Sunday, November 14, 2010


Let’s see if I can get this plot-heavy silent melodrama down to a clear short summary. In 1906, the once esteemed Vasquez family is down on their luck. Warner Oland, the shady figure known as the Czar of the Tenderloin, wants the Vasquez land and will go to unscrupulous lengths to get it. Though Oland’s office is in Chinatown, he is known as a persecutor of the Chinese, but he has a well-kept secret: he’s half-Chinese himself and keeps his dwarf brother caged up in a secret room underneath his offices. Oland charges a dastardly lawyer with getting the Vasquez land, but the lawyer’s Irish nephew (Charles Emmett Mack) falls for the Vazquez granddaughter (Dolores Costello). Various deceptions and betrayals occur, including Oland’s attempted seduction of Costello; at the climax, Costello is about to be sold into white slavery, and her prayers seem to bring about the famous San Francisco earthquake which saves her from a fate worse than death.

Despite being quite non-PC, this is an enjoyably over-the-top blood and thunder drama, the kind they don’t make anymore (for a number of reasons). Because I know Oland as Charlie Chan, the revelation of his background wasn’t all that surprising to me, but he makes a nicely slimy villain, though he does at one point pray to Buddha for his sins against his own people. He is portrayed as a kind of Dracula figure, recoiling from the sound of the “accursed Christian bells” from the nearby church, for, as the title card tells us, “in the awful light of an outraged wrathful Christian god, the heathen soul of the Mongol stood revealed.” Costello is rather bland, though Mack is likeable as her Irish hero; his best line, to Costello during their rather tentative courtship, “I’m not bold, I’m Irish!” Anna May Wong has a small role as an accomplice of Oland’s, known only as a “Flower of the Orient.” The earthquake scenes are effective, and are tinted red, orange, and purple. The dwarf is played by Angelo Rossito, whose career continued into the 80’s (the bad guy Master in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). Fun for those in the right mood. [TCM]

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