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This early Warner Brothers talkie "Son of the Gods" (1930) deals with the racial intolerance that Anglo-Saxon Americans show towards the Chinese. Chinese-Americans are treated like second-class citizens, and whites hold them in nothing but contempt.
Prolific scenarist Bradley King based her screenplay on Rex Beach's novel about a young, impressionable Chinaman, Sam Lee (Richard Barthelmess of "Only Angels Have Wings"), who experiences racial prejudice first-hand when the girls that his college chums bring along for a party reveal their racist sentiments about Sam once they learn about his heritage. Sam goes to his father, Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren of "Gone With The Wind"), who is a wealthy Chinaman with offices not only in New York City but also in San Francisco. Sam feels deeply wounded by the racial slurs and he wants to leave New York and go where he cannot be hurt by Americans. His patient father warns him that racism is a fact of everyday life and the only solution to racism is tolerance. Sam has yet to learn this lesson. He refuses to take any more money from his father and catches a ship to London, England, peeling potatoes while he is on board.
During the trip, he encounters a British playwright, Bathurst (Claude King of "Arrowsmith"), who needs some help writing a play about the Chinese. Sam and he strike up a friendship and Sam furnishes him with cultural information about Asians. While they are relaxing in France, Sam meets a beautiful young woman, Allana Wagner (Constance Bennett of "Two-Faced Woman"), who falls madly in love with him. It seems that Allana and her wealthy father are vacationing in the same motel. Everybody at the motel knows about Sam being a Chinaman with the exception of Allana. Sensitive about his racial heritage, Sam holds Allana at arm's length until she convinces him that nothing could change her mind about him. They fall madly in love together. Allana's father drops the bomb on her when he reveals that Sam is a Chinaman and all the memories of living in San Francisco and dealing with coolies floods Allana's mind. She storms into the dining room at the motel and publicly flogs Sam with a riding crop in front of a room filled with on-lookers.
Of course, Sam is terribly devastated by this reversal of events. He thought that Allana loved him but she didn't. About this time, Sam's father Lee Ying falls tragically ill and Ying's secretary of sorts, Eileen (Mildred Van Dorn of "Iron Man") sends Sam a telegram about Ying's illness. Predictably, Sam rushes home to New York to be at his father's side. Since his public humiliation, Sam has vowed to show no kindness to Anglo-Saxon Americans; Eileen is an Irish-Catholic and probably one of his few white friends. Lee Ying dies and Sam assumes control of the business and he practices his anti-White racism, until he learns that he was an Anglo-Saxon foundling that a San Francisco cop on the beat gave to Lee Ying and his wife to bring up. The cop forgot about it until two white busy-bodied social worker types wanted to take Sam away from the Yings. Sam learns this revelation about the same time that Allana comes to New York and falls ill. During her illness, she utters his name repeatedly in her sleep and her devoted father goes to see Sam and requests that Sam visit her in order to help her recover. Unbeknownst to Allana, Sam does visit her and she improves, but she has no memory of his visit, merely a hazy notion. Eventually, Allana learns the truth about Sam not being a Chinaman and they marry and live happily ever after.
This socially conscientious Warner Brothers/First National Pictures Release contends frankly and unflinchingly with the race issue for the first hour or thereabouts before the revelation that Sam has no Chinese blood running in his veins catches both him as well as the audience by surprise. The reconciliation between Allana and Sam stretches credibility, despite their self-professed undying love for each other. However, in the name of a happy ending that would erase all the negativity that came before it, they wind up in each other's arms.
The capitulation on the race issue with the revelation that Sam isn't Chinese damages some of the film's moral power. Incredibly, "Son of the Gods" is a Pre-Code film that almost seems prudish; for example, Sam is an American, not Chinese! Constance Bennett gives a wonderful performance as a petulant beautify and she holds your attention when she whips Sam with her riding crop. Claude King is good as Bathurst, and E. Alyn Warren is convincing as Lee Ying. Interestingly, Warren made a career out of portraying Asian characters. Richard Barthelmess is flawless as Sam; he delivers a highly nuanced performance. Despite its age, "Son of the Gods" is a son of a good movie!
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