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J. Walter Ruben
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Roy Del Ruth
The daughter of a Chinese mandarin is sentenced to death for her secret marriage to an American. Their child, raised in the mandarin's palace, grows up and escapes to seek her father, now a high-ranking official in the Philippines. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This is a story of an American man attached to the US Embassy in Beijing (or Peking as it was called by Westerners then) who falls in love with a Chinese girl. It is based on a story by George Scarborough (1975-1951), a popular author and playwright of that time, though he was not anyone with any particular knowledge of China. The American is solidly played by Thomas Meighan, and the Chinese girl is played by silent star Norma Talmadge, aged 22. There are a few genuine Chinese who appear in the film, including three cute little children, but only one Chinese actor has his name mentioned on a card (but he is not listed in the IMDb credits). I suppose it is fortunate that there are any real Chinese in the film at all, as there were not many at hand in those days. Meighan is taking lessons in Chinese from a court mandarin who has been banished from the court by the Emperor's wrath, and who thus has a lot of time on his hands. On one occasion, Meighan is able to wander through the extensive garden of the mandarin, where he meets the mandarin's enchanting daughter, San San (played by Norma). The script is corny and a lot of the pidgin-English in the cards is pretty embarrassing, including San San's name for Meighan, 'Love Man'. They have a secret affair and she becomes pregnant. Unaware of this, in order to regain favour at court, the mandarin decides to hand over his daughter to the Emperor as an addition to his harem. However, when it is discovered that she has a babe in arms whom she had concealed, the Emperor in a fit of rage has her murdered, and the child is handed over to the women in the harem to be raised there. The story then resumes after a gap of 20 years and the daughter is also played by Norma Talmadge, with a different hairstyle. She longs to escape and a court official helps her do so. She makes her way to the US Embassy and is given a letter of introduction to the US Embassy in Manila, where she is sent. She becomes a nurse and fall in love with a handsome American lieutenant. It turns out that the Governor of the Philippines (then an American Protectorate) is her own father, but neither of them knows it. Will they, can they, discover the truth? Will true love blossom once again and the young generation find the happiness which the older ones had lost? The film has accurate costumes, which was no doubt facilitated by the fact that those things were still being worn in China at the time the film was made. Somehow the producers also got hold of some of that heavy carved Qing Dynasty furniture which appears in many of the scenes. Other than that, the film is a pastiche, but at the time it must have been the best anyone could do to represent an imaginary Chinese tale of forbidden love to Westerners. Several times we see the ominous card which says: 'East is East and West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet'. We seem to have moved on a bit since then. This silent film has historical interest as an example of how China was portrayed to the American public in 1918, and how Westerners presumably came to think of China at that time. The film was directed by Sidney Franklin (1893-1972), who 19 years later, in 1937, was to direct the film version of Pearl Buck's best-selling Chinese epic THE GOOD EARTH, which would do more to bring China to the attention of the mass Western public than all the other films made about China put together, and then some. Franklin directed 71 films, the last being THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1957),the famous love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, after which, aged 64, he retired. He was, perhaps without fully realizing it, a genuinely important figure in communicating awareness of China to the Western public in the first half of the twentieth century, so that he had a cultural importance far wider and more influential than is usual in a film director. This unlikely fame will possibly outlast that of his other cinematic achievements, which in themselves were not inconsiderable.
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