Monday, March 1, 2010

Dolores Costello "Old San Francisco" (1927)

"Old San Francisco" (1927) is a silent romantic drama starring Dolores Costello, Warner Oland, Charles Emmett Mack, and Josef Swickard. Directed by Alan Crosland and adapted from the story by Darryl F. Zanuck, this film is about a family of noble Spanish blood living in San Francisco in the early twentieth century. Until 1906, the Vasquez family has prospered in San Francisco where they own a ranch. However, the Vasquez family, who is now composed of only Don Hernandez de Vasquez, played by Josef Swickard, and his granddaughter Dolores Vasquez, played by Dolores Costello, are threatened with the loss of their property by a cruel city boss, Chris Buckwell, played by Warner Oland, a Chinese disguised as an Occidental. Buckwell doesn't let anyone know he's really Chinese and even keeps his dwarf brother in a cage. In addition to his greed and pursuit of power, he has lustful desires for Dolores. Meanwhile, an Irish gentleman, Terrence O' Shaughnessy, played by Charles Emmett Mack, has his eyes and heart set on Dolores, but her grandfather would prefer her to marry a rich Spaniard. Unfortunately, Dolores' grandfather suffers from a fatal heart attack shortly after he witnesses the evil Buckwell attempting to rape his granddaughter. At this point, Dolores aligns herself with Terrence to combat the sinister Buckwell and his underworld white slavers. Just when Dolores and Terrence are fighting to escape the lecherous grasp of Buckwell and his gang, buildings shake and crumble. Rubble buries unfortunate victims and flame rages throughout the city.
"Old San Francisco" is a relatively well-produced Darryl F. Zanuck silent. It is a visually beautiful film set to a Vitaphone soundtrack with synchronized music and sound effects. Dolores Costello, who was known as the "Goddess of the Silent Screen," is simply luminous in many of the scenes. Under the direction of Alan Crosland, who would make history later the same year with "The Jazz Singer," the action moves rapidly from ranch to saloon to secret dungeon. The climaxing special effects depicting the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire are visually satisfying. Unfortunately, some aspects of the film date it greatly. One is the use of yellow face, the long-standing practice of casting white actors as Asians. The storyline follows an Asian character, portrayed by the Swedish actor Warner Oland in yellow face, passing as a white character until his true identity unravels. The casting practice of the film follows long established norms of white stars garnering leading roles and Asian actors remaining as bit and extra players. In the film, for example, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong has a bit role while Warner Oland is one of the leads. Today's viewers may also be appalled at the racial stereotypes of the Chinese in the film. However, modern viewers should not lose perspective that the film was made over eighty years ago. If today's viewers can overlook the dated plot and negative stereotyping, they can take a glimpse at the high level of expertise Warner Brothers had attained just before the advent of talkies.

*It is interesting to note that Warner Oland played the part of Cantor Rabinowitz in "The Jazz Singer" (1927). His greatest success was when he was cast in the role of Charlie Chan, a Chinese American police detective, in 16 films before he died in 1938.


  1. Silent, I would love to see this film. It sounds like it might be a "costume drama". Thank you for your wonderful review.

  2. Dawn, you are absolutely right, this is a costume drama. Dolores Costello wears some beautiful Spanish style gowns from the turn of the century. Costello's jewelry looks Gothic. Oland and Costello were wonderful in this film.

  3. Dawn, thank you for posting the Anna May Wong website. Even in bit roles she always gave a lasting impression.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.