Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is This Utake Abe?

One of the more intriguing minor characters in the Golden Chance is pictured to the right. He's a servant to Wallace Reid's fabulously wealthy Roger Manning. He may be Manning's valet. (Though Lucien Littlefield also makes an uncredited appearance early in the film performing a valet's duties.) He arrives late in the film, seeming to perform more of a porter's function. In the final sequence he functions as the "hero's sidekick" when he's charged with fetching the police to rescue Manning from a sticky situation in a rough part of town.

The same actor appears in the Cheat. He has a small role in both of these two films that DeMille shot at the same time toward the end of 1915. In this one, he plays a servant to a fabulously wealthy ivory merchant named Tori played by Sessue Hayakawa- the future Oscar-nominee's star-making role. Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen's 1969 book the Films of Cecil B. Demille identifies the actor as Utake Abe. Abe's imdb profile lists many variant spellings and alternate names for the Kyoto-born actor who acted in a number of Hollywood pictures in the teens and early twenties, before returning to Japan to become a notable film director. Joseph L. Anderon and Donald Ritchie's 1982 expanded edition of the Japanese Film: Art and Industry describe the beginnings of (as they spell it) Yutake Abe's directorial career:
Comedy, long neglected in pre-1920 Japanese films, was now coming into its own, the form receiving yet further impetus when both Yutake Abe and Frank Tokunaga returned to Japan. The former had been working in Hollywood - as a butler duting long periods of "at liberty" as an actor - and came home just in time to see what [director Yasujiro] Shimazu was doing in the way of comedy. Abe's long American training had given him a profound dislike for the Shimpa style, and shortly after his return he began creating films which brought to the new comedy speed, sharpness in editing, and sophistication.
Abe would make the first film to top the annual critics' poll held by the film magazine Kinema Junpo, with his 1926 comedy the Woman Who Touched Legs, which was remade by Kon Ichikawa in 1952 and by Yasuzo Masamura in 1960. Another film Abe directed that year, Mermaid of the Land, came third in the same poll, just edging out Teinosuke Kinugasa's a Page of Madness (Minoru Murata's the Sun, not to be confused with the Kinugasa film bearing that name, came second). Abe would continue a long career as a director, making what Anderson/Ritchie call "ultra-nationalistic" war films in the early 1940s, but continuing to work through the U.S. post-war occupation period and into the 1960s.

Interesting stuff, but perhaps a major sidetrack, as no other source I've seen confirms that Abe is the same actor who appears in both the Cheat and the Golden Chance. Many sources, including Robert S. Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, identify him as playing Tori's valet in the Cheat. However, there are two distinct actors whose characters performed as servants to the ivory king. Either might be considered a valet, and the one pictured to the left is the one with a title card of dialogue in the film (the closest thing silent films had to "speaking parts" I suppose). The question becomes, how reliable is Ringgold and Bodeen's information? As a researcher I've grown to become wary of the accuracy of data found only in a single secondary source and not corroborated. I'd love to be pointed to another source with a picture of Abe, whether in the Hollywood or Japanese phase of his career. I'm on the list to receive Daisuke Miyao's book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom when a copy arrives at my local library, in the hopes that Abe is discussed or pictured. Anyone else have any guesses on leads?

Whether it's Abe or another man, I remain curious about the actor who played an on-screen servant to both the heroic Wallace Reid and the villainous Sessue Hayakawa at precisely the same moment in film history. What stories could he tell of the film industry attitude toward Asian-born actors in Hollywood at the time? What would he say about Hayakawa? About DeMille? I'd love to know.

6 comments:

Thom said...

Brian - Thanks for sharing your research journey. I sympathize with your predicament--unable to corroborate the info on Abe.

Have you considered contacting the National Film Center at the Nation Museum of Modern Art? It's a long shot but, for what it's worth, here's a link:

http://www.momat.go.jp/english/map_info.html

CanadianKen said...

Enjoyed reading your interesting piece. I've watched THE CHEAT many times. There's something about Fannie Ward that simply fascinates me. In addition, I've always been curious about the (uncredited) actress who plays her maid. She does a great job - totally attuned to the action around her - definitely contributing when she could've just walked through the part. I'd say it's pretty certain she was paid peanuts for it - but at least the survival of THE CHEAT has provided her with a tiny bit of (anonymous)immortality.
By the way, I have a movie-related blog. And as it happens, just a couple of weeks ago I posted a piece on another Asian performer who had a brief Hollywood career. Her name was Toshia Mori - and she too was born in Kyoto. Both her career and life remain largely undocumented - a handful of brief vivid appearances, some isolated (and often contradictory) biographical snippets. But mostly silence. If you're interested in checking out the piece, here's the link.

http://canadianken.blogspot.com/2008/06/toshia-mori.html

Brian said...

Thanks for the link, Thom! I'll wait a little bit to see if anyone chancing upon this post has more suggestions, and then I'll start following up on them (or it, if yours ends up being the only tip- it seems like a potentially very good one.)

Brian said...

Ken, I'm struggling to figure out how your comment slipped by my attention earlier; it's particularly odd considering that you posted two hours before I did. Strange...

Anyway, thanks so much for the comment and the pointer to your site and that delightful piece on Mori, whose career I had never considered before.

It's fascinating which bit players will catch our attention when watching films made long ago...

Ed Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

So, nearly a year and a half later, I return to this blog post. I have just watched a VHS tape of the 1919 the Tong Man, which features Utake/Yutake Abe in a role as Lucero, Sessue Hayakawa's sidekick. I feel certain that the actor is indeed the one appearing in both the Cheat and the Golden Chance. Not the actor shown in screencap #3 of this post, who appears only in the Cheat. In other words, Ringgold and Bodeen are correct, and the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is: Yes!