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CHEAT, THE(director: Cecil B. DeMille; screenwriters: Jeanie McPherson/Hector Turnbull; cinematographer: Alvin Wyckoff; editor: Cecil B. DeMille; music: Robert Israel; cast: Fannie Ward (Edith Hardy), Jack Dean (Dick Hardy), Sessue Hayakawa (Tori/Haka Arakau), James Neill (Jones), Jack Yutaka Abbe (Valet); Runtime: 55; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jesse L. Lasky; Kino; 1915-silent)
“Made waves during its day because of its explosive sexual and racial content.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the hysterical racially charged artistic melodrama that brought director Cecil B. DeMille (“The Dream Girl”/”The Whispering Chorus”/”Carmen”) much critical acclaim, making him a director of A-films but displeasing him that the public was not greatly accepting of such an arty pic. From hereon the filmmaker lowered his sights and shot more commercial films that the public flocked to in bigger numbers. The Cheat made waves during its day because of its explosive sexual and racial content. According to DeMille biographer Anne Edwards, it also “set standards of acting, decor, frame composition and lighting which were not surpassed for years.” The screenplay is by Jeanie McPherson and Hector Turnbull.

Wealthy Japanese ivory dealer Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) resides in a posh Long Island estate and he travels with the “smart set,” hosting parties. He’s neighbors with hardworking, struggling society stockbroker Dick Hardy (Jack Dean), who hopes to strike it rich to please his frivolous, extravagant and beautiful wife Edith (Fannie Ward, she was a stage actress married to Jack Dean in real-life). He puts her on a pedestal and worships her, and is willing to do anything for her though he frowns that she’s so friendly with Tori.

Edith gets overtaken with greed and invests $10,000 in a copper stock tip that Tori gave her and uses the money raised for the Red Cross Belgian relief fund, money she holds because she’s the treasurer for the ladies group. Dick, on the other hand, invests in D.& O., and strikes it rich. When Edith discovers she lost everything, she appeals to Tori for help. He gives her the money so the society lady wouldn’t face an embarrassing arrest, but in turn she’s to go to bed with him that night. Edith manages to get $10,000 from her generous hubby on the sly and offers the money to Tori to even the debt. But the film’s racial theme is spelled out in the following quote: “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Tori refuses the money and when she refuses to honor her part of the bargain, he uses his curio iron to brand his seal on her shoulder. He then says “That means it belongs to me.” Edith shoots Tori, winging him in the shoulder, and escapes. But Dick arrives and to protect Edith, tells the police that he shot Tori. The case goes to trial, but after being found guilty an hysterical Edith tells her story and bares her branded shoulder in the courtroom. The guilty verdict is overturned, and the Asian is lucky to leave the courtroom in one piece from the irate mob yelling at him.

The Cheat so offended members of the Japanese government that in the 1918 version, Tori’s nationality was changed to Burmese and his name became Haka Arakau. This indicates that the Japanese had clout with the studio moguls to influence them to change things that are perceived as bias as against the Japanese–something other Asian minorities didn’t have.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”