Friday, June 10, 2011

Old San Francisco (1927)

That's right, boys.  I'm ready for stabby times.

This picture follows the aristocratic Vasquez family from its first settlement in San Francisco to its threatened demise. Dolores Costello is Dolores, the lovely granddaughter of Don Hernandez de Vasquez (Josef Swickard), and the apple of her grandfather’s eye. Money-hungry speculators try to take away the old man’s rancho – home to the family he once protected and avenged through murder – but the young one, Terrence O’Shaughnessy (Charles Emmett Mack), is smitten with Senorita Dolores and refuses to play along. This drives the older of the two back to his partner, Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland), leader of the Asian underworld, for assistance. Will Dolores be able to defend her family’s honor against such criminals? Or will she be able to count on help from Terrence, the Lord, and some old-fashioned luck?

I have to give Costello credit here. I know in the past I’ve been a little rough on her acting ability, and for the first part of the picture it looked like she was going to offer more of the same: teary gazes to the rest of the cast, a confused little bird. However, when the main point of the plot kicks in – and it’s time for Dolores the character to take over as head of her family – Dolores the actress grows strong, emotional, dare I say…good?! Her lovely eyes flash and she becomes Joan of Arc, fierce and powerful in the face of her enemies.

Oland does his best with (unfortunately) another yellowface role, complete with hidden Mongolian temple in the basement. He manages to imbue some humanity into what is basically racist caricature. The same must be said for Anna May Wong, Oland’s partner and “a flower of the Orient”. Even though her role is small (and typical), she still commands the screen with her ferocity and great physical beauty.

One of my favorite things about the picture, though, is a peripheral character: Chang Loo, the dwarf brother of Chris Buckwell (Oland), played by the great Angelo Rossitto. His lines are few, but spoken with proper vitriol towards his cruel brother (who keeps him in a cage. I am not making this up.) When Buckwell meets his fate towards the end of the film, Chang Loo gleefully steps on his head climbing over rubble – ah, karma. Rossitto was discovered by John Barrymore, and was very much in demand – working steadily from his first film in the late 20s until his death in 1991. He’s known best for his role in “Freaks” or as Master Blaster from “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”.

A note about the earthquake sequence: don’t hold your breath. The special effects are only passable, even for the time.

I give this one:

As always, Chris Edwards' review deserves a mention -- you can check it out here, at Silent Volume.

1 comment:

Margaret Benbow said...

I enjoyed your post very much. It's easy to see why Dolores Costello became Mrs. John Barrymore. (And why, during their engagement, the famously dissolute Barrymore used to go off on his yacht and dream about her.)She had character. And it's poignant to see more than a trace of her great beauty in Drew Barrymore's face. Also, you're dead right: under the right conditions, Costello could act!