johnlink ranks THE DRAGON PAINTER (1919)
So here it is! Movie number 500 for this blog! I had spent a good amount of time thinking what I would put in for number 500. I figured I should go to the top 10 of IMDB and do something like THE GODFATHER or maybe FIGHT CLUB. I considered rewriting on an old favorite like GHOST BUSTERS or THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But, no. Instead, I watched a 1919 silent film which I had never heard of. I suppose that isn’t the most glorious way to hit 500 movies, but it is somehow fitting when considering the seemingly random scattering of movies I’ve watched in the four years of doing this. Anyway, away we go…
I watched THE DRAGON PAINTER (1919) on 1.7.12. It was my first viewing of the film.
On first glance (and second and third) this appears to be a Japanese film. And, in many ways, it is. Sessue Hayakawa (who, 38 years later, would go on to win an Oscar for his role in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) was a successful Hollywood silent era actor. The problem was that his ethnicity led to his being marginalized to villainous or auxiliary characters. He decided to start his own studio and THE DRAGON PAINTER is one of the films born from the Haworth Pictures Corporation.
There are some clues which betray this as an American film. William Worthington is the Director. A major character is played as Japanese by Wisconsin born Edward Peil Sr. The settings look much more like the west coast of America than the islands of Japan. The film was, in fact, shot partly at Yosemite National Park.
THE DRAGON PAINTER tells the whimsical story of the artist Tatsu (Hayakawa) who is convinced that a Princess was turned into a dragon. He paints dragons all day. He seems them in the water, the rock formations, the sky.
Separately, Kano Indara (Peil) is an elderly artist who has never found an apprentice to take over for him or a husband for his daughter. He comes to think he has found both in Tatsu.
Unfortunately, Tatsu only painted dragons because it was an expression of his love. When he meets Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki, who was Hayakawa’s wife in real life as well), he becomes convinced that she is his princess. His need to paint diminishes. This infuriates Kano Indara, who cares more about the art than love.
This is a nice story with some solid acting. Tatsu sure seems crazy, Kano Indara sure acts obsessed, and it feels as though Ume-Ko really does fall for Tatsu. I wasn’t blown away by this movie like I have been by some of the silent work of Keaton and Chaplin, but I certainly found this to be a unique piece of film history.
Some of the shadow and silhouette work, done late in the film, looks magnificent. The art direction is beautiful, and the attention to detail is nicely realized. The interiors felt like a Japanese home, even if the exteriors looked like Yosemite.
Hayakawa finally got to play the protagonist. There is certainly something to be said about the decision to cast a white actor as Kano Indara. He attempts to control Tatsu, to make him do what he wants him to do without regard for what is good for Tatsu. The ‘art’ is more important that the person.
I’m sure Hayakawa felt that way in his career sometimes as well. It led him to create his own studio. It led him to THE DRAGON PAINTER.
FILM: 7; MOVIE: 6; ACTING: 7; WRITING: 6; BONUS: 1
I really enjoyed the art direction in this film. It looked really beautiful throughout. The exteriors might have been Yosemite instead of Japan, but they certainly were engaging regardless! The interiors were nicely detailed and really gave an authentic feel to this Hollywood film.
FINAL SCORE: 6.75