The July 10, 1926 issue of Billboard announced in their New Books column that Hayakawa’s new novel, “The Bandit Prince,” had been published by Macauley Co. and was being sold for $2, “A love story of the East and West, combining mystery and intrigue in an interesting manner!” Picture Play magazine reported that Hayakawa had received good notices for the book and the New York Post called the book a “thrilling historical romance” in its July 26, 1926 edition.
“The Bandit Prince” looked at the Japanese “Manchu Eagle,” Prince Chang masquerading as the notorious bandit who falls in love with the daughter of the Chinese regent who decides to prove him innocent. At the same time, a young Englishwoman comes on the scene who has actually met the bandit. Will romance and intrigue win the day? The New York Times described the story as “Prince Chang, a gentleman of the new school, a Harvard graduate, Parisian boulevardier, and man of the world who pursues his trade of banditry in an airplane!”
While there is no paperwork detailing the actual writing process of the novel, there is a strong likelihood that Hayakawa hired a ghostwriter to help him with grammar, language, and the like, since he did not speak fluent English. Within days of the book’s release, entertainment outlets reported that ex-journalist Burnet Hershey had adapted the novel into a small playlet for Hayakawa to perform onstage.
Born in Romania but brought to the United States as a child, long time war correspondent and journalist Hershey possessed a strong news pedigree. He first reported on Henry Ford’s “Peace Ship” in 1915 for the New York Evening Post. Reporting for the New York Sun in 1919, he dressed as a diplomat and marched with the German journalists into the German headquarters during the peace conference at Versailles at the conclusion of World War I, getting a scoop at the private press hearing regarding the humiliating terms for Germany and their intent not to forget them.
In the early 1920s, Hershey served as correspondent in China and Japan, picking up color and some of the language. When he returned to the United States, he turned to playwriting before Fox signed him in 1927 as a scriptwriter. By 1930, Hershey was writing for Warner Bros. and Vitaphone, such as the short “Maid to Order” directed by Alf Goulding and the Rudy Vallee Broadway Brevities musical short. In 1934, his story “Dealers of Death” describing the international munitions trade was made into a film. While continuing to pen scripts, Hershey wrote the play “The Brown Danube” in 1939, based on the Nazi seizure of Austria, with Dean Jagger, Jessie Royce Landis, and George Macready in the cast. Hershey again served as a war correspondent during World War II.
Hayakawa quickly appeared onstage after the book’s release, debuting his 16-minute act in New York at the great Broadway variety theatre the Palace near the end of July 1926. The July 31, 1926 issue of Billboard issued a rave review, noting that the act, adapted for the stage by Hershey, employed the most thrilling parts of the book, blending suspenseful action and romance, noting it was filled with “suspense, attempted murder, intrigue, and love.” “The situations and lines have been cleverly arranged to give Hayakawa ample opportunity to do some excellent work.”
Several described the show as very cinematic and animated through its use of effects, dramatic lighting, and plot. Many reviews described it moving rapidly, while others criticized it as nothing new. Variety’s July 28 review called it “a mild set-up for the star and nothing more.” While reviews amply discussed Hayakawa’s performance, little was written of the supporting cast, Mildred Leaf as the young American woman, Marie Bates as the Princess, and Leslie Adams as the Chinese Prime Minister/Regent.
Veteran film performer Hayakawa soon signed a contract to tour the show on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, receiving mostly fine notices wherever he performed. The December 20, 1926 Los Angeles Times called his character the “Japanese Robin Hood,” stealing from the rich to assist the poor. They enjoyed his work, while describing how Hayakawa’s “enunciation was remarkably meticulous.”
By 1928, several trades reported that Harry Sebastian had signed Hayakawa to appear in a film version of the book to supposedly feature both sound and color sequences and cost $500,000, but nothing came of the venture. While the novel “The Bandit Prince” did not return Hayakawa to superstardom, it did reintroduce him to audiences and reinvigorate his American film career for a short time in the early 1930s before he once again returned overseas to perform in films.