Strange Butterfly: Fritz Lang's Harakiri (1919)

by John Mucci and Richard Felnagle
​Part 6: Paramount's Madame Butterfly (1915)
 
In 1915, Paramount pictures made what is apparently the first feature-length film based on all of this. Mary Pickford starred, and the film was directed by Sidney Olcott. The opening titles for the film describe it as “an exquisite picturization of John Luther Long's beloved classic.” No one is specifically credited with the screenplay (only John Luther Long for the story). Even so, the story varies considerably from Long's version. The film is currently available on YouTube .

The film begins with an invented sequence in which Cho-Cho-San and her servant, Suzuki, visit a soothsayer, who warns Cho-Cho-San, “Into your life will come a stranger from a foreign land. Woe unto you if you take him into your heart.” She laughs it off, but Nakado, the local marriage broker, then enters and gives the soothsayer a hard time: “These foreigners pay well for wives. You are injuring my business.”

Cho-Cho-San (Mary Pickford, in the middle) consults with the soothsayer.
Later, as predicted, Cho-Cho-San and Pinkerton meet in a sort of Japanese traffic accident when their respective rickshaws collide, and Pinkerton likes what he sees. (In previous versions, Cho-Cho-San was working as a geisha when she met Pinkerton; here, she is still living with her parents, a story decision that may have had a direct impact on the need to change the ending.)

Some of Pinkerton's friends put the idea into his head that he should see a marriage broker so he can marry the girl, and he does so. We see Cho-Cho-San's parents finalize the contract, and the happy couple set up housekeeping.

As in Long’s story, Pinkerton then turns out to be a real boor and rejects a lot of Japanese customs, offending Cho-Cho-San's relatives and friends, who eventually decide to ostracize her from her family. These events are only discussed in the Long story, but the film dramatizes them.

Cio-Cio-San's family give their blessing.
Later, we see Pinkerton reading a letter from his American sweetheart, here named Adelaide (as she is named in Long's story): “I never realized how much I loved you until you left, so don't let any of those Japanese dolls run away with your heart. Fondly yours, Adelaide.” Eventually, he receives orders to report back to his ship, and he departs, telling Cho-Cho-San, “I will return when the robins nest again.”

We jump forward in time, now, and Cho-Cho-San is bathing her infant son. We cut to America, where Adelaide and Pinkerton are being married, while back in Japan, Cho-Cho-San pathetically checks a robin's nest to see if a robin is nesting there.
 
Pinkerton announces he is leaving Japan.
Now an intertitle announces, “Prince Yamadori. Lately returned from Europe and who would wed Cho Cho San.” This Yamadori wears Western clothes and looks a bit like Emperor Hirohito in a tux, but he lacks the sophistication of expression of the Yamadori in Belasco's version. Intercut with a scene of Pinkerton's wedding feast, the Prince tells Cho-Cho-San, “Mr. Pinkerton get divorce by this time. I love you! Better marry me.” But she replies, “In America, no one can get divorce except in large court house full of judge.” To rid themselves of this pest, Cho-Cho-San mixes up a potent Western-style cocktail for Yamadori, who becomes drunk very quickly and staggers away. (And no, we're not making this up!)

An intertitle tells us that a month passes, and at the American consul's office, Cho-Cho-San appears and asks, “Please, honorable, when do those robins come back to their nests in that United States?” He is a bit confused by her question, but he tells her that Pinkerton is on his way to Japan at that moment. She runs back to the house and she and Suzuki decorate it with flowers and begin the vigil immortalized in the Belasco play.
 
Prince Yamadori impresses no one but himself.
The next morning, Pinkerton arrives at the consul's office. Instead of the warm greeting he was expecting, the consul informs Pinkerton the he is a cad and has a child. Pinkerton then offers money for their maintenance. [This scene directly borrows dialogue from Belasco; it has no counterpart in Long's story.]

The next day, Cho-Cho-San goes back to the consul's office, and he gives her the bank draft that Pinkerton gave him. However, just at that moment, Adelaide (who presumably just got off the steam ship) arrives to ask for any messages from her husband. That question ignites a confrontation between Pinkerton's two wives—the opposite of what happens in Long’s story. Next, Suzuki arrives carrying the baby bundled on her back, so Adelaide gets the full picture. Adelaide then announces, “If you will give me the baby, I will take good care of him.” Surprisingly, after a few moments, Butterfly does just that, and the scene ends with Butterfly walking away from her child.
 
Sharpless bawls out Pinkerton for being a complete flop as a human being.
Later, we see Butterfly by a shrine of some sort, where she prays, “O my ancestors! Never let that honorable Pinkerton know what I am going to do for him!” Instead of ritual harakiri, though, she quietly wades into a pond and drowns, and Pinkerton is spared any knowledge of her fate.

Why no sword? Her father is still alive.

Now that we have some sense of all the source materials that existed for this film, we can see more clearly where and how Lang tampered with the story.

Butterfly slowly walks into the pond.