Considered lost for many years, the 1919 production “The Dragon Painter” emerges today as an interesting starring vehicle for Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese-born actor who became Hollywood’s first non-white leading man.
Hayakawa plays a hermetic and possibly deranged artist who lives in the woods and paints elaborate landscapes. He claims he is searching for an enchanted princess who was stolen from him centuries ago by a dragon. Through too-convenient circumstances, he winds up at the home of an elderly painter with a pretty daughter. The mad artist believes the girl is his lost princess – but, as luck would have it, his artistic skills vanish once he gets the girl. How will he be able to have his princess and paint her, too?
“The Dragon Painter” is not a great film, by any stretch (I hesitate to say it’s a good film). The plot is too hokey to be believed, with plot twists telegraphed miles in advance. Hayakawa never truly embodies the visceral passion of the artist – he seems more dazed than driven. As his muse, Tsuru Aoki (Hayakawa’s real-life wife) is a bit too matronly to be acceptable as the fair young maiden who can tame a wild man’s heart.
Nonetheless, it is a culturally important effort. “The Dragon Painter” provided a positive (if flowery) view of Japanese culture in an era when anti-Asian sentiments were commonplace. Hayakawa produced this film, which earns him credit for breaking the Hollywood color line on both sides of the camera. For social significance, if not artistic depth, the film deserves a contemporary audience.