Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Cheat

This week's Silent Sunday Nights feature on TCM, airing just after midnight tonight as usual, is The Cheat.

Sessue Hayakawa stars as Haka Araaku, a Burmese dealer in ivory who will be showing up a bit later in the story. The movie really begins with Fannie Ward as Mrs. Edith Harvey. Edith is the wife of a wealthy banker, and this being the teens of the last century, a woman like Edith would live the life of a socialite, wearing fancy clothes, going to parties and organizing charity benefits. Since the movie was made at a time there was war raging in Europe, that charity is for war relief. But Edith is also a spendthrift. This causes some consternation with her husband Richard (Jack Dean), who wants her to spend less, especially because business isn't going as well as she's thought and they're not quite so wealthy. What's a woman to do? Why, embezzle the charity money and wager it on a sure thing get-rich-quick scheme! Of course, everybody can figure out what's going to happen next, which is that the sure thing wasn't so sure, and Edith loses the money, making her desperate to get $10,000.

This is where Haka Arakau comes back in. He's made quite a bit of money with that ivory dealing, and he's willing to help out Edith by refunding the money. But this is going to come at a price. Despite being an ivory dealer, Haka Arakau isn't 99.44% pure, not by a long shot. He's a stereotypical Movie Asian, alluring, exotic, and dangerous all in one; further, he wants to be seen respectably by white society His price for helping out Edith is her sexual humiliation. In the meantime, business fortunes turn around for Richard, so Edith decides to embezzle the money from him (really, it shoud be embezzlement even if it is just a wife spending her husband's money like a drunken sailor) to pay back Haka. But Haka will have none of that: he really wants to see Edith suffer. Edith shoots him in the shoulder, partly in self defense.

Amazingly, due to 1915-era moral values, Richard decides to take the rap and stand trial for the attempted murder, claiming that he was defending his wife's honor. And for all you know, he could get away with it: after all, everybody knew back in the day that those Asians were scheming, dishonest lechers, readily willing to deflower our pretty white women. Will the truth come out at the trial? And if so, just how will the people react to a relationship that, to be fair, is rather bizarre?

The Cheat is quite the interesting movie. Since it was made in 1915, many of the film techniques look primitive, although for the time they were quite advanced. The acting is also stagy and florid, although that's due in part to the melodramatic nature of the story. Hayakawa is a treat as the Burmese ivory dealer, and there's a story in that in and of itself. When the movie was first released in 1915, Hayakawa was playing a Japanese man. Japanese-Americans, however, complained about the racist stereotyping of Japanese. Since there were a fair number of Japanese-Americans, and relations with Japan were still good in 1915, the movie got a change when it was re-released, which was to make the Hayakawa character Burmese. After all, there were a lot fewer Burmese around to complain, and audiences wouldn't notice, since all those weird exotic Asians are alike.

If I were looking to introduce people who have seen almost no silents to the genre, I'm not certain if I'd pick The Cheat, only because it's so different from even the movies of the classic studio era. But for people who are already comfortable with silents, I can heartily recommend The Cheat. It has gotten DVD releases, and probably should even be in the public domain since it was released in 1915. The DVDs might be out of print, however, since TCM doesn't have it available for purchase in its web store.

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