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September 30, 2009

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Cinesation 2009 Festival Report, Part Two

by HELEN GEIB

sessue_hayakawa

Part two of my Cinesation 2009 festival report. The spotlight is on Sessue Hayakawa, star of the fest’s final two silents.

Take the Heir (1930)

The punning title sets the tone. A late silent, Take the Heir is a very funny comedy starring Edward Everett Horton as Smithers, supremely reliable valet to dissipated English peer Lord Tweedham. Smithers pretends to be his employer for the duration of their stay with an American financier to help him secure an inheritance. Meanwhile Lord Tweedham pretends to be Smithers, and both men pursue the lovely Susan (Dorothy Devore), maid to the financier’s title-chasing daughter. Susan likes “Lord Tweedham” but believes their stations in life must always keep them apart, and has confidence in the power of her right hook to fend off “Smither’s” unwelcome advances. It would be hard to go wrong with a set-up like that and Take the Heir definitely doesn’t go wrong with it. Horton is great (as a fan of his leading man work I expect nothing less) and Devore is very appealing as the feisty Susan. Frank Elliott as the selfish inebriate Lord Tweedham (“I refuse to have anything to do with the money until I get it”) and Edythe Chapman as his mother Lady Tweedham, clear-eyed about her son’s manifold failings, make the most of good parts.

Crooked Streets (1920)

Crooked Streets is a fun little mystery with a Far East setting and outsized production values. While the mystery concerns a smuggling operation, the story hits its stride with the heroine’s adventures in the Chinese quarter of Shanghai. The fun really begins at the moment we glimpse the gun in her pocket. That sexual harassment by a group of drunken French sailors occupies the narrative space typically held by the peril of white slavery is a refreshing change of pace. The admirably self-reliant and self-possessed heroine is played by Edith Clayton; Jack Holt is her co-star.

O Mimi San (1914)

O Mimi San is a really interesting transition period feature starring Sessue Hayakawa as the Shogun’s heir apparent who falls in love with a peasant woman, but must leave her behind when his father dies. In essence, it’s a Student Prince story with a Japanese feudal-era backdrop and an added subplot about an attempted coup by the crown prince’s younger brother. The period Japanese setting and all-Japanese cast of characters are strikingly unusual, as is the predominantly Japanese cast of actors. Moreover, the film aspires to verisimilitude in the period re-creation. To the untrained eye, the costumes and hairstyles look entirely authentic. Although a trifle cramped in size, the sets for the interior scenes emulate traditional Japanese architecture and there are exterior scenes filmed, with varied camera set-ups, in a Japanese garden. The film depicts court ceremony and there is even a very creditable seppuku scene.

There’s a lot of story for the running time and the telling is rushed; Mildred Harris’s poor performance in the title role, the young woman who is object of the hero’s affections, is also backward-looking. Forward-looking aspects are Hayakawa’s subtle, charismatic performance (in his first starring film role) and Reginald Barker’s direction. Barker anticipates Ozu in filming the court scenes, where the characters are seated in traditional Japanese posture, with the camera at the eyeline of a seated observer. The last scene of the film is particularly fine. “One year later” the new shogun’s marriage ceremony – a political alliance – has just been concluded. He instructs a retainer to inform his new wife that he will join her shortly. As he look out the window at the palace garden, he remembers his brief idyll with Mimi-san; an earlier scene of the film, showing the lovers talking happily in a garden, is re-played within the frame of the window. The “memory” dissolves to the view of the palace garden. He closes the shutters.

The Devil’s Claim (1920)

The Devil’s Claim seems very modern in its knowing genre send-up and deliciously old-fashioned in its determination to entertain. The story opens in “New York’s Latin quarter.” Sessue Hayakawa is Indian novelist Akbar Khan, one of its most famous denizens. Another is the Persian beauty Indora (Colleen Moore), who pines for Khan after he used their passionate but brief romance as story material. Virginia (Rhea Mitchell), a society woman who has studied sociology, takes an interest in Indora’s case after hearing her plaintive song and decides to bring her lover back to her. She finds him at a Bohemian café….

A slyly humorous cast to these early scenes is the first clue that the film is not playing this material completely straight, and there’s no more room for doubt after Khan begins writing his next bestseller. The lurid tale of mystery, romance, and adventure is dramatized as a story within the story. The three principal actors appear in roles that are complementary to their parts in the framing story: Hayakawa is Hassan Marouf, a Turkish archaeologist living in Paris whose tomb-robbing exploits might have served as a model for Indiana Jones; Moore is Nadia, a captive Eastern princess who captivates the hero; and Mitchell is an exotic soothsayer in thrall to a society of Satan worshippers. Hayakawa even gets to play a third role, as Marouf is periodically (every seventh day for three months) possessed by a vicious, vengeful villain.

It’s all great, great fun. Khan’s books are serialized potboilers and the segments we get to see (many chapters are elided from the dramatization, cleverly obviating the need to explain how the story gets from one crazy plot point to another!) are bracketed by wonderful scenes of his enraptured readers lost in the pages of the latest chapter. Everything ends happily: Marouf is saved from certain death, Khan overcomes his writer’s block, Indora and Nadia each gets her man. And while a happy ending may never have been in doubt, trust me when I say that no-one has ever seen that final plot twist coming.

Cinesation 2009 Festival Report, Part One

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. miriam
    Oct 4 2009

    I thought The Devil’s Claim delightful lighthearted fun. It also is a good riposte to all those critics (then and now) who deride movies in comparison to the higher merits of ‘Literature’. Most of what is written, read, and enjoyed (then and now) are works like Khan’s pot-boiler serials. We all look for entertainment and should be grateful for works of skill and imagination in either medium.

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