Actor Charles Emmett Mack (McNerney) must not have been scared to tackle heavy topics in his movies. In The First Auto (1927), the audience follows Mack's character and through him and others we see the effects that the invention of the automobile, and it's replacement of the horse-drawn carriage, has on American society and how new technology often times distances different generations. In Old San Francisco (1927), we learn about the history of the city of San Francisco through the stories of different characters.
Old San Francisco (1927) tackles the history of San Fransisco, California from the time when the Spanish established a colony there in 1776, to the Gold Rush of 1848 and on to the great earthquake and fires of 1906. The story lingers on 1906 but the city's past is just as important to the story as the city's present.
Like in The First Auto (1927), Old San Francisco tells a big story through the lives of a few people, thus giving us insight on a meaty topic through a microcosm. We follow the story of the Vasquez family, aristrocratic Spaniards who reside in a mansion in San Francisco. They hold very strongly to the ideals that they inherited from their Spanish ancestors and the family's downfall starts as they resist the overwhelming influence the Gold Rush of 1848 has on the town. At the point the story really starts, 1906, we are introduced to Dolores (Dolores Costello - how fitting!) an amazingly beautiful young Spanish-American woman who lives with her grandfather and strives to maintain the old Spanish customs. Their dilapidated mansion and the land it sits on, is lusted after by various potential buyers. One day, two irishmen show up at the mansion offering to buy it from the proud grandfather who obviously refuses. One of those irishmen is Terrence O'Shaugnessy (Charles Emmett Mack) who falls head over heels with Dolores. But he's got competition. There is another old-fashioned Spaniard in the neighborhood, nipping at Dolores' heels. There is greedy Czar Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland - the Swede of Charlie Chan fmae) who corruptly rules all the chinamen in Chinatown with his iron fist. Dolores' beauty is like a dazzling jewel that he must possess and Buckwell will do so by any means possible. O'Shaugnessy has a chance because Dolores is smitten with the senor, but he gets sidetracked with the prostitutes and booze on Cocktail Route. Will he be able to save Dolores from Buckwell's attempts to rape her and to coerce her grandfather out of his home?
Charles Emmett Mack is again his charming loveable self in this film. The moment his character lays eyes on the beautiful Dolores, he stops, stares and drops his briefcase with important documents into the carriage. You just know that at that moment he leaves his business behind to concentrate on falling in love and pursuing Dolores. My heart just melted when he says (through title cards since this is a silent picture) "Sinful ye are - hiding your beauty from a starvin' world." His character gets sidetracked a lot. Even when he is living it up with the prostitutes on Cocktail Route, you still have the feeling that he is a genuinely good guy, just misguided by all the sinfulness that San Fransisco has to offer him. He plays the most real and mult-dimensional character in the movie. Everyone else seems to be one-dimensional. Dolores is pure and good, the grandfather is proud, Buckwell is greedy and evil, etc. Yet Terrence O'Shaugnessy waivers between good and bad and grows as a person as the story develops. He comes through at the end and you find yourself rooting for him all along the way. Don't let the other big stars Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Dolores Costello, et.al dazzle you away from the genuine charms of Charles Emmett Mack.
I hope you'll take an opportunity to watch this film. It's available to buy in the Warner Archive collection or to rent on Classicflix. Next up is an examination of the religious overtones of the film. I thought it would be too much to put it in my general review so I separated it into another post.