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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
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,Old San Francisco

Old San Francisco

The Vasquez family, whose presence in San Francisco dates back to the era of the Conquistadors, has lost its fortune over the years and by 1906 is on the verge of losing its ranch altogether. Chris Buckwell, a crime boss in the Tenderloin district who is notorious for his ruthless treatment of the local Chinese population, has his eyes on the property and sends Michael Brandon to swindle the Vasquez family out of its deed. However, Terrence O'Shaughnessy, Brandon's assistant, falls in love with Dolores, Don Hernandez Vasquez' daughter, and warns the family about Brandon's duplicity. Buckwell's scheme is further threatened when Dolores discovers that he in fact has Chinese blood. Eventually Dolores and Terrence are captured by Buckwell, who plans to sell Dolores into white slavery, but the unpredictable forces of nature still have their own role to play in the drama.

Today Old San Francisco (1927) is notable primarily as an early Vitaphone feature. The use of the Vitaphone sound process for its synchronized music and sound effects track predates the synchronized dialogue in other Vitaphone films such as the part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) and Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking feature. Developed by Western Electric and licensed by Warner Brothers, the Vitaphone process synchronized a 16-inch phonograph disc with the film projector. Its main competitor at the time was the sound-on-film Movietone process, which was licensed by Fox; it used a photoelectric cell to record sound waves directly onto film. While it often had synchronization problems, the Vitaphone process had relatively high-quality sound in terms of clarity and range, making it suitable for music reproduction. In fact, at the time it was touted more as a way to bring great musical performances to a mass audience than as a medium for dramatic films with synchronized dialogue. Not only did many Vitaphone shorts feature star performers such as the opera tenor Giovanni Martinelli (who sang the aria "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci), but the very first Vitaphone feature, Don Juan (1926), contained a score performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Like Don Juan, Old San Francisco used the Vitaphone process to reproduce an orchestral score composed specifically to accompany the film. Hugo Riesenfeld, who composed the Movietone score for Fox's lavish prestige production Sunrise (1927), also prepared the music score for Old San Francisco. Riesenfeld's score for this film includes orchestral arrangements of preexisting works such as the Andante con moto from Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat. The climactic earthquake scene includes sound effects such as human cries, though they are not closely synchronized to the image. The film, together with its original Vitaphone soundtrack, has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in association with other organizations such as the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art.

Alan Crosland (1894-1936), the film's director, signed up with the Edison company in 1912 and started directing films in 1914. His early output was largely undistinguished. In 1925 he joined Warner Brothers, which gave him more ambitious projects: Don Juan, Old San Francisco and The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with part synchronized dialogue. Crosland continued to direct not-so-memorable films until his premature death in a car accident in 1936. The film's screenplay was written by the legendary Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Before becoming a producer, Zanuck worked as a writer for Warner Brothers; he wrote dozens of scripts during that time, often under the pseudonyms Mark Canfield, Melville Crossman and Gregory Rogers. His scripts include Seven Sinners (1925, Milestone) and Noah's Ark (1929, Michael Curtiz).

While Old San Francisco is distinguished by atmospheric photography and imaginative set design, its story has fared less well. In particular, the film is notorious for its depiction of Chinatown as a treacherous, labyrinthine world of opium dens and white slavery. Popular character actor Warner Oland (1880-1938), best known today for his performances in the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu cycles, plays the heavy with secret Chinese roots. Campier aspects of the film include a dwarf "Mongolian" brother whom Oland keeps caged in the basement and the moment when Dolores Costello rings a bell to mark the death of her father and Oland inadvertently betrays his hidden identity by shouting, "Stop those accursed Christian bells!" When the film was first released, the reviewer for The New York Post dismissed it as "violently melodramatic and preposterous in the extreme -- and one of the silliest pictures ever made." Old San Francisco may not represent Hollywood at its most elevated, but it remains entertaining thanks to solid craftsmanship and Zanuck's lurid storytelling imagination.

Director: Alan Crosland
Screenplay: Anthony Coldeway, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck
Titles: Jack Jarmuth
Photography: Hal Mohr
Editor: Harold McCord
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
Art Director: Ben Carre
Costumes: "Alpharetta"
Principal Cast: Dolores Costello (Dolores Vasquez), Warner Oland (Chris Buckwell), Charles Emmett Mack (Terrence O'Shaughnessy), Josef Swickard (Don Hernandez Vasquez), John Miljan (Don Luis), Anders Randolf (Michael Brandon), Sojin (Lu Fong), Angelo Rossitto (Dwarf), Anna May Wong (Chinese Girl).

by James Steffen



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