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20 September 2018

Son of the Gods, 1930: Real Live Racism

Richard Barthelmess as Sam Lee

I was very wrong about this movie. I first saw it many years ago, and found it, to put it bluntly, excruciating. My mistake was in understanding why I found it so. It is a film about the experience of racism; this despite the fact that the victim is played by a famous Caucasian actor.

First, to get the plot out of the way -- because it's pretty lame. The main protagonist is Sam Lee, played by Richard Barthelmess. Sam is the son of a wealthy Chinese merchant in New York City. The whole possibility of the film making its point rests on our being able to believe that Richard Barthelmess, with no makeup, is actually of Chinese origin, which is frankly ridiculous. True, he had very dark hair and dark brown eyes, but that was it. Willful suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary to watch this film at all, and it is notable that contemporary reviews were skeptical about this very plot point.

Despite the flimsy structure, I believe that this movie has something serious and honest to say, and struggled hard to say it. What's more, it's something only an emotionally immersive actor like Barthelmess could say. That, I think, is the secret of Barthelmess' acting, why it works sometimes (most of the time), but sometimes it doesn't. He doesn't so much reshape himself physically or externally to play a role; he reshapes himself from the inside out, emotionally. He creates inside himself the emotional reality of another person. Sometimes this works brilliantly -- for two silent film examples, his reclusive, scarred veteran in The Enchanted Cottage, or his brash sailor in Shore Leave. It could certainly work in a sound film, as his original characterization of Courtney in The Dawn Patrol, or his doomed petty criminal in Four Hours to Kill.

Son of the Gods relies on this ability; in fact, it is about this ability. Like one of my favorite movies of a later era, Gentleman's Agreement, it aims to show you prejudice from inside. That's what Phil Green, the hero of Gentleman's Agreement, volunteers to do; he gives up his WASP life of privilege to "pass" for a Jew, and finds the result almost unbearable. Barthelmess' character, Sam Lee, does that too; he just doesn't know he's doing it. But they are both taking this action for the same dramatic reason -- to show us what it is like on the other side of the divide.

Sam's college friends try to come up with a story to cover the girls'  racism

We first get to know Sam at college. Despite his wealth, he has a humble, unassuming manner. He has a couple of good friends, but most simply tolerate him for the sake of his very deep purse. He is well aware of this, and resists socializing. He takes part in no outside activities, except a wholly extraneous polo match, and to the other students, he is self-effacing to the point of disappearing completely. He knows he has no real friends, but longs, as anyone would, for some human contact.

This terrible loneliness leads to a disastrous outing with two other young men, who rely on Sam's largesse to subsidize a date. Against Sam's apprehensive protest, the boys meet three girls. They drive in Sam's expensive car to a popular road house, where disaster strikes. One of the girls, discovering that Sam is (as everyone believes, including him) Chinese, furiously denounces the boys for involving her with a "dirty chink" and insists on being  sent home in a taxi. The boys attempt to come up with a story so as not to hurt Sam's feelings, but he knows, and they know he knows.

This scene is absolutely horrible to watch; Barthelmess shows you with unsparing clarity the agony of humiliation inflicted on Sam, who  has obviously spent his life trying to avoid such situations, and struggled to avoid this one, The three pretty, cruel girls are not shown sympathetically but as the heartless future harridans they are. This is the first instance I can recall of the kennel euphemism for calling women "bitches," when Sam's friend furiously says he wishes the girls had hydrophobia. Sam gives his friends, who feel terrible about what's happened, a generous sum to send the girls home in a taxi. In one of several cringe-inducing moments, which I think are quite deliberate, Sam's friend says thoughtlessly, "That's mighty white of you."
To top off Sam's awful experience, one of the girls, after discovering just how wealthy he is, calls him on the phone and indicates that money can make even someone as racially inferior as he is acceptable. He briskly says no thank you, and informs her that he'll be leaving for New York immediately.

There he has a philosophical discussion with his beloved father, an elderly Chinese gentleman, who lives in a traditional house in the heart of New York City. (The graceful and elegant Chinese style is favorably contrasted with the expensive but extremely ugly home of the wealthy Allana Wagner and her father.) His father follows Confucianism, which is quite accurately represented. Sam tells him that he wants to earn his own living, and his father agrees to his plan, despite his sorrow at losing his son's company. Sam gets a job as a private secretary to an English playwright (rather suggestive of Somerset Maugham) living on the Riviera, in the South of France.

Allana is intrigued by a guy who pays no attention to her

Sam's employer and all of their cosmopolitan friends know he is Chinese, and don't care (France was notoriously tolerant of racial mixing in those days). This doesn't cause any problem until a beautiful blonde American heiress arrives. Sam falls in love with Allana (Constance Bennett) and she with him..

Essentially, the same story plays itself out,  on a larger and even more painful scale. Allana, a spoiled rich girl of a type we see so often in 1930's films, makes a strong play for the handsome but apparently indifferent young man. Eventually she wears him down, and they begin to date. Speaking casually of another couple they know, Allana gives Sam the impression that she sees nothing wrong with mixed race marriages. He thinks that she, like all of his friends, know about his background and doesn't care. But when Allana finds out he is (again, as everyone believes) not white, she literally goes berserk, lashing him with a riding crop in the outdoor tea room of the hotel, as the other, European. guests look at her as if she has gone insane. By the time she pulls herself together several days later, and seeks him out to apologize, even wearing an "apology" outfit of a black velvet dress and pearls, he has left for New York

Allana tries to apologize but it's too late

Sam rushes home to his ailing father in New York, but doesn't arrive in time to see him before he dies. Deeply angry and embittered, upon taking over his father's business, Sam vows not to have anything to do with white people. Meanwhile, Allana has despairingly thrown herself into a frenzy of useless activity, unable to forget Sam and what she did to him.

There is a striking moment when she finally tracks him down in New York and gets through to him on the phone, to meet with a polite but distant reception.
"What can I do for you, Miss Wagner?" he says, as if he's never heard of her before. .
"Sam, I want to apologize," she falters.
"That really isn't necessary," he says icily, and puts down the phone.

There are some mysteries about this movie. In another extraneous but creepy incident, Sam's Chinese assistant invites him to a dancehall which turns out to be a place for Chinese men and Caucasian women get together -- which is demonstrated by scenes of Chinese men dancing with white women. Now, this was a huge taboo in Hollywood. In other interracial romances I've mentioned in this blog, like The Rains Came, or Back to Bataan, even if such romance is presented as a good thing, it's bound to end with the noble death of one of the lovers rather than facing up to actual sex. Even "good" lovers are not allowed to touch each other. This dancehall scene quite clearly was filmed with Chinese actors and Caucasian actresses, and a lot of them. It's apparently supposed to indicate something dire. On the other hand, there is no indication that anything more is going on besides dancing. But Mr. Wagner, Allana's father, reacts to it as if it was a den of iniquity. It looks to me as if important elements have been censored out of existence, with the usual damage to the plot.

A nice black and white ad -- advertising color!

In fact, at about this point, the plot dissolves into a jumbled mess, with moral stands immediately contradicted by moral cop-outs. First, Allana becomes ill with the time-honored disappointed lover disease, and becomes delirious, calling for Sam. Her doctor tells her father that only Sam can save her. So Mr. Wagner swallows his distaste, and asks for Sam's help, which he immediately gives. But when Allana passes the crisis of her illness, whatever it is, and is sleeping peacefully, Sam leaves and doesn't come back.

Then an old friend of his father's from San Francisco visits Sam and reveals to him that -- surprise! -- he is not of Chinese parentage at all but an orphan his father adopted when he was found homeless on the street as as infant. In other words, he is a white foundling of unknown parentage. To his credit, Sam is devastated by this news, and swears his servant, his father's secretary, and his friend to secrecy, saying he is proud to be considered his father's son.

Then Allana, fully recovered, comes to visit. To her credit, if a little late, she tells Sam she can't live without him, and if he won't marry her she'll stay anyway, unmarried. She doesn't care what color he is.

Now, that would be a moderately acceptable ending. But the script deserts the high ground immediately, having Sam tell Allana and by extension her father that he is in fact not of a different race, after all. Then they embrace and apparently live happily ever after.

What, exactly, is this movie trying to tell us? First, it seems to indicate that a person of Chinese ancestry is just as good as a person of European ancestry. Fine. But Sam's sophisticated friends in the South of France also seem a tad reticent about mentioning it, as if it were a disreputable secret. Why is that? Also, Allana, as a representative of wealthy, fairly well-educated Americans, voices tolerance for a mixed marriage of people she doesn't know, but becomes enraged at the thought of someone of a different race daring to think of her as a mate. Yet in a matter of days she is ready to humble herself, only to find him a mask of cold indifference. I wonder what would have happened if he'd been there and accepted her apology? I wonder if she would have stayed so interested if he hadn't rejected her?

The script has Sam expressing pride in his non-white origins, and full of praise for Chinese culture, yet presents the revelation of his true ethnicity as a huge burden lifted from his shoulders. In fact, the reality that Sam is actually white makes the rest of the plot just, well, silly. The only way a story like this could have any moral clout is if it was truly interracial -- but that was a film that Hollywood couldn't even dream of making in 1930.

And yet -- and yet -- there is one true thing in this movie. It tries, and succeeds, in showing us what it feels to be on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Barthelmess understood how to draw the audience into his character's emotions, and audiences were ready to be led by an actor they had known and respected for years. He could share the unquenchable pain of what it is like to be told, all day, every day, of your life, that something intrinsic to your self is inferior, and deserves to be shunned by other, more valuable people. And I think that was a worthwhile effort, even if the film has to be considered an overall failure.

There are a couple of odd technical notes about Son of the Gods, too. Some scenes were filmed in color but the color prints have been lost, apparently. And it is known to have been directed by Frank Lloyd, yet no director is credited in the titles -- though it is advertised as a Frank Lloyd Production. I wonder if the censorship was just too much for Lloyd, but I don't suppose we'll ever know.

**Addendum: There is an ironic sidelight on this. It has been pretty conclusively established that the grandfather of Constance, Joan, and Barbara Bennett, the prominent actor Morris W.Morris, was born in Jamaica of partly African heritage. Nowadays nobody cares about this, but in the 1920's when they were starting their careers it would have made a huge difference. And of course it's also easy to find such information now; in those days, genealogical research could prove very expensive and time consuming. It's very likely that the Bennetts had no idea about their mixed race background.

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