Classic Film Guide

Old San Francisco (1927)

Directed by Alan Crosland, with a story by producer Darryl F. Zanuck and a screenplay written by Anthony Coldeway (Glorious Betty (1928)), this average silent includes some pretty good special effects, at its end, recreating the city's 1906 earthquake. The story is rather uninspired, and even racist to the Chinese residing there, referring to them as Mongols and portraying them stereotypically involved in criminal activities such as drugs and prostitution. It's about the struggle of the proud Vasquez family, one from the city's Spanish settlement, that finds itself barely hanging on to their land at the turn of the century. The greed and lust of others threatens their continued existence, leading to the "wrath of God" as the apparent cause of the climatic natural disaster.

The Vasquez family is one of the original residents of the titled city, having been part of the Spanish conquerors (Lawson Butt) of the continent's West coast. The grandson of this warrior (Walter McGrail) was shot trying to stop the theft of the rich estate's horses by servants rushing to a gold rush. Don Hernandez de Vasquez (Josef Swickard) kills the thief as he's fleeing, and thus becomes the new head of the household. Half a century later, the old man imagines the olden days while watching his beautiful granddaughter Dolores (Dolores Costello) dancing.

Michael Brandon (Anders Randolf) visits the Vasquez estate to offer his purchase price, but Don refuses to sell. Knowing the old man is near destitute, Buckwell is upset; he threatens that he'll have the land anyway, but later leaves enraged and without satisfaction. Buckwell had brought his young, carefree nephew Terrence O’Shaughnessy (Charles Emmett Mack) with him. Terrence had seen and fallen instantly in love with Dolores, who'd resisted his advances. Despite this, Terrence succeeds in getting a rose from her before he and his uncle depart.

Brandon returns to see Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland), a powerful man in the city. Upon learning of Vasquez's refusal to sell, he commits to begin foreclosure procedures. Terrence hears of this, and is so upset that he returns to the Vasquez estate to warn them. When he learns that Dolores is committed to another Spaniard, he leaves, passing her without saying goodbye, which leaves her confused. When her grandfather falls asleep, she ventures to the city to find him and is surprised to see him involved in a bawdy party. She leaves, upset, but is seen by Buckwell, who too is captivated by her. Buckwell is not only an important man in the White community, but he is secretly also of Chinese descent, and a powerful man in the city's underworld as well. He has a secret den below his address where he keeps his midget, and obviously Chinese, brother (Angelo Rossitto) in a cage. Anna May Wong plays a prostitute who serves as Buckwell’s eyes in the Chinese district.

Because of Dolores, Buckwell visits the Vasquez estate, pretending to be a man of their same religion, and offering to help when he "learns" of their predicament. He asks Don to visit him in the city that evening, but when Vasquez does so, he is surprised to see Brandon at the address. Meanwhile, Buckwell calls on Dolores and is about to rape her when Terrence, who'd returned after their bad meeting in the city, saves her. However, Buckwell’s men come to survey the estate the next day anyway and, though Vasquez chases them away initially, Buckwell returns to confront the old man. With sword in hand, Vasquez dies of a heart attack and falls before Buckwell.

After the funeral, Terrence and Dolores, who now knows Buckwell’s secret, return to the city to expose him. They inform some local Chinese but, before they can stop him, Buckwell kidnaps Terrence and Dolores, forcing her to rescind what she has told them lest he kill Terrence. She does until she can free herself from him, at which point the gig is up and all parties, including Brandon who is also surprised by the secret, descend into Buckwell’s secret lair. Thanks to Buckwell’s "Flower of the Orient" (Wong), who douses the lights, Buckwell is able to escape into the underground's labyrinth with Dolores as his hostage. About this time, the aforementioned act of God intervenes.

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