DeMille and Lasky, Better Than Ever at 100: The Cheat and The Golden Chance
December 15, 2015
Here's two other 2015 celebrations - this time a semicentennial and centennial - I'm sliding in just before the new year...
2015 marks the 50th Anniversary of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The Archive celebrated the event for the entire year with several retrospectives, one of them titled "The Greatest Showman: Cecil B. DeMille," featuring 10 DeMille films the Archive has restored over the past five decades.
Two films that screened together, The Cheat and The Golden Chance, celebrated their 100th anniversaries this month, having been released in December 1915. Both pictures blew me away for several reasons: their daring, violent, contemporary stories and performances; their skilled use of cinematography; and their polished look and style. All this 100 years ago! It's crazy to think that DeMille could churn out full length films like these two when the industry - and the features business in particular - was still in its infancy. To think of it, I've seen shorts from a year or two before that come nowhere near DeMille's proficiency and mastery of the medium at the time.
Both pictures were produced by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. As a special treat, Lasky's daughter Betty briefly spoke about her father and his relationship with DeMille. I've heard Betty Lasky talk on other occasions, but it was great to hear her discuss a subject she's so incredibly close to; it's not often anymore that you get to hear stories about one of the pioneers of the American film industry from his own daughter!
Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille in the early 1920s.
Betty Lasky started working on a memoir of her father years ago, and she read a passage for us that evening. She recalled her father's "Rooseveltian" personality made him an apt spokesman for the newly formed film industry. He was a master diplomat who truly loved people and held an ardent enthusiasm for the newfound medium.
She also explained how different Lasky was from Hollywood's other founding moguls. For one, Lasky was California born and raised, whereas most other studio founders and producers came from Europe, worked in New York, and eventually made their way West. Lasky also adopted an open door policy; he didn't shut himself in, but rather he happily chatted with employees and frequently escorted visitors and press around the studio. Furthermore, as opposed to other studio heads who were always waiting to see who was after them, Lasky never distrusted anyone, and he always thought that people meant well towards him (which would eventually be his downfall near the end of his life).
As Mark Vieira and Cecilia DeMille Presley's book Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic highlights, DeMille and Lasky shared a close friendship over the course of their lives. Betty recalled the two were best friends from the moment they met until they died; in fact, they were born a year apart and died a year apart. According to her, never a week passed in which the two men weren't in touch somehow, and since neither DeMille nor Lasky's wives enjoyed big social events, the men would frequently attend screenings and premieres together!
Lasky and DeMille's names still share this sign at the site of the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which is housed in the restored Lasky-DeMille barn.
While DeMille's history, especially from the late 20s onward, is rather well-known, Lasky's probably isn't. Unfortunately, Lasky fell under Adolf Zukor's ax (after Zukor and Lasky basically built up the golden age of silents and Paramount Pictures), and Lasky's partnership with Zukor apparently dissolved over the expense of Lasky's projects. Lasky floated between studios in the 1930s, even briefly partnering with Mary Pickford. He eventually went on to produce some pictures for Warner Brothers, including Sergeant York (1941) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945). It was the first of those films, Sergeant York, that would come back to haunt him: at the time of Lasky's death, he was in debt to the IRS due to an issue with a capital gains deduction he took from the profits of the film. It was his old pal DeMille who collected money from a variety of sources, himself included, to settle the debt with the IRS after his friend was gone.
In addition to their real life partnership, luckily the pair's inspired relationship is preserved on film, as exemplified by The Cheat and The Golden Chance.
Fun fact: Production on both films overlapped. The Cheat entered production first, and The Golden Chance followed six days later. However, there exist different accounts of how DeMille shot them. One of DeMille's biographers, Scott Eyman, claimed the director worked on The Cheat from 9am-5pm, rested and ate until 8pm, and then directed The Golden Chance until 2am (and presumably got some rest afterwards). Meanwhile, in his autobiography I Blow My Own Horn, Lasky claimed that DeMille helmed The Cheat from 9am-5pm, rested until 11pm, and worked with The Golden Chance cast from midnight-8am. The former seems like the saner version to me, but who knows...
Stockbroker Richard Hardy (Jack Dean)'s wife Edith (Fannie Ward) is a bit extravagant with her husband's earnings. He keeps telling her that once his investment comes through they’ll have money to spend, but of course, Edith gets in over her head long before that. To make up for it, she embezzles $10,000 from the Red Cross Fund, of which she is conveniently the treasurer (who let that happen?!). A plan to double her money overnight naturally fails, and she loses the $10,000. Desperate, she turns to her friend, “Burmese Ivory Trader” Haka Arakau (Sessue Hayakawa) for a loan. He agrees, but with stipulations…
Richard's investment comes through, and the couple is richer than ever. But Edith's got a priority: pay back Haka. It's not that easy though, because he won’t take the money – he wants her. After a pretty violent struggle - one which may or may not have involved a sword, I’m not sure - Haka brands Edith. Dumb move Haka, because Edith grabs his gun and shoots him with it! Richard, always a bit suspicious of his wife's male friend, shows up just in time to find a bloodied and barely conscious Haka... and the $10,000 check he gave his wife. When the police come, Richard turns himself over as the guilty party even though Haka clutches a small piece of Edith's purse in his hand.
Edith visits her innocent husband in jail. She wants to tell the truth, but Richard insists that she keep her mouth shut. Both Richard and Haka hide her guilt in court, but in a distraught frenzy, Edith admits it herself, letting her husband (and seemingly her?!) off the hook.
Edith (Fannie Ward) in full hot mess would be murderess mode.
As Betty Lasky educated the audience, The Cheat was the first example of an Asian American playing Asian on the screen, and his role in this film brought Hayakawa international success. Considering that years later someone like Anna May Wong found it difficult to land roles while actors such as Myrna Loy regularly played exotic, I was quite taken aback at this early occurrence on screen. Furthermore, I think I actually gasped when Haka kissed Edith; my reaction wasn't due to the act itself, but rather the fact that only a decade and a half later the Production Code would prohibit that from happening.
The story, though quite simple at its heart, intrigued me. I'd say that's mostly due to my surprise at Edith and Haka's relationship; I'm guessing it was rather rare to see a married woman casually meet and go out with a male friend alone, especially in 1915 - at least on the screen. Despite how frowned upon that may have been back then (or maybe I'm making this up and it was normal), Haka and Edith's friendship was carefully handled in the film's early scenes. Key word: early. Cause, you know, he definitely housed some ulterior motives.
What a striking photo with Haka (Sessue Hayakawa) and the still very distressed Edith. Props to the makeup guy or gal on this one.
I always find it a bit hard to judge silent acting, mostly because I'm not very used to the modes of expression. However, I will say that Hayakawa easily gave the best performance, exhibiting an extraordinary restraint (save the scene where he gets shot) and subtlety that differed from the silent norm, at least in my prior exposure to the era. Dean, though not given much to do, turned in a solid performance, especially near the end when he's in jail. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Fannie Ward spent a good half - and maybe even ¾ - of the film in hysterics, which comes off as just a bit over the top (though in her defense, some pretty bad stuff happens to her...which is mostly her fault). Fun fact: While Ward looked the youngest - I guessed she was in her 20s - she was actually the oldest of the three leads and in her early 40s when this film came out!
One aspect of this film that shocked me was the stark violence, particularly in scenes near the end between Haka and Edith. Though something's off about Haka even before we fully realize his intentions aren't honorable, Hayakawa's portrayal, as I noted before, remains more firmly on the controlled side - that is, until his aggression explodes. After he tries to rape Edith, Haka actually brands her, and yes, we see almost all of it. Jaw drop. I was not expecting that visualization at all! Furthermore, the manner in which Haka's shooting was depicted, which I'll touch upon below, also maximized the horrific intensity of the shot in a rather disquieting way.
Avert your eyes.
Another feature of The Cheat that caught my eye was the masterfully stylistic cinematography from Alvin Wyckoff. (Side note: This print was also one of the most pristine I've ever seen from the period). Oftentimes when I watch early silent movies, I have to remind myself that film was still a very new medium, so primitive modes of production should be expected. However, I was blown away by the deft use of the camera and, in particular, shadows during several scenes; one such example occurs when Edith visits Richard in jail, and he is photographed through the confining shadows of the jail bars. Another fantastically framed scene takes place when Richard discovers a wounded Haka behind a shade, and Haka slowly slides down on the other side, leaving a line of blood as he falls. It's a startling, grotesque image made all the more powerful by the artful capture.
What a shot!
Random fact: The only version of this film that survives is a copy from 1918. The three years that passed between the film's original release and 1918 saw a large shift in attitudes towards Japan and the Japanese people, because the country became an ally when the US joined WWI in April 1917. Whereas Hayakawa's racially stirred character was named Hishuru Tori in the original version, his nationality was switched to Burmese - including a name change to Haka Arakau and an acknowledgement of his character's citizenship - in this 1918 print in an attempt to placate Japanese viewers who were offended by Hayakawa's portrayal; as Simon Louvish dryly noted in his book on DeMille: "Burmese nationals were not thick on the ground in America at that time and presumably could be offended with impunity."
Check out those 1915 ticket prices!
The Golden Chance
Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), the daughter of a judge, marries no-good drunk Steve (Horace B. Carpenter). Strapped for money, Mary is forced to answer an ad in the paper for a seamstress at the wealthy Hillary residence.
Mr. Hillary (Ernest Joy) wants to close a big business deal with millionaire Roger Manning (Wallace Reid), but Roger is leaving town soon. Solution? Mrs. Hillary (Edythe Chapman) throws a party, complete with a lovely young lady to convince Roger to stay. There's just one problem: the girl gets sick. Desperate, Mrs. Hillary turns to Mary upstairs, who agrees to slip into the gorgeous dress she was working on for the occasion.
Mary succeeds at capturing Roger's attention. At the end of the evening, Mrs. Hillary tells Roger that Mary is staying for the weekend in hopes that he will change his plans. However, Mary already left for the night, so Mr. Hillary has to instruct his wife to bring her back!
Mrs. Hillary pays Mary a visit quite conveniently at the same time the landlord comes in demanding rent, which causes Mary to cave and agree to pose as a young socialite for a weekend. When she tells her husband she landed a three day job in a Newark laundry, all he cares about is the money she’ll bring back.
Over the weekend, Roger falls for Mary and proposes, but obviously she can’t accept. Meanwhile, Steve’s shady friend Jimmy the Rat (Raymond Hatton) informs Steve that there’s a dame with lots of jewels at the Hillary residence...and they should do something about it.
When Steve breaks in, he comes face to face with his wife! The commotion wakes the family, and Steve spills the beans. Mary denies that Steve is her husband while Roger calls the police, but she soon confesses to the Hillarys. However, if they admit to Roger that she’s married, Mr. Hillary's business deal will fall through, so they all agree to make it look like Steve broke free. After Steve flees, Mary caves and discloses the sad truth to Roger.
Steve forces Mary to return home, where he and Jimmy come up with a blackmail plan to lure Roger to their apartment and make some quick dough. Mary refuses to write the letter to bait Roger, so the men do it, but Mary sneaks in a cautionary note. Though Roger sees Mary's warning, he still pays her a visit, telling his companion to call the police in a few minutes if he hasn't returned.
The men's plan works and they catch Roger with Mary, but of course, things turn violent pretty quickly. Luckily, the police bust in right in time to capture Jimmy, while Steve falls (or jumps?!) over the ledge to his death.
Roger (Wallace Reid) and Mary (Cleo Ridgely).
As with The Cheat, parts of The Golden Chance took me by surprise. Besides the violence, which I'll talk a little about below, the nonchalance with which Mrs. Hillary uses Mary - basically pimping her out - was rather startling. With that plot point, DeMille highlighted the sharp contrast between the upper and lower class, which he also beautifully illustrated by the production design, though he at least infused Mrs. Hillary, and to an extent, Mr. Hillary, with some compassion.
I was absolutely taken with the young, beautiful and charming Wallace Reid here, qualities which made the misfortune of his drug addiction and untimely death eight years later even more tragic. The equally adorable Cleo Ridgely, a complete unknown to me, also turned in an inspired performance as a desperate woman stuck in an abusive marriage who finally finds love; in actuality, Ridgely replaced actress Edna Goodrich, who played Mary for a week before being fired for showing up drunk most of the time. On the evil side, both Horace B. Carpenter and, in a much smaller role, Raymond Hatton, provided deeply cruel characterizations of two completely deplorable men. I feel like these types of abusive drunken male characters were more prominent during the silent era, perhaps before the Production Code cracked down on portrayals of drunkenness (and physical abuse, for that matter).
Mary caught in a bad spot with Steve (Horace B. Carpenter) and Jimmy the Rat (Raymond Hatton).
The violence in The Golden Chance is on par with that found in The Cheat. Besides Steve's physical cruelty, which includes throwing tables and chairs, his dialogue, delivered via title cards, also imparts terror. For example, after he finds out about Roger, Steve threatens Mary: "Tell your rich friend he won’t know you after I get through with you." Seriously? Such a clear cut case of domestic abuse would definitely not be seen or even voiced on the screen a mere 10 or 20 years later (and probably not really until the 50s, I'm guessing).
DeMille biographer Scott Eyman declared that both The Cheat and The Golden Chance "are DeMille at his protean best...DeMille's mise-en-scène in this period is never casual; each sequence has its own texture...it was craftsmanship ascending toward art." That's a statement I definitely agree with, as DeMille's technique during this time in the feature space certainly appears leaps and bounds ahead of his peers.
How to take a Golden Chance on The Cheat:
Both pictures are available on DVD, either by themselves or alongside other DeMille films: The Golden Chance shares a DVD with DeMille's Don't Change Your Husband, starring Gloria Swanson. I haven't seen that movie, but by the title, director and star alone, I'm assuming I'd enjoy it. You can find The Cheat on several DVD sets, including this Kino Video Manslaughter double feature. Whatever way you acquire one or both of these pictures, I can assure you that the purchase(s) is/are worth the price!
Eyman, Scott. Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Lasky, Jesse and Don Weldon. I Blow My Own Horn. New York: Doubleday, 1957.
Louvish, Simon. Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008.