Melodrama Everywhere: Week of June 26th, 1920

Fannie Hurst, 1914

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley mentioned that another writer was ready to earn some Hollywood cash:

If old Bill Shakespeare were alive today he’d probably be writing for the movies. Everybody in authorland is doing it. The latest famous scribe to sign up is Fannie Hurst, who has just put her name to a contract to write a number of stories for Universal.

It seems it was while she was on her way to San Francisco to the Democratic convention that Miss Hurst arranged this. After the convention she will return to Los Angeles to begin writing for Priscilla Dean and other Universal stars.

Hurst had sold to Universal the rights to a story called “A Petal on the Current” a few months earlier and it seems that they liked what they bought. She did come to Hollywood where she rented a bungalow and wrote “Oats for Women,” which became The Day She Paid, directed by Rex Ingram. But that was enough for her–she returned to New York where she stayed until her death in 1968.

Her short stay might not have only been caused by a New Yorker’s dislike of California; she also had a previous commitment to New York-based Cosmopolitan Pictures which had the rights to her published works. They were already filming Humoresque, which turned out to be a great big hit. Many more classic films were based on her works, including Back Street (1932 and 1941) Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959) and Four Daughters (1939) and its two sequels. Hurst became one of the best-paid writers in America. It’s interesting that she was content to write the stories, and let others adapt them into scripts. It seems like she knew what she was good at. In the 1950’s and 60’s, her writing was scorned because it was melodramatic, but since the 1990’s critics have taken her works about marginalized women more seriously. Naturally, there’s been a biography.


Kingsley also reported that actress Tsuru Aoki returned to Los Angeles this week after a four month long trip to Japan:

This was Miss Aoki’s first trip to Japan since she came to this country. She was 8 years old then. She was educated here, and took special training at Stanford University. She visited her relatives in Japan, including her famous aunt, the actress Sada Yacco.

Sada Yacco

Aoki’s mother’s older brother, Otojiro Kawakami, was to married Sada Yacco, who had the sort of life that’s begging for a biopic to be made (an English-language biography came out in 2004). Left at a geisha house when she was 4, she was trained as an apprentice. She became the Prime Minister’s mistress at age 15. That ended when she was 18. She married Kawakami when she was 22 and she joined his acting troupe. In 1899 they left Japan to tour the United States and Europe, where she was a huge sensation. She retired from acting in 1917.

Tsuru Kawakami, 1899

I noticed something missing in every biography of Tsuru Aoki: they all mention that she came to America with her uncle and aunt in 1899, but her relatives left her at their first stop in San Francisco, where she was adopted by an artist, Toshio Aoki. But there’s no mention of what happened to her parents. There’s one article in Photoplay by her childhood friend, Louise Scher, who said that Tsuru Aoki’s father had been killed in the Russo-Japanese War so her mother asked her older brother to look after her child. More information isn’t available because Japan has extraordinarily strict privacy laws for access to koseki records (family registry) – it’s limited to people named in them, their direct descendants, and lawyers if needed for a proceeding. The koseki has the same function as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and the census in other countries – everything researchers rely on for biographical information. Furthermore, the records aren’t digitized, so you have to know which city hall to write to. So unless the law changes, or a descendent decides to write a biography, we’ll never know about her early years.

What little we know is unbearably sad if Scher’s story is true. Tsuru Aoki lost her father, was given up by her mother, and was taken to to a strange country with a new language then left with a middle-aged bachelor. He died when she was 20, so she needed to become self-supporting. Fortunately, she was a good actress and was able to find work on stage and in films. With such sudden reversals of fortune in nonfiction, it’s no wonder people liked melodramatic stories–they must have seemed completely plausible.




Louise Scher, “A Flower of Japan,” Photoplay, June 1916, pp.110-112.

“U Signs Hurst,” Film Daily, July 3, 1920, p.1.



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