A title card from Old San Francisco (1927) reads: “Under the proud banner of Spain, Governor Portola, heading a small band of Franciscan Padres and soldiers of Philip, came, in 1769, upon a land-locked harbor that was destined to become the site of the metropolis of the Pacific.” This establishes the brief prologue of the movie, in which Captain Enrique de Solano Y Vasquez (Lawson Butt), having laid claim to a large piece of Californian real estate in that same year, is mercifully dead and buried by the time Rancho Vasquez falls prey to the gold fever resulting from the discovery of that precious metal at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. The Vasquez estate suffers because so many of its workers have said “screw this noise” and wandered off to seek their fortune in the gold fields. The commander of one of the Vasquez family’s many ships, Captain Stoner (Tom Santschi), entertains that same moneymaking proposition…and in a scuffle, shoots and kills one of the Vasquez grandsons (now running Rancho Vasquez) before he is felled himself (by a sword).
The surviving grandson is Hernandez Vasquez (Josef Swichard), now in charge of the family holdings. The feature fast-forwards to 1906, and although the Vasquez estate is in a state of decline Don Hernandez still clings to the proud Vasquez name, running the remains of the ranch with his granddaughter Dolores (Dolores Costello). A powerful political interest in Frisco wants very much to buy Rancho Vasquez, and attorney Michael Brandon (Anders Randolph) has been retained to negotiate the terms, assisted by his just-out-of-law-school nephew Terrence O’Shaughnessy (Charles Emmett Mack). Don Hernandez is adamant about not selling the ranch; the only positive result from the meeting is that Terrence falls and falls hard for the charms of the alluring Dolores.
Brandon’s practice caters to only one kind of client in San Francisco: the filthy, stinking rich. In the Vasquez matter, that man is Chris Buckwell (Warner Orland), the ruthless czar of the city’s Tenderloin District…and once he learns that Vasquez is steadfast about not selling, he makes the decision to obtain the property through the sort of means not unfamiliar to powerful men in this era: using the laws that were passed to mainly benefit wealthy wankers like him. Buckwell instructs Brandon to begin foreclosure proceedings over the protestations of Terry, setting in motion a plot that involves opium dens and white slavery as both Dolores and the angry populace of Chinatown seek to destroy the sinister Buckwell.
Wikipedia describes Old San Francisco as a “silent historical drama film” …though they would be well-served to put “historical” in quotes. It’s a rip-snorting mellerdrammer with only a tenuous connection to historical events, based on a novel by Allie Lowe Miles and adapted by Anthony Coldeway and Daryl Francis Zanuck—the same D.F.Z. who later became the kingpin at 20th Century-Fox. Francisco’s plot is deliciously lurid and unquestionably a bit racist in its depiction of Chinatown and its inhabitants; it’s not enough that the movie must make the Chris Buckwell character pure dagnasty evil—they even provide him with a dwarf brother (played by Angelo Rossitto) that he keeps in a cage. As the cherry on the sundae, Buckwell harbors a secret: he’s a half-caste(!), and indulges his Chinese origins in a secret shrine located in his cellar (which also contains a secret passageway to Chinatown). Buckwell is played by the most assuredly non-Asian Warner Oland, who cemented his cinematic immortality as inscrutable super sleuth Charlie Chan.
Dolores Costello, once nicknamed the “Goddess of the Silent Screen,” is probably better known today as Drew Barrymore’s grandma…but in her heyday, she starred in such silents as When a Man Loves (1927; with her hubby, John Barrymore) and Noah’s Ark (1929). I wasn’t quite as taken with her as leading man Charles Mack but Costello acquits herself quite nicely as the demure senorita who falls into the wicked clutches of Oland’s Buckwell. Mack’s story is a bit more tragic: the actor, who had established himself in D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street (1921), was starting to become a serious box office presence when he was killed in a car accident on his way to filming a scene for The First Auto (1927), released posthumously. An auto accident (in 1936) would also claim the life of San Francisco’s director, Alan Crosland, who had worked in films since 1912 and helmed the likes of Don Juan (1926; starring Mr. Dolores Costello) and The Jazz Singer (1927).
I sat down with this one mostly because of Oland’s participation…but also for the presence of TDOY fave Anna May Wong—who, as “A Flower of the Orient,” is the only other individual to know of Chris Bucknell’s half-Asian lineage. Costello’s character eventually learns the secret, too, in a risible sequence that signals in a Pythonesque fashion that the movie is about to get very, very silly. Truth be told, I was very entertained by Old San Francisco for most of the film…but just when the virginal Dolores is helplessly in Buckwell’s grimy paws—he’s planning to sell her to a brothel owner—they bring on the infamous 1906 Frisco earthquake, suggesting that the Almighty is wreaking vengeance on the contemptible Buckwell. (This is telegraphed earlier in the movie through the rantings of a saloon derelict with a little too much religion.) Sorry, gentle readers…to quote cartoonist Ted Rall, “that deus won’t ex machina.” I find it a little hard to swallow that the Supreme Being is going to lay waste to an entire city population simply as payback for Buckwell the Reprobate. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)
Old San Francisco was one of the earliest full-length feature films to be released in the Vitaphone process (the fifth), with musical accompaniment by The Vitaphone Symphony Orchestra and sound effects such as crashing buildings and crowd screams in the earthquake sequence. (A silent version of the film was issued in tandem with the Vitaphone release.) Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (with help from the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the AFI/NEA Preservation Grants Program, and AT&T), it frequently makes the rounds of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ and is also available for purchase or rent as a Warner Archive MOD DVD.