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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!
A wealthy young man, raised as a SON OF THE GODS, must confront his
Chinese heritage while living in a White world.
Although the premise upon which this film is based is almost certainly a biological impossibility and the secret of the plot when revealed at the movie's conclusion makes all which has preceded it faintly ludicrous, the story still serves up some decent entertainment and good acting.
Richard Barthelmess has the title role as the sweet-natured Oriental whose life is terribly complicated because he looks Caucasian. Barthelmess keeps the tone of his performance serious throughout, gazing intently into the middle distance (a mannerism he developed during Silent Days) whenever his character is indecently misused. He makes no attempt to replicate his classic performance in D. W. Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) and this is to his credit. Beautiful Constance Bennett is the millionaire's daughter who makes Barthelmess miserable. She is gorgeous as always, but her behavior does not endear her to the viewer and her terrible illness in the final reel is kept mercifully off screen.
Multi-talented Frank Albertson has a small role as Barthelmess' improvident buddy. Serene E. Alyn Warren and blustery Anders Randolf play the leading stars' very different fathers, while Claude King distinguishes his brief appearance as the English author who befriends Barthelmess.
Movie mavens will recognize little Dickie Moore, uncredited, playing Barthelmess as a tiny child.
The original Technicolor of the flashback sequence has faded with time to a ruddy tint. The shot purporting to be the South of France instead looks suspiciously like Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California.
Interesting story and sympathetic treatment of racial discrimination,
Son of the Gods is rather too long and contains some hammy acting, but
on the whole remains a fascinating film.
Story about a Chinese passing as White (Rchard Barthelmess) starts as Barthelmess leaves college after being insulted by a trio of brainless co-eds. He embarks on a world tour to discover himself and ends up as secretary to a British playwright (Claude King). In Monte Carlo he meets beautiful Alanna Wagner (Constance Bennett) and they fall in love. But when she discovers he is Chinese she goes berserk in a memorable scene.
Plagued by guilt and love, Alanna goes into a mental spiral and makes a few attempts to contact Barthelmess. After his father dies he takes over the business (banking?) and dons Chinese garb as a symbol of his hatred of the White race that has spurned him. After a San Francisco detective tells him the truth about his birth, Barthelmess makes the decision to honor his Chinese father and mother.
And I agree that one reviewer here never saw this film. Alanna declares her love for Sam BEFORE he tells her of his recent discovery. And that makes all the difference in this film.
Barthelmess and Bennett each have a few scenes where they chew the scenery, but on the whole this is a solid and interesting drama. Frank Albertson is good as the nice college pal, Claude King is solid as the playwright Bathurst, Bess Flowers has one scene as an Oklahoma Indian, and E. Alyn Warren is the Chinese father, Dorothy Mathews is nasty Alice. Not so good are Anders Randolf as Bennett's father and Mildred Van Dorn as Eileen. Also note the gorgeous blonde to the right of Barthelmess at the roulette table. What a stunner whoever she was!
Wealthy Caucasian-looking Chinese student Richard Barthelmess (as Sam
Lee) is accepted by some of his school chums, but many girls shun him
when they find out he's really a "Chinaman". Not knowing where he fits
in, Mr. Barthelmess drops out of college and sails for Europe.
Barthelmess settles in the south of France, assisting English author
Claude King (as Mr. Bathurst) with a play he is writing about Chinese
culture. Barthelmess is "popular with the ladies," and catches the eye
of beautiful blonde Constance Bennett (as Allana Wagner). Perhaps
recalling his earlier rejections, Barthelmess does not reveal his
Chinese ancestry to Ms. Bennett...
Her father Anders Randolf (as Mr. Wagner) wonders about Barthelmess' background but Bennett doesn't care, or does she...
Bennett's reaction to the news should not to be missed. You should note that the very next scene begins her turnaround, and that she has transferred feelings to her victim. This trading off of prejudice is artful and interesting; and, for the time, this film takes a positive stand regarding miscegenation. That doesn't make it convincing, however. Barthelmess was a top actor, and placed #8 in "Quigley Publications" 1930 annual money-makers list. He has some good scenes, and the production values are high, but his characterization is askew. Barthelmess was getting too old for the college boy roles. And Bennett is saddled with a difficult to redeem scene.
***** Son of the Gods (3/9/30) Frank Lloyd ~ Richard Barthelmess, Constance Bennett, Anders Randolf, E. Alyn Warren
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
... when matters of race enter the equation. That is the theme of this
very early talkie that centers on the social dilemma of Sam Lee,
college-aged son of a wealthy Chinese-American man. Sam (Richard
Barthelmess) is a well-mannered intelligent young man. He looks
Caucasian although he doesn't hide his heritage from his friends and
associates. That doesn't mean he wears a sign around his neck
announcing it either, and he shouldn't have to. This causes
misunderstandings with girls he meets who somehow think they've been
taken advantage of if Sam as much as dances with them before they know
He gets tired of this same situation playing out time and time again, leaves school, and goes abroad. There he meets naughty flirt Allana Wagner, a bored wealthy girl who passes her time by breaking hearts. However, Sam's straightforward manner engages her, and soon she is falling for him. Unwilling for history to repeat itself, Sam tries to tell her that he is Chinese, but Allana makes sweeping statements about how nothing matters if they love each other, and poor Sam takes this shallow girl at face value. This sets him up for a very public fall when Allana finds out the truth from her father.
This film is very candid for its time in discussing issues of race and social interaction, and it was headed for a very daring end when the writers, at the last minute, produce a happy ending that pulls what could have been some powerful punches.
This film is well acted by all of the principal players and the leads are well cast, with Barthelmess always doing well as the thoughtful optimistic guy confronted with a world not as kind and well-meaning as himself. Constance Bennett, the girl with the china doll looks that often belies the cynicism and treachery of the characters she plays, is perfect in her part as Allana. Highly recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
maybe we saw a different copy, but the version i watched had allana
deciding she couldn't live without sam even though she thought he was
Chinese. he only told her about his being white after she had already
decided to stay with him. still unbelievable, but not as bad as if she
could only consider him if he was white.
yes, the Chinese spoken by the white actors were pretty awful, but at least it was recognizable as an attempt.
for 1930, this was a pretty sympathetic portrayal of Chinese, even before world war two made china an ally of the united states against japan.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Fascinating film which grabs the attention thanks to a hard-hitting script, big-budget sets and believable acting from a really solid cast, particularly from Constance Bennett in what is surely her best performance ever. Barthelmess is mighty believable too. But the story, alas, is not. Mind you, it's first-rate stuff right until all the cop-out rubbish surfaces with Robert Homans in his all-too-familiar element, but even less convincing than usual. (Homans plays the cop, of course). Interest and believability then take a nosedive despite the studio's frantic efforts to hold our attention with a Technicolor sequence (which is now, despite the excellent quality of the rest of the movie, a Clayton's Technicolor sequence, that is it's the cheesy color filter you have when you're not actually having Technicolor). However, it's hard to keep producer-director Frank Lloyd down, and "Son of the Gods" is still a movie that's well worth watching. Available on a very good Warner Archive DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Son of the Gods', starring Richard Barthelmess, is a good example of
how an actor's current performance is inflected by his (or her)
previous performances. With the possible exception of "Tol'able David",
Barthelmess's best (and best-known) role was his performance as the
gentle Chinese immigrant in 'Broken Blossoms'. Barthelmess played that
role with all the usual gimmicks employed by a white actor depicting an
Oriental: sellotaped eyelids, cringing posture, the lot. Despite some
racist and unpleasant 'Chinky' dialogue, Barthelmess brought genuine
dignity and realism to his performance as a Chinese in 'Broken
Blossoms'. Memories of his performance in that role must have helped
considerably for the audience who watched Barthelmess in 'Son of the
Gods' during its original release.
SPOILERS COMING. Barthelmess here plays Sam Lee, the son of a wealthy Chinese merchant. In this role Barthelmess's eyelids are normal, which the audience might interpret as simply the director's decision to avoid a ridiculous make-up job. At any rate, Barthelmess doesn't in any way *look* Chinese. There's an awkward scene in which Sam and his father begin to converse in Chinese but then lapse into English, clearly for our benefit.
Sam embarks on a world tour, in which he meets wealthy socialite Allana Wagner, played by Constance Bennett. She's supposed to be very beautiful, but I'm still waiting. Allana is attracted to Sam, not realising that he's Chinese. (He certainly doesn't look it, and his accent isn't Asian.) They fall in love. Eventually, though, she learns the truth. This provokes an extremely unpleasant scene in which Allana strikes Sam in the face with a riding crop, while calling him a yellow dog, a cur, a liar, a cheat. Meanwhile, other people stand about watching her do this, without interceding.
Later, Allana falls ill (maybe from Chinese flu?). While she's on her sickbed, her father (Anders Randolf) tells Sam that Allana is calling for him in her delirium. Wagner prevails on Sam to visit his daughter. Sam does this, and she recovers, but Wagner shows no gratitude. His attitude seems to be that Sam is just a filthy Chinese, so no gratitude is necessary.
SPOILER NOW. And here's where it gets really offensive. It turns out that Sam isn't Chinese after all. A retired lawman informs Sam that he's a white foundling, adopted in infancy. He never knew he's actually white! But now that Sam is safely Caucasian, Allana is perfectly willing to marry him. Even more strangely, Sam is eager to marry Allana after all. Is he a masochist?
There is a nasty tradition of films and plays in which a white woman is attracted to a dark-skinned man but is simultaneously repelled because he is the 'wrong' colour ... only to learn that in fact he's a white man after all, whose complexion is down to many years of being tanned by the sun. Examples of this offensive scenario include 'The Sheik' (Arab turns out to be white foundling) and 'Whoopee!' (Amerindian turns out to be white foundling). 'Son of the Gods' is one more example of this dark genre. What makes it vaguely plausible is the fact that Barthelmess is best known for playing a (genuine) Chinese in a previous film, so we accept him as Chinese in 'Son of the Gods'.
In this film's favour, there is a moving scene in which - after learning the truth about his ancestry - Sam decides that he considers himself Chinese after all, as he was raised by Chinese within the Chinese culture after his 'own' people abandoned him. Also, this film contains some very beautiful exterior scenes and some elaborate interiors. There's also a Technicolor sequence filmed in San Francisco's Chinatown ... regrettably, this sequence was seriously deteriorated in the print which I viewed.
Constance Bennett (who never appealed to me) is neither physically attractive nor sympathetic in a role that's apparently meant to be both. Her role in this film is a racial bigot, yet we're not expected to perceive her that way. Apparently, we're meant to find it perfectly reasonable that she would be attracted to this white man, then repelled by him when she discovers he's not white, then attracted to him again when she learns he's white after all.
If I were going to rate this film on its political correctness quotient, it might barely merit a rating of 2 out of 10. Setting aside the fact that this movie's story is extremely racist and extremely implausible both at the same go, there are substantial merits in its photography, art direction, Frank Lloyd's supervision, and in the performances of Barthelmess and several supporting actors (but not Bennett). Trying to judge this film by the standards of its time, I'll rate 'Son of the Gods' 7 points out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"He's an educated Chinaman" someone tells Constance Bennett who has
come to apologize for racial slurs against Richard Barthelmess brought
up to think he's Chinese even though he looks totally Caucasian. The
statement meant to defend Barthelmess is actually a slur against the
typical looking Chinese that Bennett claims she knew living in
California, what this man, tearing Bennett down, is saying is that a
Chiese man is OK as long as he's educated, hangs out with Caucasians
and looks Caucasian.
There's a ton of anti-Asian racial slurs used violently throughout the film, and audiences in 2013 might not understand the mindset of a 1930 audience. Even if the film blatantly used racism without its so-called defense, it wouldn't be as offensive as this. As a film, it is entirely too long, and the twist at the end will probably make you wince. This is a sad example of one type of pre-code celluloid that went too far and like the logo of the 1932 "Scarface" truly is the "shame of a nation" that does nobody any good. By the time the two-strip color flashback final occurs, you'll have given up.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When talkies came along Richard Barthelmess, who had been a top star
from the early 1920s, proved to be one of the very few silent stars
whose career, at least initially, went from strength to strength. Not
only was he placed 6th in a box office popularity poll in 1931, his
salary (in 1933) was one of the highest, being around $8,500 a week,
which made it quite easy for Warners to drop him when his contract came
up for renewal and his star began to fall. But before then he showed a
lot of versatility by tackling roles such as a crusading news reporter
("The Finger Points"), an ex-flyer ("The Last Flight"), a disillusioned
war veteran ("Heroes For Sale") and even a share cropper ("The Cabin in
Unfortunately it would take all his skill and the allure of his leading lady to get people into the cinema for "Son of the Gods" - a drama about the romance between a sophisticated girl and a wealthy college boy who neglects to tell her of his Oriental parentage. Constance Bennett kept gossip magazines working overtime as she spouted her opinions about marriage, wealth and life in general, so people hurried to the cinema to see the outspoken actress they thought they knew.
When Sam Lee (Barthelmess), a wealthy but shy college student invites his "friends" out to an exclusive night club, "The Bird Cage", the evening turns sour when one of the girls finds out that he is - shock!! horror!! - Chinese!! This is the last straw for Sam who realises the only friends he has are those that envy him his wealth. He feels he lacks the humility his father expects of him and decides to sail to Europe, working his way as he goes. He finds employment with Mr. Bathurst, a British writer who uses Sam as a researcher for the Chinese section of the play he is writing. Bathurst knows Sam's history and, unlike the Americans, respects his honor and integrity.
Sam meets beautiful Allana Waggner (Bennett) who gives him to understand that if a man has her love it doesn't matter who or what his parentage, she will give her all. Which makes the story very cringe worthy in that when she finds out he is nothing more than a "common Chinaman" she goes off her rocker and attacks him in the cafe with a riding crop!!! This movie doesn't have anything in common with "Broken Blossoms", except to point out that little had changed in the meantime and that in 1930 being Chinese carried the same stigma as being a leper, in white man's eyes. I have seen Constance Bennett in a few films and I was surprised by her amateurish acting at the start - she did improve as the film progressed and was quite good in the scenes where she had to suffer. Apparently "The New York Times" was unimpressed with her histrionics and deliberately referred to her as Constance Talmadge throughout the review.
Of course the one person who does treat him as an equal is Eileen (Mildred Van Dorn) a sweet Irish girl who would make him a perfect wife and whose uncle holds the key to Sam's mysterious past but love is blind and Allana's treatment brings him back to America a changed man. He finds his father dead and, fed up with the contempt and treachery of the white race, decides to live as a Chinese man - which includes frequenting Oriental dives!!! He takes over his father's business and his tough and ruthless methods tear down all the good will his father had built up. I suppose to appease the public, the twist at the end, that he was not Chinese but really a foundling (played by the always cute Dickie Moore) taken in by the Lees, didn't mean much as Allana didn't want to know anything about his past but wanted to love him unconditionally.
re the Technicolor sequence. I think it was the scene which took place in the back of the car Sam was driving. Suddenly his friends launch into a song "Pretty Little You" (which I can remember from "Sally"), their lips turn dark and their cheeks become "rosy" - all signs that color was used.
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