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The Vasquez family are one of the oldest families in San Francisco, but their day of glory is past and now all that remains of them are an old man and his granddaughter, the innocent Dolores. The villainous Chris Buckwell wants to steal their land and ranch from them, even using unfair means to get his hands on it. One of his employees' has a nephew who falls for Dolores, however, and together they make plans to save the ranch. Unfortunately for them, Buckwell has a secret and discovering it might prove dangerous. Written by
In turn of the the century San Francisco the noble Vasquez family are threatened with the loss of their property by the unscrupulous Mongol, Chris Buckwell. Buckwell, a Chinatown denizen holds considerable influence and sway in Frisco and does not hesitate to acquire by dubious means a piece of the action from local area merchants and land owners. The Vasquez family who has fought and died to keep their land over generations now must pin their hopes on the beautiful daughter Dolores (Dolores Costello) of the patriarch who aligns herself with a rambunctious Irishman (Charles Mack) to combat the diabolical Buckwell who in turn has lascivious designs on Dolores.
Despite being wrought with bias and ethnic stereotyping, Old San Francisco is a splendid example of visual poetry that displays the silent art form in all it's glory. Camera movement is minimal (but used brilliantly at the films climax) with nearly every image a beautiful tableaux of light and composition in group shot and close-up. The underground Chinatown that Buckwell moves between from his 112 Sierra avenue address is a dark, mysterious nether world, both exotic and threatening.
Warner Oland as Buckwell is a superb villain. In addition to desiring all things Vasquez he uses his formidable connections to shake down local Chinese merchants who claim that while "he is of the blood he is not of the breed". In addition to his greed and pursuit of power he worships false idols, exploits the religious fervor of others and keeps his dwarf brother in a cage. For the most part he remains stoic, utilizing an evil sneer that understatedly sums up his consummate villainy.
While director Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer) is at best a footnote in film history he helms a work as good as any silent master. Once he gets past a boiler plate prologue his use of light and shadow, close-up and reaction shot as well as utilization of props as insignificant as a broken gate show the work of a storyteller in complete control. Combined with a beautiful musical score and title cards of polished prose Old San Francisco is a feast of esoteric ambiance and textbook silent film making.
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