The Cheat (1915)

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An overindulged socialite named Edith, played by Fannie Ward, is asked to cut back on the lavish spending by her husband until his investments can pay off. Impatiently, she takes advantage of her treasury position at the red cross and takes $10,000 and tries to invest it herself. That quickly fails and she resorts to begging for a loan from Haka Arakau, a Burmese (originally Japanese prior to protests upon original release) ivory merchant played by Sessue Hayakawa, that takes advantage of her. Haka assaults Edith when she attempts to pay off her debt and she shoots and wounds Haka. Her Husband, Richard (Dean), takes the blame to protect her and the affair goes to trial.

Cecil B Demille uses some interesting shot techniques in The Cheat. One example is the superimposing of images over one another to convey the thoughts and conversation between Edith and Haka, without having a distracting intertitle. This keeps the moment more engaging and dramatic, then it could have otherwise been. These superimposed shots remind me of sequences in Lois Weber’s Suspense just a few years earlier.

There is also an interesting scene where Edith and Haka are eavesdropping on Richard and we are made aware of this by a shot of them hiding behind a Japanese shoji screen. The simultaneous display of two conversations at once, and again not using as many intertitles, helps keep the story moving as well as displaying how film can deviate from a stage play. Both Edith and Richard are having a difficult financial evening, yet both go down differing paths.

One major aspect that stood out was that there are less intertitles than many other films of the time. Perhaps this is due to the creative shot sequences mentioned above, or the acting by Fannie Ward and Sessue Hayakawa. Both of them don’t necessarily put on an amazing performance, however, they both contrast well. Sessue as the more calm and calculated type against Fannie’s more melodramatic performance, makes the scenes more engaging to watch.

CONTROVERSY

When The Cheat was originally released in 1915, it sparked protests from Japan and Japanese Americans. These protests led to DeMille changing the name of the villain from Tori to Haka as well as changing his nationality from Japanese to Burmese. I wonder what led to Burma being the next nation in line?

I also stumbled across an interesting book by Sumiko Higashi called, Cecil B. Demille and American Culture. In this book, Higashi examines Cecil B Demille’s The Cheat and how it expresses nativism and sexism. The nativism is illustrated through the actions of Haka throughout the film and the trial’s result as a mob tries to attack, and lynch, Haka.

…Edith proclaims her guilt and disrobes to reveal the scar that vindicates her actions. The sympathetic courtroom crowd, which has become all male in the final shots, erupts in anger and surges forward in a scene recalling a lynch mob. In fact, the script characterizes the situation as a “riot” in which the audience shouts, ‘Lynch him! Lynch him!'(referring to Tori) and urges men to ‘right the wrong of the white woman.’… In sum, The Cheat is a statement about the impossibility of assimilating ‘colored’ peoples, no matter how civilized their veneer, and warns against he horrors of miscegenation. 1

These overtones are not unique and can be seen heavily in use on many other films in this decade and decades to follow, even a century…

The sexism that Higashi describes is based on the concept of the “new woman”, a victorian term coined in the late 19th Century. It is a point in which the “traditional” drawing room-bound child bearer classification of women in high society was getting turned on its head.

Contemporary women’s historians have applied the label [new woman] to two succeeding but contrasting generations: college-educated woman who chose to forego marriage for social activism and careers before the First World War, and boyish flappers who symbolized the Jazz Age. Whereas the older women were emotionally invested in homosocial or sex-segregated relationships, the younger woman became pals in companionate marriages. 2

Edith is an amalgam of these paths and embodies the fact that times were changing. This idea is illustrated through Edith’s struggles to be independent, yet still financially dependent. On top of this, she is depicted as an object to be “owned”. This can be seen when Haka wants to literally brand her and how her husband treats her as a helpless child incapable of taking care of herself without his help (seen through her frivolous spending and poor decision making).

This might be reading a little to far into it, but these overtones are clearly present. While these themes and mindsets can be hard to watch, it is important to have these issues visible in the mainstream and part of public dialogue. The Cheat was likely not crafted with the agency of being interpreted as over the top on purpose in order to get the point across, e.g. Metropolis (on the dramatic side), or a film like Blazing Saddles (on the comedic side). It is still interesting to look at these films now, and understand how the times have both changed and how they have stayed the same.


Directed by: Cecille B. DeMille

Cinematography: Alvin Wyckoff

Scenario by: Hector Turnbull & Jeanie Macpherson

Editing By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Fannie Ward, Sessue Hayakawa, & Jack Dean

Runtime: 59m

Genre: Drama, Romance

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures


Link to Video Below:


References:

  1. Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. Demille and American Culture: The Silent Era, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1994, pp. 108.
  2. Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. Demille and American Culture: The Silent Era, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1994, pp. 87.

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