The Dragon Painter (1919)
This week's post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's "Hidden Classics Blogathon"! Say THAT five times fast, I dare ya... For more info on the CMBA, click the banner:
One film that we feel deserves to be called a "hidden classic" is "The Dragon Painter" (1919). Starring the dashingly handsome Sessue Hayakawa and his lovely wife, Tsuru Aoki, it was a unique film for it's time. It was the first film from Sessue's own company, Haworth Pictures, and he was very concerned about his image with the Japanese-American community. His villainous role in "The Cheat" a couple of years prior had offended them, and he was determined to redeem himself in their eyes. At the official launch of his company, Sessue announced that Haworth Pictures would feature authentic Japanese characters in his films.
The Motion Picture World magazine reported in 1918 that Sessue sent his company to Japan to film certain scenes in the Mt. Fujiama region. However, they actually filmed The Dragon Painter in Yosemite National Park and Coronado, California - so the chances are that the film company did not, in fact, go to Japan at all! While Sessue was hoping to show a more authentic version of Japanese culture in his film, his distributor (Robertson-Cole Distribution Corporation) was putting a lot of pressure on him to keep it more mainstream and "familiar" for white American audiences - where all the money was. Apparently, the consensus was "the white people" don't want to see anything too foreign, as (more authentic) travel films from Japan did not go over well at the box office! Fine. Just...focus on your own backyard and see how that goes, White-American-Moviegoers-from-the-1910s.
The story is quite simple, and engaging to the end. It follows an eccentric artist (played by Sessue), who lives in the wilderness and paints. He is obsessed with finding his "princess", whom he believes he was married to in another life. In order to channel his talents better, he is told by a friend that the daughter of a prominent, older artist is his "princess". The two get married, but the young artist finds that he no longer has the motivation to paint! **In order to preserve the element of surprise for those who want to find out for themselves, we will not disclose the ending here***
ABOVE & BELOW: Some of our favorite scenes. The entire film was shot so beautifully and the sets are still being gushed about (at least, we are still gushing about them!).
The Dragon Painter was a novel written in 1909, by an author named Mary McNeil Fenollosa. It can be read online for free here! Her husband was a very prominent Japanese art collector, and they had lived in Japan for a time. The story was written in an imaginary Orientalist sense, with many characters' names certainly not being typical of Japanese people.
Of course, because the movie was primarily directed at American audiences, the art director went a bit overboard with stereotypical Japanese imagery, which was a trend in the U.S. at the time! Also, there were script errors regarding actual Japanese traditions - but it all went largely unnoticed. With most white Americans, that is. Needless to say, when Japanese audiences (both in the U.S. and in Japan) got a look at the film, they were less than impressed, with one Japanese film magazine saying,
"[“The Dragon Painter”] did not show either contemporary or actual Japan."
Another Japanese magazine echoed similar sentiment:
"Even though Mr. Sessue Hayakawa took subject matter from Japan, Japanese styles and names in The Dragon Painter are very inappropriate...a film about Japan that does not properly depict Japanese customs is very hard to watch for us Japanese."
The U.S. critics, however - loved the film! Of course they did, they probably had no knowledge of the "real" Japan. A reviewer in the “Exhibitors’ Herald” wrote,
“Optically this is one of Sessue Hayakawa’s best offerings. In pictorial appeal it is the strongest thing the Haworth Company has ever done.”
The “New York Times" also chose it as one of “The Year’s Best” in 1919.
What to say then? Is it simply a fail in terms of authenticity? Or a mythical tale, that somehow manages to bring diversity to the screen in a respectful manner? Well....yes! It is both. While this film certainly missed the mark where realism is concerned, it is still considered the first Asian American films in history. Unlike the mainstream films of it's time that depicted Asians in a negative light, The Dragon Painter's Asians are presented with dignity. The characters are human beings - not caricatures.
So while it's most definitely an imaginative story (with it's errors), it also marks the beginning of a movement for equality in media... that we are seeing to this very day! And this is why we feel it deserves the honorary title of "Hidden Classic". Have a look at the film below!