Milestone doesn't put out a lot of DVDs, but when they do release a
title it's usually something to take notice of. Two of their most
recent titles have been Killer of Sheep and I am Cuba, both
of which earned the coveted DVDTalk Collector Series rating. Now
they've released an important silent film that is both historic, in that
it's the first film to accurately present Japanese culture to American
audiences, and entertaining: The Dragon Painter.
Dragon Painter was made in 1919 and stars a very young Sessue Hayakawa
who would later go on to be nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for
his magnificent portrayal as Col. Saito, the prisoner-of-war camp
commandant, in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Even though he
is largely forgotten today, at this point in his career Hayakawa was
one of Hollywood's top leading men. He turned down the role of The
Sheik before it was offered to Valentino and played opposite such stars
as Blanche Sweet and Florence Vidor as well as working with Frank Borzage
(when he was still acting, before he went behind the camera) and Noah Berry.
Discovered by Thomas Ince, Hayakawa's career quickly blossomed.
His success in the 1914 films The Tycoon and The Wrath of the
Gods made him an in demand actor, the first Japanese-American movie
star. His exotic good looks assured that he would have work, but
he didn't like the roles he was getting; he would often play characters
that seduced women and were then killed off at the end. Tired of
playing in formulaic stories, Hayakawa formed his own production company,
something that only the biggest stars could manage in those days.
Along with his wife, actress Tsuri Aoki and director William Worthington
and some capital from a college friend he formed Haworth Pictures Corp.
Hayakawain was able to make the kinds of movies he wanted; ones that portrayed
the Japanese in a realistic, if somewhat idealized light. The buck-toothed
coolie was gone and instead Japanese customs and culture were portrayed
in a sympathetic light. Hayakawa was involved in many aspects of
his films creation, from picking stories to adapt to the supervising the
One of the films Hayakawain made at Haworth was The Dragon Painter,
based on a novel by Mary McNeil Fonollosa (which is available as a DVD-ROM
feature on this disc.) The plot revolves around a crazy hermit, Tatsu
(Hayakawa) who is convinced that his true love has been captured by a
dragon. He lives in the mountains, painting dragons day after day
waiting for hos princess to return.
day a man from the city discovers some of Tatsu's discarded works.
Recognizing the talent, he's sure that the master Indara (Edward Pell Sr.)
will want the artist as a pupil. Indara has not found a suitable
heir to learn his secrets, and Tatsu seems to have the prerequisite talent.
To get him off the mountain, Tatsu is told that Indara knows something
about his fiancée. When he arrives at the master artist's
home however, the hermit discovers more than he was hoping for: He's
sure that Indara's daughter Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki) is his lost love.
This is a beautiful movie that is enthralling to watch. The mountain
scenery, especially the waterfall the Tatsu constantly paints is just lovely.
Filmed in Yosemite, the cinematographer made good use of the natural beauty
of the area.
It's also easy to see why Hayakawa was a star. He gives a mesmerizing
performance and steals the movie. His acting is rather restrained
and he plays the slightly mad hermit wonderfully. Aoki does a good
job too, but her real-life husband is clearly the star.
The film is accompanied by an ensemble score written by Mark Izu.
It fits the movie well, accenting the emotion of the film without overpowering
or distracting from the visuals. The audio quality is excellent.
The tinted 1.33:1 windowboxed image looks pretty good overall.
This film was considered lost for many years until a single copy was discovered
in France. There is some damage to the print, scratches, dirt and
a missing frame or two, but these aren't extreme. The contrast is
good and the level of detail is excellent for a film that's 85+ years old.
Aside from a few sections that are damaged particularly bad, this is a
nice looking film.
includes a lot of wonderful extra material on this disc. First off
is The Wrath of the Gods, the 1914 feature film that made Sessue
Hayakawa a star. In addition to that there's a comedy short from
1921 featuring Hayakawa, Charles Murray, and Roscoe Arbuckle, Screen
Snapshots No. 20. This wasn't too impressive; the three just
goof around in from of the camera for five minutes. There's also
a still gallery.
That's not all however. Viewers with a DVD-ROM equipped computer
can access a wealth of information as .pdf files. There's Mary McNeil
Fonollosa's original novel that the feature film was based on, an essay
on early Asian films by historian Brian Taves, the original script for
Wrath of the Gods, and a short piece on how to build a movie volcano.
(Which uses vinegar and Baking Soda with food coloring.)
This is a great package. The Dragon Painter is a wonderful film
that has an important place in film history, and shows Sessue Hayakawa
at the height of his stardom. The fact that there is a second feature,
a short, shooting script and an entire novel included on this disc makes
it even more attractive. This disc is highly recommended.