You Have the Face of a Villain
Sadakichi Hartmann, the man who would be king
“Having made sure that I was wrong, I went ahead,” reasoned Douglas Fairbanks, when he explained how he arrived at the decision to make The Three Musketeers in 1921. In preparation for his next film, he had taken an informal poll of theater exhibitors, the businessmen who would be distributing it. They almost uniformly pooh-poohed the idea of doing a big “costume” picture. Period pieces, as we call them today, were still a novel genre with an unproven success rate. The exhibitors didn’t think moviegoers would go for it, that they’d more likely walk on by to the next movie palace down the block (this was in the days before 18-theater multiplexes). Of course, Doug didn’t listen to them and made the film anyway. He was a visionary in that way and the film was a great success.
Douglas Fairbanks and his better half, Mary Pickford, were considered the King and Queen of young Hollywood in the early 1920s. Doug looms large in the first chapter of my book on Anna May Wong primarily because he gave her one of her biggest breaks in the movie business, and as I’ve mentioned previously, she saw him as a mentor. Doug was also an irresistible, larger-than-life character whose exuberance and sunny American can-do attitude sometimes rankled those of more cynical dispositions.
When I was doing the research for the beginning of the book, I found myself strangely drawn to him. At one point I had about six or seven tomes on Douglas Fairbanks strewn about my office. N, wondering whether I might be abandoning AMW, half-jokingly asked me if I was now writing a Fairbanks biography. I could never abandon Anna May! But I think that mentors and first gigs have an outsized influence on people and what they go on to do (I know that’s true of my own life and career). And it’s important to understand who set the gold standard in Hollywood when AMW entered into the industry.
In 1923, capitalizing on the success of his “costume” pictures, Doug launched into production for his biggest film yet, an Arabian Nights fantasy titled The Thief of Bagdad. The plot in a nutshell: a thief named Ahmed falls in love with a princess but realizes he must change his way of life, which has relied primarily on taking what he wants from others. “Happiness must be earned,” so the film’s moral goes. The only thing that stands between him and his true love are three princely suitors, one of whom has a nefarious plan to take over Bagdad after he wins the princess’s hand in marriage.
Doug would play Ahmed, the thief, and he cast Julanne Johnston, a relative unknown, in the role of the princess—so two white actors played the Middle Eastern leads. But Doug wanted the movie to have more than a touch of the fantastic and was convinced that in order to evoke the exotic aura of the Near East, he needed to cast “unusual types” in the rest of the principal roles. Anna May Wong, for example, was selected to play the role of Mongol slave, an absurd and unlikely breakout role, but it ultimately introduced AMW to millions of viewers around the world and established her as an actress with that undefinable star quality. I’d compare it to other improbable breakout moments like that of Emma Stone in Superbad or Rami Malek in Night at the Museum.
This being the heyday of the silent era, looks and how one appeared on camera trumped nearly everything else. Directors were rarely concerned with the timbre of a player’s voice or their delivery. Acting ability was a nice-to-have, but not a deal breaker. While Doug was wracking his brain for who to cast as the suitors—three princes from the faraway lands of India, Persia, and Mongolia—he stumbled upon what he thought was a revelatory solution. He’d ask Sadakichi Hartmann, the vaguely Asiatic poet-intellectual and frequent drinking friend of John Barrymore (yes, that Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s granddaddy), to play the role of the Indian prince.
Who exactly was Sadakichi Hartmann?
Much has been said about Sadakichi by those who adored and sparred with him. Writer Benjamin De Casseres describes him thus:
A grinning obscene gargoyle on the Temple of American Letters. Superman-bum. Half God, half Hooligan; all artist. Anarch, sadist, satyr. A fusion of Jap and German, the ghastly experiment of an Occidental on the person of an Oriental. Sublime, ridiculous, impossible.
Anna Schechtman sums up his many epithets succinctly in an essay on Sadakichi’s early criticism of the cinematic arts:
He was “King of the Bohemians” (per Greenwich Village lore), “the man with a Hokusai profile and broad Teutonic culture” (per J. G. Huneker), and “a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly” (per John Barrymore). Gertrude Stein said he was “singular, never plural.” And Ezra Pound conceded, “If one had not been oneself, it wd. have been worthwhile being Sadakichi.”
Sadakichi Hartmann was many things: He was a brilliant poet and a protogé of Walt Whitman, who believed he had a bright future; he importantly helped introduce Japanese poetic forms like the haiku into English literature. He was a respected art critic and one of the first to write seriously about the photographic medium; his essays were published in Alfred Stieglitz’s publications. He was a playwright and performer; his plays often piqued the censors and ended disastrously either with his arrest, or worse, the near total destruction of the venue itself. He made up dance routines worthy of TikTok. He wrote an autobiography that was never published, though he brainstormed 25 possible titles. In 1902, he staged a “perfume concert” called “A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes,” where he waved scent-soaked cloths in front of electric fans pointed at the audience; the concert lasted four minutes before he was heckled off the stage.
He was born in 1867 (or possibly 1869) on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, Japan, to a German merchant named Carl Herman Oskar Hartmann and a Japanese woman known only as Osada. Dejima was an artificial island where foreign merchants could stay and conduct business during Japan’s isolationist period. Hence, the reason Sadakichi was born there. Sadly, his mother Osada died in childbirth and after four years in Japan, Sadakichi and his older brother were whisked away by their father to Hamburg, Germany. His father was reportedly cold and disinterested in his son’s lives. When Sadakichi was sent to the naval academy, he promptly ran away to Paris. His father disinherited him and sent him to live with an uncle in Philadelphia. Sadakichi eventually naturalized and spent the rest of his life in the U.S.
As a mixed race person at the turn of the 19th century, Sadakichi was indeed a kind of “living freak”—at least that is the way his difference was perceived by most. He had a Japanese face but spoke English with a heavy German accent, and everywhere he went he seemed to confuse people, filling them with wonder and dread. By the 1920s, an older Sadakichi arrived in Los Angeles seeking respite and the much trumpeted health benefits of Southern California’s mild climate. Just as he had done in New York and San Francisco, he ingratiated himself with elite local circles. It seems logical that he would become a frequent guest at Hollywood parties as the eccentric du jour.
This item on Sadakichi appears in the gossip pages of Picture-Play’s November 1923 issue:
Filmdom’s intelligentsia have discovered a new occupation for their leisure hours that is curiously different. They have prevailed on Sadakichi Hartmann, the Eurasian mystic, to explain to them the reasons for divorce. . . . Hartmann delves deeply into the past and tells just why Cleopatra was attracted to Mark Antony, and why she gave Julius Caesar the air. His explanations are so convincing that several people who were just on the point of racing to the courts have put up their aggravations to him, so we hear, to see if he can’t find out what is the proper algebraical formula for them to live by and be happy.
It was just a matter of time before someone attempted to cast this entertaining “mystic” in one of their films. Douglas Fairbanks got there first. Upon calling Sadakichi Hartmann to the studio, Fairbanks scrutinized his features and pronounced, “You have the eyes of a saint; the rest of your face is that of a villain.” Doug had originally considered him for the role of the Indian prince; but after watching his test scenes for the camera, Doug, Mary, and Charlie Chaplin all agreed Sadakichi should be elevated to the part of Mongol prince, the film’s main villain.
“People in past years have often asked: how did you ever escape the movies?” Sadakichi later explained. “And my stereotype answer has been: well, if they want me they have to come to me. Now, the mountain had actually come to Mohammed. So I put on my Oriental mask. Yes, I could be induced, provided they had a real part for me.”
Long story short, Sadakichi said yes to the money. He was also curious to see for himself what actually goes on on Hollywood movie sets. But his artistic ego got the better of him. He lasted three weeks in his new profession.
Personally affronted by the fact that he was not treated like an A-lister and that none of his genius ideas with regard to how his scenes should be shot, dressed, acted, etc., were listened to, he quit. Sadakichi did not simply skulk into the night when he left the Pickford-Fairbanks studio for good, though. No. He wrote a dense three-page broadside on all that he had been subjected to and found distasteful while he was in Fairbanks’s employ and published it in Camera! magazine a full month in advance of The Thief of Bagdad’s New York premiere.
Sadakichi’s acerbic wit and cynicism are on full display in this delicious essay, which I can’t resist highlighting a few choice excerpts from (if you have the time and interest, you can read the full piece here). He begins:
In the early summer of 1923 I was living the life of an invalid at an inconspicuous family hotel in Los Angeles. One morning, quite unexpectedly, I received a telephone call from the secretary of Douglas Fairbanks, requesting me to come to the studio. What for? I queried. Oh, something special. I thought, no doubt, the great thespian tumbler wants to treat himself to a set of my art books, just as Chaplin, Pola Negri, and Bertram Lytell had done. As a matter of courtesy more than anything else, for motion picture folks are not given much to reading. They do not need it in their profession.
Right off the bat, he establishes his low opinion of motion picture people as uncultured, willful illiterates, setting expectations for how much lower they are going to fall in his esteem. Then he launches into his list of grievances.
The only costume available was a dilapidated mandarin coat that had seen much service, ordinary Chinatown trousers and shoes, and a headgear such as some Chinese Pavlova may wear. The barber insisted on glueing two long horsehair appendages to my moustache.
His snide description is better and more dramatic than any screen image of him ever could have been. On this count, his imagination outstripped that of Douglas Fairbanks and the film’s costume designer. But his next complaint is indefensible.
Never in my life had I occupied a position demanding regular hours.
This coming to the studio, for no earthly reason, at 9 and staying until after 5 was a hard task. I did not fancy it. Nobody else does. To wait in some impossible costume, perchance in armour or half naked, all day long to no other purpose but to obey the whims of some director is an imposition. Everybody feels piqued but does as told. If birds are caught in a net they are subject to the fowler’s disposition.
Hmmmm. By “imposition,” I think you mean a job. In the words of Don Draper, that’s what the money’s for. The rant continues with Sadakichi arguing that the studio system is not designed to foster true dramatic expression.
Equally [disastrous] is the actual method of taking pictures. It is like a remnant of the Inquisition with its torturing wiles, the rack, thumbscrew and the spiked virgin. To take the same incident 7, 12, 27 times in one session cannot result in spontaneous work. That is why most performers look like corpses on the screen. Fortunate for them that the public is so fond of morgues.
HA! Is this guy like the ultimate roaster, or what?
The toxic negativity continues in a steady flow: he complains that his costume was too heavy and rigid—“What is this, I demanded to know, something to advertise linoleum?”; that he was made to try on many ill-fitting hats that hurt his head and required him to stoop when walking through doorways; and when crew members offered him a sip of whiskey, he claims it tasted like it was poisoned and wonders, “Is there anything like the Ku Klux movement in the movies?”
He denounces The Thief of Bagdad as an “Oriental phantasmagoria” and cheap rip off of Léon Bakst’s inspired costumes for the ballet Scheherazade; he skewers the “makeshift set” in one of the few scenes he filmed by characterizing it as “Nottingham remodeled into a Chinese scene that no doubt would have made a great hit as a chop suey restaurant in some world’s fair.” (Doug’s previous film was Robinhood and he repurposed many of the sets for Thief, hence the Nottingham reference.)
Sadakichi then proclaims his final judgment on the movie industry:
I have often been asked if the motion picture is an art. A most unnecessary and futile question. Is a county fair art? Are Buffalo Bill shows, circus and hippodrome performances, parades, reviews, “calico” pageants, centennial celebrations art? No, they are public entertainments—that may or may not be artistic in spots. It is exactly the same with products of the motion picture industry.
Douglas Fairbanks did not deign to mention Sadakichi by name when he spoke to the New York Times while promoting the film’s imminent release.
I had trouble with an Oriental philosopher . . . He thought that his literary ability and renown entitled him to great deference, and he had a sort of delusion that he was being persecuted. When he left there was something published to the effect that we had forced him to wear heavy costumes so that he would be constantly ill at ease.
What are we to make of this bizarre blip in cultural history, when an exalted Hollywood star and producer met his match in an egotistical poet-artist-intellectual with Fu Manchu looks? One obvious take is that such a pairing never could have worked out. Douglas Fairbanks and Sadakichi Hartmann were each used to being the master of their own universe. It must have been a particularly rude awakening for Sadakichi to step into the established King of Hollywood’s domain and realize his gifts were of no use or value.
Perhaps the real reason I’m so fascinated with Sadakichi is that we have something in common. I, too, am part Asian and part European, and I know something about putting on my “Oriental mask” and my Western one. I know what it’s like to be made to feel like a freak. In Asia, people often gasp at my face when they get close enough to get a good look at it. I would not have taken kindly to someone telling me I have “the face of a villain,” even in jest. In South Korea, I was told that a makeup artist wouldn’t know what to do with me.
Was Sadakichi an egotistical, contentious, cantankerous figure because of his otherness? Was it a coping mechanism? Or did he become that way because he was used to being distinguished and adulated as a cultural and racial oddity? Did he revel in the attention he received and use it as a tool of manipulation?
One thing must be said. As exaggerated and ridiculous as his complaints are in that essay—they don’t reflect particularly well on him either—Sadakichi is an astute observer and his conclusions are essentially true. Douglas Fairbanks was rarely ever seen reading a book. There probably were KKK members working in Hollywood. That Mongolian set did look like a glorified chop suey palace. The Thief of Bagdad is an “Oriental phantasmagoria.” And that’s kind of the point.
Hollywood, from the very beginning, has always had license to make up worlds based on half-truths and pixie dust, even when the script is supposedly “based on a true story.” That most of us are content to suspend disbelief and go along with the dog and pony show is a reflection of the American penchant for the sentimental, the nostalgic, the happy ending.
Sadakichi resists that urge, or he never had it to begin with, which is why he writes critically of Thief:
And what is it all about? What sort of a play is considered worth while of such lavish exploitation? It is no play at all. Just a conglomeration of spectacular incidents. Of course, the scenario writer can claim authorship. But there is no real authorship, as it is a willful concoction, a composite, a salmagundi of suggestions derived from a hundred sources, loosely strung together.
Having seen the movie myself, I don’t disagree with his assessment. The movie is too long, the story is clichéd, the acting is overblown. And yet, I know that watching Thief as a spectator, not a critic, is a completely different experience. It really does feel like you’re being transported to an enchanted dreamland where right prevails and the worthy suitor wins his true love. Every time I listen to the first few bars of the film’s soundtrack, I’m transformed back into the twelve-year-old girl who watched Star Wars: A New Hope on the big screen for the first time. I fell in love with a galaxy far, far away and I left the theater wishing I could live in that other world. The same is true of Thief, watching the film is a magical experience.
Sadakichi’s refusal to go along with the Hollywood daydreamers, self-serving though it may be, reminds us that there is more than one way to see and be in the world. The Thief of Bagdad is merely one such worldview, and enjoyable as it is to inhabit for a couple hours, it relegates those who are not white to the margins. The Mongol prince, who was ultimately played by Sojin Kamiyama, is defeated in the end and strung up by his queue. This image was so painful and controversial that it set off a national debate in China and inspired many Chinese to boycott the film.
Thief, fantasy though it may be, exoticizes those of us who are merely different kinds of Americans. Like Anna May Wong. Like Sadakichi Hartmann. Like me. I wonder whether in a different world—one where he was not considered a freak—Sadakichi might have lived to be poet laureate or a well-known name in American letters. I guess we’ll never know.
Sadakichi Hartmann was exceptional in one other way. During World War II, he narrowly escaped incarceration at one of the many camps constructed across the West to imprison Japanese Americans due to their “uncertain loyalties.” Instead, he spent his final years living in a shack on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California. It was a small concession that the U.S. government made for the once illustrious “King of the Bohemians.” Even in this remote shack, Sadakichi was regularly visited and questioned by the FBI. But he had his freedom—the freedom to give his interrogators hell.
Place Your Bid
Sotheby’s is auctioning off two paintings by artist Hank Willis Thomas featuring the image of Anna May Wong. (Thanks for the tip, Alison Cornyn!) You have until Friday, October 8th, to make a bid on Frosted Yellow Willows Pollock.