23 February 2009

Otto Yamaoka

This blog gives a rather lopsided depiction of my interests, because I am by no means merely a Japanophile. Among other things, I have also long been a fan of early Hollywood movies. On a whim yesterday, I picked up a cheap DVD of Libeled Lady (1936), one of Jean Harlow’s last films starring her then-lover William Powell, his frequent co-star Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy.

I was intrigued by the opening credit list, which included an actor named Otto Yamaoka in the role of “Ching.” Asian actors in early Hollywood are particularly fascinating to me. They had such odds to overcome in order to make a niche for themselves in the industry. Sessue Hayakawa (早川 雪洲, 1889-1973) remains to this day the only Asian man to sustain a Hollywood career as a leading man (and I mean 'leading man' in the Classical Hollywood sense). Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (黃柳霜, 1905-1961) fought in vain to get non-stereotyped roles. Although these days, Asian-American actors have been making great strides on American television, in the movies they still get stuck in stereotyped roles (ie. martial arts expert, restaurant staff, laundromat owner) or sidelined into the role of best friend or partner-in-crime. Many actors take the desperate step of playing stereotyped roles – often with phony ‘Engrish’ accents – then spend the rest of their careers trying to live it down. The most tragic example would be Gedde Watanabe (b. 1955) who played the infamous Long Duk Dong character in Sixteen Candles, and has incurred the wrath of a generation of American Asians who came of age in the 1980s.

Very little information on Yamaoka (b. 1904 Seattle – d. 1967 New York City), such as how he got the unfortunate Germanic given name ‘Otto’ (I hope not after Bismarck?), but from the unreferenced bits found on imdb, it seems his career followed a rather predictable trajectory. Imdb claims that Yamaoka worked as a salesman in a costume shop in Los Angeles during the 1930s, so I would imagine that it was through contact with studio staff that he landed bit parts in movies with big stars. In his short Hollywood career, Yamaoka rubbed elbows with some pretty big names including Bing Crosby, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Robert Montgomery, Katharine Hepburn, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Yamaoka’s career as an bit-part actor was cut short by the arrival of the second world war, which saw him sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Cody, Washington. This was a pretty desolate concentration camp, which you can read about and see heart-breaking images of here and here.

Life as an Asian actor in 19030s Hollywood probably had a lot more heartache than rewards. Actors would have had to choose between getting a paid job and degrading themselves onscreen. In this clip of the opening few minutes of Libeled Lady, it’s pretty clear that Yamaoka has been hired as a foil for Spencer Tracy’s comic banter. As Yamaoka was born in Seattle, Washington, I’m guessing his English was pretty standard American with no hint of an accent. However, in this scene he’s been asked to do a Hollywood ‘Asian’ accent à la Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Not only is there a long tradition of these degrading roles for Asians throughout Hollywood history, ‘Yellow Face’ acting by white actors was practiced long after ‘Black Face’ went out of fashion with the civil rights movement. The most offensive example of ‘Yellow Face’ probably being Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys. Clip here and great article on ‘Yellow Face’ at Bright Lights.

Libeled Lady is one of the few films where Otto Yamaoka gets on-screen credit for his role. In most of the films listed here, he is uncredited on the film itself. In the 1930s, film credits were a much shorter affair than they are today so bit players were lucky to get credit at all. In tribute to this Japanese-American actor, born in the wrong time and place to really find success as a Hollywood actor, I am including the most complete filmography I could find of his brief time iin the limelight. Fingers crossed for the Japanese folks at the Oscars tonight. Kato Kuni’s got a real chance with La Maison en Petits Cubes and Okuribito’s been quite popular with critics in their end of year rankings.


  • “Sam” in The Benson Murder Case (1930) starring William Powell
  • “Kashimo” in The Black Camel (1931), a Charlie Chan film starring Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi
  • “Chung Ho” in The Hatchet Man (1932) starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young
  • “Bandit” in War Correspondent (1932)
  • “Togo” in The Racing Strain (1932)
  • “Servant” in Morning Glory (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Adolphe Menjou
  • “Kono” in Before Midnight (1933) starring Ralph Bellamy
  • “Fugi, the Page’s servant” in We’re Rich Again (1934) starring Billie Burke
  • “Chinese Waiter on Boat” in Limehouse Blues (1934), starring George Raft and Anna May Wong
  • “Japanese Chauffeur” in Death Flies East (1935)
  • “Taka” in The Wedding Night (1935), a King Vidor picture starring Gary Cooper and Ralph Bellamy
  • “Kimo” in Petticoat Fever (1936) starring Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy
  • “Houseboy” in Rhythm on the Range (1936) starring Bing Crosby, Frances Farmer and Martha Raye
  • “Thomas” in Hollywood Boulevard (1936)
  • “Ching” in The Libeled Lady (1936) starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spenser Tracy
  • “Japanese Instructor” in Easy to Take (1936)
  • “Fong, Martin’s Servant” in Night Waitress (1936)
  • “Wilbur, Paul’s Butler” in Song of the City (1937)
  • “Japanese Reporter” in Thin Ice (1937) starring Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power
  • “Quintain’s Houseboy” in Stand-In (1937) starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, and Humphrey Bogart
  • “Foo Yung” in Trouble in Sundown (1939)

  • © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009