Yellowface Film Review #4: Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly (1915)

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Not a film of the opera but supposedly based on the original John Luther Long book in which interestingly enough Cho-Cho-San doesn’t commit suicide at the end (in the book). Indeed, the briefest glance at the synopsis is deeply revealing of just how Colonial-Orientalist thinking has conspired to create an enduring cliché. It’s notable how much feistier Cho-Cho-San is in the original novel (at one point she asks Sharpless to write a letter to Pinkerton where she threatens to marry Yamadori and take their son with her) and how much more unsympathetic Pinkerton (who Sharpless finds himself feeling “contempt” for) and Adelaide are.  The latter is portrayed as utterly callous sending the following telegram upon discovery of her husband’s son “Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can’t we have him at once? He is lovely.  Shall see the mother about it tomorrow.  Was not at home when I was there today.  Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? Adelaide.” At the end of the book Cho-Cho vanishes with Suzuki and her baby after being prevented from committing suicide in what really feels like an “Up yours, Whitey!” moment.

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A far cry from the “dying Oriental swan” and consciense-stricken Westerners who nevertheless must return to “civilisation” taking the child with them to a “better life”.  What of this film? There’s no soundtrack and one gets the impression it was lost for a long time. As well as looking like it was shot in a corner of Kew Gardens it’s also risibly patronising, especially with its use of pidgin English captions when the Japanese characters are speaking to each other, one particularly ghastly example being “I choke him with much big American cocktail. He get mad, and no come back”. Just keep talking to him in that doggerel, love, that’ll do the trick.

"He told me he do not want my relatives." "There is an American battleship in the harbor."

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Pinkerton and Cho-Cho’s genuine (looking) Eurasian baby aside this film is populated by Caucasians in silk robes and kimonos with their hairstyles the only authentic looking thing about them. Cho-Cho is of course played by the great Mary Pickford , co-founder of United Artists studio and also known as “America’s sweetheart” , though her trademark curls are naturally hidden here.  She and director Sidney Olcott apparently clashed repeatedly over the fact he thought her “too Americanized to play a Japanese” Quelle surprise! True to form, Mary has one or two stabs at coy “oriental” flirting near the beginning but for the most part just acts herself, as does everyone else in the cast with the possible exception of David Burton as Prince Yamadori who perhaps feels he has to ham up his “Japaneseness” because he’s in ostensibly Western dress.

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Fave scene? All of the scenes featuring Cho-Cho’s family are unintentially hilarious, particularly the one where they sit in two lines facing each and bang their fists repeatedly as they decide to disown Cho-Cho. Because they do that in Japan. Obviously.

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Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex a production The Public Reviews describes “incredibly guiltily hilarious” and The Upcoming says is “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo”

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