The Cheat Is an Atypical Cecil B. DeMille Film
Note: This is the eighty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1915 film, THE CHEAT, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
By 1915, Hollywood was ramping up into feature film production and the style of filmmaking that would come to define the silent era and beyond. Numerous filmmakers that would make the biggest masterpieces of the 1920s, the early talkie period, and even the conclusion of the “classical” age that was the ’50s would enter the industry in the mid through late 1910s. John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and of course, Cecil B. DeMille operated in a period almost unrecognizable from their later work. In that regard, THE CHEAT (1915) is an atypical DeMille film. But in 1915, the legendary hit-making director was just getting started.
DeMille would come to direct massive-scale films like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949), but even his earliest films could be defined as epic in hindsight. His first film, co-directed with Oscar Apfel, was THE SQUAW MAN (1914), widely considered to be the first feature shot in Hollywood and the one to put the place on the map. After a less-than-successful career on the stage, as actor, writer, producer, and director, DeMille threw in with vaudeville veteran Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn’s new motion picture venture. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company would become Famous Players-Lasky in 1916; its leaders would come under the auspices of Paramount Pictures and give it the reputation it has today. In any event, DeMille came out the gate swinging against the already established film rules (shoot in a studio on the East Coast, make shorts) with a 74-minute film shot on location. Of course, he wasn’t the first to do these things, but his movies were immediately popular.
He churned out features for Lasky for the first few years, many of them Westerns taking advantage of the Hollywood landscape. But DeMille really worked in a diverse array of genres, especially in the silent era, and one that stands out is THE CHEAT. A seedy, sexy drama thrumming with DeMille’s already formed fascination with lighting, THE CHEAT is a somewhat complicated film. The movie stars Fannie Ward, a then-43-year-old stage actress playing an ingénue. To her credit, she does it pretty well; it’s just strange to consider that the youthful face on screen is nine years older than DeMille, a man permanently old in my mind from his appearances as a “star director” through the ’30s until the end of his life. In any event, Ward plays the wife of a stockbroker waiting for a big investment to pay off. He forces her to send back an expensive dress in the meantime, and when an acquaintance assures her he could double her money overnight with a new opportunity, she gives him the $10,000 with which she was entrusted as the treasurer of her Red Cross chapter.
Enter Sessue Hayakawa, perhaps the sexiest male star of the silent era, and the film’s complications. Hayakawa plays a wealthy Japanese playboy…at least in the original release of the film. When the “surefire” investment goes south, Ward loses the money and needs $10,000 fast. Hayakawa will give it to her…for the price of her body. She agrees, but when her husband’s investment comes in, she brings the money back to cancel the deal. Hayakawa’s sinister “Oriental” man will have none of it, and brands her with his personal seal in the film’s most “iconic” scene. Ward’s character shoots him with a gun, wounding Hayakawa, and her husband stumbles across the scene. The husband tells police that he did it, and Ward and Hayakawa play along. But when it comes to the trial, Ward tells the truth, and the couple leave while Hayakawa is implicated in his evil plot.
Of course, the film places as its villain the seductive Hayakawa, a man from the mystical East. It’s kind of the beginning of a series of roles Hayakawa would play through the rest of the 1910s, roles he quickly grew tired of. He saw them as harmful to Asian Americans, and he wasn’t alone. THE CHEAT received criticism at the time of its release for its racism, and when it was reissued in 1918, Hayakawa’s character was changed to Burmese. Yeah, like that’s any better. In any event, there are certainly some troubling airs about the film in the midst of a Yellow Peril, just as other segments of the Western world were romanticizing the magic of the Orient.
It speaks to Hayakawa’s tremendous talent that he removed himself from the Hollywood environment he came to despise and worked for the rest of his life, including his most well-known role as Colonel Saito in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957); ironically, a kind of “honorable villain” that Hayakawa would often try to move away from. At the end of the day, though, he was great at it. And he was great as a hero. His earliest film appearances were certainly not as predatory, as in THE WRATH OF THE GODS (1914) and THE TYPHOON (1914). Hayakawa also took matters into his own hands in Hollywood as well, in the form of his own production company, and brought more nuanced portrayals to the screen. THE DRAGON PAINTER (1919) is one such example of this, which I’ll write about later.
In the meantime, though, Hayakawa elevated everything he had to work with. His acting style, compared to the stage style prevalent at the time even on screen, was understated and subtle. He is leagues ahead of the rest of the cast, and THE CHEAT is firmly Hayakawa’s movie. There is no reason to see this movie without Hayakawa in the title role…but who is truly the cheat, I feel the film asking. Well, I guess both Hayakawa and Ward. But Hayakawa’s character tried to, you know, rape a woman, so he’s much more so the cheat…the cheater of ethical behavior. Anyways, the plot is thrilling enough, but it’s still early silent melodrama. Its emotional beats aren’t strong as they could be, and since Hayakawa is the villain, I couldn’t find myself rooting much for anyone.
The strongest aspect of THE CHEAT besides Hayakawa, however, is the lighting. The movie has an almost proto-Expressionist or even noir look to it. There are striking shadows and sudden bursts of light, as seen most effectively in the featured image of this article. As I said, this is a seedy, sexy movie, and the lighting has a lot to do with that. And of course Hayakawa. I just love Sessue Hayakawa. THE CHEAT is not a perfect film, or one that thrills from start to finish. But its strongest elements are so unique for the era, and therefore novel, that it’s hard not to admire it. Its messages are questionable, but in terms of technique, it’s truly solid 1915 filmmaking. Next week, I’ll tackle incredible technique servicing blatantly awful messages when I write about THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). I’m already trying to figure it out.