#557) The Dragon Painter (1919)

#557) The Dragon Painter (1919)

OR “Art Ache”

Directed by William Worthington

Written by Richard Schayer. Based on the novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa.

Class of 2014

The Plot: In Hakawa, Japan, Tatsu (Sessue Hayakawa) paints landscapes to cope with the loss of his fiancée, who he believes is a princess that turned into a dragon. Tatsu’s art catches the eye of Kano Indara (Edward Peil Sr.), a famous painter who wants Tatsu as his protégé. Indara presents his daughter Ume-ko (Tsuru Aoki) as the reincarnation of Tatsu’s lost fiance, and the two fall in love. But when their newfound love gives Tatsu a case of painter’s block, things turn surprisingly tragic. Well, kinda.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film and Sessue Hayakawa, and mentions that critics of the time praised the film’s “seemingly authentic Japanese atmosphere” (it was shot in Yosemite Valley). There’s also a very detailed essay by film professor and Sessue Hayakawa expert Daisuke Miyao.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. Not only is “Dragon Painter” one of your standard lost and found silent movies, but it’s also the rare movie (silent or otherwise) produced by and starring an Asian creative team. Historical significance aside, “Dragon Painter” is a quick, easy to follow fable devoid of harmful stereotypes (for the most part; see “Wow, That’s Dated”). Over 102 years later “Dragon Painter” is still worth a viewing, and worth the reminder of how important it is to view art from all walks of life.

Everybody Gets One: Director William Worthington started off as a stage and film actor, and focused his attention on directing through the 1910s and ’20s. He returned to film acting in the ’30s, playing bit parts in such films as “Duck Soup” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s a movie devoid of Japanese stereotypes and I STILL have to issue a Yellowface Warning? Ugh. Despite the majority of the cast being of Japanese descent, Kano Indara is played by White actor Edward Peil Sr. from Racine Wisconsin.Why, Sessue, why?

Other notes

  • Following his success in “The Cheat”, Sessue Hayakawa was one of the biggest and highest paid stars in Hollywood. Fearful of being cast in the stereotypical Asian roles of the studio system, Hayakawa formed his own production company: Haworth Pictures Corporation, a combination of his name and co-founder William Worthington’s. “The Dragon Painter” was one of 23 films made by Haworth Pictures.
  • The version I watched is 3 minutes longer than other prints. No, they didn’t reinstate 3 minutes of long-lost footage; this version is a restoration that begins with 3 minutes of text explaining how “Dragon Painter” was restored and who funded it. I applaud the effort, but why not stick this after the movie?
  • So Tatsu’s fiancée turned into a dragon 1000 years ago? If that’s the case, Tatsu looks amazing for 1033. (But seriously, Sessue Hayakawa was 33 when he made this and looks like he’s 20. How I envy those genes).
  • Kano Idara believes his legacy must end because he did not produce a son. I was hoping that the introduction of his daughter would lead to a progressive stance on women in this culture, but I guess it’s not that kind of movie.
  • Ume-ko is played by Tsuru Aoki, the real-life Mrs. Sessue Hayakawa. The two married in 1913, and were together until Aoki’s death in 1961. Throughout the ’10s and ’20s Aoki was often cast as Hayakawa’s leading lady.
  • Of course you can’t see Tatsu’s fiancée in his paintings: she’s a hidden dragon. She’s right next to the crouching tiger.
  • In true silent film fashion, “Dragon Painter” is giving me some glorious day-for-night shots, tinted in a lovely lavender blue.
  • I hate that Tatsu’s art suffers because he has found love. You can have both! This is like when Elaine Benes got dumb after practicing abstinence.
  • And then the movie gets kinda dark with Ume-ko contemplating suicide. …Or you could just break up with him. That’s fine too. Thankfully, everyone gets a happy ending here, though we end with the moral “Love must be art’s servant” which, I don’t know…


  • “The Dragon Painter” marked the end of Sessue Hayakawa’s reign as a silent film star; he left Hollywood for his native Japan a few years later (some speculate because of anti-Asian sentiment). Hayakawa would return to American stage and screen occasionally, most notably in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” for which he received an Oscar nomination.
  • “The Dragon Painter” disappeared for many years until a print was found in France sometime in the 1980s. The French-translated intertitles were translated back into English, and the entire film received a restoration in 1988. For those of you keeping score, that’s two movies in two weeks of this blog that had a single surviving print in France. Clearly we need to be copying the French style of film preservation.

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