"Old San Francisco"

review by Diane MacIntyre, The Silents Majority, 1998

Harken back to the days of the great Ranchos — vast tracts of golden land as far as the eye could see and beyond. In this Eden of the early Spanish settlers a special aristocrat flourished. Their values were a combination of Spanish honor and California decadence. The city of San Francisco did not just appear out of the fog. The history of its founding and development in integral to this story. That in itself makes the plot of Old San Francisco colorful, interesting and romantic. However, a strong theme of racism, particularly against the Chinese, produced a film that is seriously flawed for this very reason.

Chris Buckwell (played by Warner Oland) is a self-styled Warlord overseeing the corruptness of San Francisco in 1906. He is ruthlessly cruel and leading a double life. In order for him to conduct business outside of the Asian community, he represents himself as a white businessman. Yet, when no one of consequence sees, including members of the Chinese community, he secretly worships the traditions and religion of his culture. In other words, he appears to be Christian on the outside, but is a "depraved heathen" within. Buckwell wants to lay claim to the desirable Vasquez property, one of the last of the remaining Ranchos — now crumbling into a pile of noble ruins. He pressures the last descendant of the proud Vasquez family (played by Josef Swickard) and his granddaughter Dolores (played by Dolores Costello) to part with their legacy. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and, if he is crossed, shows no mercy.

Buckwell, who is used to getting what he wants with little resistance, is surprised at the fighting spirit of a grandfather and granddaughter determined to keep what they have. Vasquez, himself, is an elitist who trusts no one except for the high-born of Spanish descent. When assistance comes to the old man in the form of Terrence O'Shaughnessy (played by Charles Emmett Mack), he rejects the young Irishman, which will prove to be disastrous. Terrence has fallen in love with Dolores, but is kept at arms length even though her heart is open to him.

old san francisco
Anna May Wong

old san francisco

old san francisco
Warner Oland

Meanwhile back in the city, an enraged Chris Buckwell schemes with his right-hand woman (played by Anna May Wong) to keep the locals of Chinatown (also known as the "Mile of Hell") in line by spying on them and any other means necessary. She is a part of the San Francisco (read Chinese) underworld — the opium trade and white slavery being a common route to wealth and power. The more the Vasquez's resist the demands of Buckwell, the more he is consumed with revenge. His most indecent act is his attempt to sell Dolores into white slavery...

The theme of Old San Francisco, written by Darryl F. Zanuck, embraces a painful political and social ostracism called "the yellow peril." For many years silent film portrayed Asians in the worst possible light. Their highest crime against morality was not peddling dope, selling women into slavery or betraying their own kind — it was abhorrence at their religious beliefs (i.e. non-Christian). The stereotype in this film goes as far as making Buckwell a vampire of sorts in the sense that he literally recoils in fear and loathing when presented with the purity and power of the Christian God. Evil heathens (basically worshipers of other religions) are like that — according to Hollywood.

Movies were few and far between that portrayed Asians sympathetically. Two rare examples were The Toll of the Sea (Technicolor Motion Picture Company, for Metro Pictures, 1922), where Asians, especially in principal roles, were actually portrayed by Asians, and Shadows (Preferred Pictures, 1922), albeit a role where a Caucasian played an Asian. The latter purposely showed that an Asian was a member of society to be respected — even being purer of heart and deed than many of the Caucasians in the story line. American audiences were very attached to their stereotypes, and, even today, sometimes refuse to see that this kind of message is harmful. Yet, these films should be seen and remain available to the public to continue to educate and enlighten about the lack of real equality in American history. One of the greatest challenges that continues to beset humanity is learning tolerance and compassion. The Asian community, and those Asians who were in the acting profession, were justifiably angry yet powerless to change the minds of the moviemakers and the American public. Many careers of Asian (and other minority) performers in the silent and sound era were never fully realized due to ignorance and bigotry.

This film does have positive elements. The photography, by Hal Mohr, is stunning. The Vitaphone score composed by Hugo Reisenfield is superb and fully intact; and the print is fully restored. The restoration of Old San Francisco hinges more upon its historical value as an early Vitaphone feature. The project "American Moviemaker: The Dawn of Sound" was the inspiration and the vehicle for putting this particular silent film on the preservation priority list by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and MOMA Department of Film. As a bonus, silent film buffs are treated to performances by Warner Oland, Sojin, Josef Swickard, Dolores Costello and Anna May Wong in particular — artists whose films remain out of reach for the average citizen primarily because their film have been locked up in archival vaults or have not been transferred to video. Looking as beautiful as ever, Anna May Wong is wasted in this film — ironically one that focuses the Chinese community. Even the Variety film review of June 29, 1927 commented on her lack of scenes: "Miss Costello is the only girl of prominence in the film, Anna May Wong being the sole contestant in this respect and doing what amount to no more than a few bits." There is also a marvelous performance by veteran character actor Josef Swickard (1866-1940), who plays Vasquez. The special effects are also given their spotlight in the form of a very convincing earthquake and ensuing fire (with hand-tinted flames). Having been through the great quake of 1994 in Southern California, I can attest to its believability.

Old San Francisco (Warner Bros., 1927). Cast: Dolores Costello, Warner Oland, Charles Emmett Mack, Josef Swickard, John Miljan, Anders Randolf, Sojin, Angelo Rossitto, Anna May Wong and Rose Dione (unbilled). Directed by Alan Crosland. Story by Darryl F. Zanuck. B&W with tints. 8 reels. Old San Francisco is occasionally shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). This is a film we would like to see released on video.

©1998 The Silents Majority

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