The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking


Censored scene, via

OLD SAN FRANCISCO is what I call an epic. Also, it’s a bit racist. Not as much as BIRTH OF A NATION, but every time you find some kind of excuse for it, it redoubles its efforts to freak you out. In the end, it’s too melodramatic and silly to offend seriously, but you do feel very glad it couldn’t have been made more recently. We’re not necessarily better people, but our sensibilities are more attuned to the symptoms of certain kinds of racism.

Screenplay is co-authored by Darryl Zanuck, whose sins against Chinese-Americans also include THE BOWERY.

And it’s a Vitaphone soundie! The odd pistol shot, and a really nice music score by Hugo Riesenfeld (SUNRISE).

The movie begins with a prologue, which seems pointless but isn’t really. We see the settling of San Francisco, and how an important rancho is threatened by the gold rush. We meet the rancher’s brother, and see his gallant (and somewhat murderous) old-world Spanish nobility in action. But now we forget about most of this, because we’re flashing forward to 1906! Does that date mean anything to you? It ought to…

A title reading “The Story” appears, to cries of “About time!” from me and Fiona.


The rancho is now fallen on hard times. Josef Swickard, playing Don Hernandez de Vasquez, sits brooding, as spectral figures from the past whirl about him in a gay dance. It takes me a minute to notice that they’re see-through products of double exposure.

“He’s remembering the good old days,” I say.

“- when people were translucent,” finishes Fiona.

The intertitles in this movie are pretty spectacular, and so is the photography (and later, the special effects).


Hernandez has a pretty daughter, Dolores, played by Dolores Costello, of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and marrying John Barrymore fame. She’s rather anodyne here. An Irish businessman wants to buy the rancho but Don Hernandez won’t sell. The Irishman has a son (Charles Emmett Mack), leading to romance angle. He also has an evil associate, played by Warner Oland. Perplexingly, at first, Oland doesn’t seem to be playing Chinese. But he always played Chinese! And we’ve been promised hot Chinatown action!

In addition to apparently not being Chinese, the Swedish actor is playing a man with the uninspiring name of Chris Buckland. It’s a name which fails to conjure images of swaggering oriental villainy. To me it suggests a man with a beer gut in a rugby shirt holding a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Fiona suggests he might run a corner shop with a name like that.


Fortunately, Oland is soon revealed to be Chinese after all. He’s a self-hating “mongol” who campaigns against his own kind. The land-grab plot and self-hating villain basically turn this into the original of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. (Incidentally, Richard Williams is coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — yay!)

This is all revealed when Oland descends to his secret cellar where he has a hidden Buddha shrine, a withered twin (tiny Angelo Rossitto, another Barrymore associate) in a cage (“This is basically BASKET CASE,” observes Fiona) and also Anna May Wong as a spy. The racial politics are screwy as heck here. Oland is an evil oriental whose “Mongol” side is exposed when he tries to ravish Costello. But Rossitto is an agreeable little guy, and Sojin turns up as a scary but honorable Chinatown businessman. I have mixed feelings about the Chinese villain who hates the Chinese trope. It seems rather like a way of being racist against the Chinese without coming out and saying it. We always project on to others the sins we fear we might be guilty of.


The plot convolutes and inverts until we wind up with the following scenario: Oland has kidnapped Costello to the depths of Chinatown, where he and a gang of filthy yellow scum are about to add her to their harem of slaves. Rossitto is leading Mack to the rescue, but he can’t make it in time. Costello prays for deliverance. Is that a rumble of reply from the Divine Maker?



I’m sure the 3,000 victims of the earthquake and fire would be delighted to know that their painful and terrifying deaths had been worthwhile, saving as they did Dolores Costello’s pristine caucasian virginity. I mean, I did want her to be rescued, I just wonder if a truly benevolent God might have found a less destructive way to do it? Still, the effects, both full-scale and miniature, are truly impressive — they were subsequently reused as stock footage in THE SISTERS (1938).

Third Barrymore connection: JB is supposed to have drunkenly slept through the Great Earthquake, awakening the next day, stepping into the rubble, and presumably thinking “Man, I must have really tied one on last night.”

9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking”

  1. I’m a San Francisco resident, so thank you for writing about one of the weirder films to feature Baghdad-by-the-bay.

    I also have several Barrymore biographies and have ready a composite version of their account of the great quake.

    The evening before Barrymore went to see Caruso at the opera. At a late-night dinner he met a collector of Chinese porcelain and was invited to view the priceless antiques. After doing so Barrymore decided to spend the night at the collector’s house; he had been asleep for only a few minutes when the quake threw him out of bed.

    He ran to wake the soundly sleeping collector, but nothing worked until he shouted “Come and see what’s happened to the Ming Dynasty!”

    Having pointed out that the collection was now dust, Barrymore, still in his evening clothes, made his way to Union Square and encountered Diamond Jim Brady, who later went around telling everyone how Barrymore dressed for a quake.

    Eventually arriving at the St, Francis Hotel, where he had a room, Barrymore asked if it was safe to sleep there. The minute after the clerk finished reassuring him an aftershock struck. But since the hotel was still standing Barrymore went upstairs and slept like a baby.

    The next day Barrymore claimed soldiers gang-pressed him into joining a disaster relief gang. When told of this in a luridly exaggerated letter, John Drew said he believed every word of his nephew and noted that “it took a convulsion of nature to make him get up and the United States Army to make him go to work.”

  2. Ha! How legends are created.

    This has got me psyched to see more of Zanuck’s epics, ,ore Alan Crosland, and a blast of Barrymore — When A Man Loves, perhaps.

  3. The Vorkapich eruption at the end of San Francisco is pretty special, but for sheer “how many extras did they kill?” spectacle, the Crosland gets away with the biscuit.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    Fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Barrymore connections: Crosland directed DON JUAN, WHEN A MAN LOVES, BELOVED ROGUE and GENERAL CRACK

  5. Seems to have been Barrymore’s favourite, or else the one guy the studios trusted to keep him under control. I have a couple of his later films lined up, including the interesting-sounding Indian drama Massacre. His epic phase seems to have ended with the coming of sound, though.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Any film with Anna May Wong transcends racism. She herself is so spectacular that the only person you look at is her!

    Apart from Marlene in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, naturally…

  7. Unfortunately she only has five minutes screen time in this, so perforce you spend a lot of time looking at other people and things, or just waiting for her to return.

    See the striptease in the top still: she originally had more to do…

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