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Based on a story by Rex Beach, Son of the Gods (1930) is an early sound-era drama of racism in the "civilized" society of the rich and sophisticated in America and Europe. A stoic Richard Barthelmess, playing with even more restraint than usual, stars as Sam Lee, who we first see as the star player of an Ivy League polo team. He's rich, smart, cultured, studious, and generous, seemingly the all-American ideal, and yet he's reluctant to join his college buddies on a triple date with a trio of girls. "Do you think it will be all right?" he asks, warily yet hopefully. "Do you think they'll understand?" He asks because Sam Lee is not American. He's descended from Chinese royalty, the son of Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), who runs a vast financial empire from his headquarters in New York. In 1930 America, that simply marks Sam as "a Chinaman," or as one sneering, intolerant debutante spits out, "a chink."
Yes, Barthelmess doesn't look like he has a drop of Asian blood in him and the filmmakers don't add any make-up enhancements (as Griffith did when Barthelmess played a young Chinese immigrant in Broken Blossoms, 1919). While it may seem an oversight, it actually serves the point of the film. His politeness and seriousness instantly impress people and women are certainly attracted by his good looks and generosity. It is only when they discover his lineage that their attitude changes. That small-minded bigotry is finally too much for Sam and, with his father's blessing, he drops out of college to make the world his classroom, working his way across the globe to get a different kind of education.
Constance Bennett is Allana Wagner, a sophisticated and worldly American heiress in Europe with her protective father. Through an improbable set of coincidences, Sam lands in the lap of high society in casinos and night spots of the Riviera and is soon romancing Allana, who covets and requires a lot of attention. But along with the issue of his "secret" - is she as free from prejudice as she proclaims? - Son of the Gods throws out all sorts of complications on his road to happiness and acceptance: illness, death, disillusionment, retribution, and more secrets.
Richard Barthelmess was a major silent movie star, catapulted into starring roles by D.W. Griffith in Broken Blossoms and Way Down East (1920) and by Henry King in Tol'able David (1921). He also earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor in the inaugural 1929 Academy Awards for his roles in The Noose (1928) and The Patent Leather Kid (1927). His career in sound cinema never reached those heights, but he was a natural for a certain kind of Pre-Code cinema, playing stoic heroes and burned-out survivors in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Last Flight (1931), and Heroes For Sale (1933). For Son of the Gods, Barthelmess plays the part with a kind of emotional mask, protecting himself from the inevitable rejection that comes with his racial identity.
Constance Bennett was enjoying a career comeback when she made Son of the Gods. Once a silent starlet, she had retired from the screen when she married in 1925 and then returned to the screen after her divorce, starting over in the sound era. The blond, big-eyed beauty was an almost instant star. In Son of the Gods she is glamorous and sophisticated, yet also strong and independent and sure of what she wants: A modern American girl in European high society. She calls her father (Anders Randolf) "Darling" and treats him more like a big brother as she charts her own, sometimes headstrong course. In contrast to Barthelmess, she lets her emotions bubble over, whether in joy or anger or regret, and her openness brings Sam out of his protective shell.
Director Frank Lloyd came charging out of a successful silent film career to win the second-ever Academy Award for Best Director for the 1929 The Divine Lady and his second Best Director Oscar® a few years later for Cavalcade (1933). He missed out on a third for what is surely his best-known film, the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, which took home the Best Picture Oscar®. He was at heart a contract director, carving out handsome pictures on assignment, albeit projects in the high end of studio prestige pictures.
Seen with modern eyes, Son of the Gods's stand against racism comes off as hypocritical and half-hearted at times, looking down upon the bigotry of society not so much for its racism but for its inability to recognize the "fine breeding" of Sam (one man defends Sam by differentiating him from "the coolies" who, apparently, deserve scorn) and the film's final revelation undercuts the message. Nonetheless Son of the Gods is a rare enough recognition and criticism of racism in America for 1930.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: Bradley King (screen version and dialogue); Rex Beach (story)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Sam Lee), Constance Bennett (Allana Wagner), Anders Randolf (Wagner), E. Alyn Warren (Lee Ying), Claude King (Bathurst), Frank Albertson (Kicker), King Hou Chang (Moy), Mildred Van Dorn (Eileen), Barbara Leonard (Mabel).
by Sean Axmaker
"World Film Directors Volume 1" ed. John Wakeman. H.K. Wilson Company, 1987.