Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Son of the Gods: Oy! Broken Blossoms This Aint!

There are some things I can get over – movie wise, that is.  While the racism of “Birth of a Nation” makes the skin crawl (not to mention a slight heaving of the stomach), it is an important film that should be seen at least once. “Pretty Woman” I can kind of enjoy, even though you know the average prostitute does not resemble Julia Roberts. But every once in a while I see a film that makes my jaw drop so low that thankfully it hits the floor or I’d be halfway to China.

Speaking of China, that brings me to 1930’s “Son of the Gods.” I’ve been making a slow trip through the sound career of Richard Barthelmess. Having viewed “Only Angels Have Wings” and “The Last Flight,” I must say I was pretty impressed. As a young man in the silents, he radiated purity and earnestness, giving unforgettable performances in “Broken Blossoms”,Way Down East,” and “Tol’able David.”

Success in "Broken Blossoms" made Barthelmess
the go-to guy for an Asian role

His maturity coincided with sound, and he developed a rather world weary, slightly heavy look; handsome, but certainly not boyish any longer. So, when I saw “Son of the Gods” playing on TCM I thought, what do I have to lose? Apparently, my lunch.

Here the story:
Sam Lee is a college student. Okay, stop right there. Barthelmess was 35 and looked it.
College student? He looks more like the professor!
Let’s continue. Sam is obviously wealthy (he plays polo and lends his friends money). He is also Chinese, but passes for white. While his male friends are okay with this, white women, once they find out, are appalled and disgusted. I believe he is called “a dirty yellow Chinaman.”

Sam decides he can’t stand it anymore at college and goes home to his family. His father is a very traditional looking Chinese man who runs a successful business (doing what, I can’t say, but it seems he lends money to people). By the way, his father is played by an American actor, but is convincingly made up to look stereotypically Chinese. Sam says he wants to strike out on his own and see the world. His father would prefer he not, but lovingly assents to his son’s wishes.
Dad (played by American actor E. Alyn Warren)
Now, it’s obvious that Sam does not look Asian and his father does, so you might wonder what went on here. Was Sam’s mother Caucasian? Turns out she is dead, but her portrait reveals her to be very much Asian. What gives? Doesn’t anyone question why Sam looks different than everyone else?

Unsuspecting love
Sam strikes out on his own and eventually lands a job with a novelist who is in need of someone who knows Chinese. While accompanying the author on his travels, Sam meets the glamorous and high living Allana in the South of France (Constance Bennett) and they fall in love. But, once Allana learns that Sam is – gasp! – Chinese, she goes berserk, whips him with a riding crop in public, and says all kinds of awful anti-Chinese things. She feels badly afterwards, but Sam has already left town. His father is dying and Sam has had enough of the white race.
Allana is a demon with that riding crop

Back home Sam goes full on Chinese. Here, Barthelmess looks like a parody of himself in “Broken Blossoms.” I’ll spare you the inanity, but it turn out that Sam was adopted and is – hooray! – actually white. Now, he and Allana can be together and all is white – I mean right – with the world.

Sam's new garb.... something is not quite right....
So, this was not a feather in the Barthelmess acting cap. Seriously, Laurence Olivier could not have done any better with this tripe. Constance Bennett played an awful woman, but she sure looked glamorous. The sequence describing little Sam’s road to adoption was originally filmed in Technicolor – showing an elaborate and presumably colorful parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown – has been lost and now only remains in black and white.

The funny thing is that the film starts out on a hopeful note. Sam’s college friends are angry at the girls who reject Sam because of his race and they give them a good verbal lashing. However, soon things turn, with even the wealthy Chinese being able to look down on the “coolies.”  Not cool!

I guess I kept watching because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but as far as “Son of the Gods” goes, once is more than enough.


Caftan Woman said...

I hear you. I kept going because I wanted to know how it ended. I couldn't help thinking "why" throughout the whole mess.

FlickChick said...

CW - it sure was a mess - a Barthel - mess!

Inge Gregusch said...

I haven't seen this movie, but will take your word for it being a dud. What a waste of some excellent star talent! Fine review, as always.

FlickChick said...

Hi Inge - yes - a dud is the perfect word for it - a very disappointing dud.