Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Old San Francisco (1927) and the Vengeful god

Fire of San Fransisco 1906

In continuation of yesterday's post... (some spoilers)

This movie isn't kidding around. A lot of folks even today consider San Fransisco a sinful city and it is portrayed that way in this film. There is a unique juxtaposition of various Biblical references peppered throughout the film alongside shots of sinful activities in the various seedy places of Old San Fransisco. You cannot watch this film and truly appreciate it without taking into account it's religious overtones. At one point in the film, Buckwell (Warner Oland) and his entourage are drinking and carousing in a dive in the Mile of Hell. A man barges in and boldly proclaims to all who will listen to him: "In the midst of thy inquities, God will punish thee! His wrath will fall from Heaven - ". This is a warning for sure.

The movie mostly takes place in 1906 and the biggest natural disaster that San Francisco (or California for that matter) has ever seen is imminent. The earthquake of 1906 was catastrophic and it's estimated that 3,000 people perished in the quake and the ensuing fires that engulfed the city. Most people were left homeless. We have the man's proclamation as well as other references to a vengeful God that lead us to this natural disaster at the epicenter of the film.

Dolores as Angel

In my opinion, Dolores (Dolores Costello) is the epitome of Christian innocence. She is a vertiable angel. She lives on the outskirts of the city and when she steps into the seedy parts of San Fransisco sticks out like a sore thumb. Buckwell's attempt to rape her just serves to show us how truly evil he is and how the city has got out of hand. After Buckwell gets caught and her grandfather dies trying to duel with Buckwell for her honor, Buckwell's true self is exposed to Dolores in a sort of godly revelation. Through the power of her Christianity, her god (and the ghosts of her ancestors!, she is given a moment of clairvoyance and is able to see that Buckwell isn't white as all the Chinamen in Chinatown thought. He's actually a Mongol. The titlecard reads "In the awful light of an outraged, wrathful, Christian God, the heathen soul of the Mongol stood revealed". Let's not get into the racist parts of this film, but this is useful information for Dolores. If she is able to reveal this to the Chinamen who are oppressed by this man who they thought was a white superior, she can stop Buckwell's reign of terror. He tries at all costs to stop her from revealing this. With the help of his sidekick Anna May Wong, he seeks his revenge by sneaking her into one of his brothels and having the madam dress her for services. This is not right and we know it. An angel cannot be sullied this way and just around the time she gets her first customer, she begins to pray the Our Father, while O'Shaugnessy is trying to save her with the help of Buckwell's now freed, but previously trapped midget brother, the earthquake starts. The walls collapse, rubble falls down on all the sinners and the whole city disassembles itself into chaos.

You Mongol!

To me this smacks of Samson and Delilah. So I pulled out my Oxford Annotated Bible and went to the Book of Judges Chapter 16 to refresh myself on the tale. The two stories are definitely parallel. Samson was born of barren parents who were blessed with the pregnancy by an angel of God if they promised not to cut his hair. Samson was born with incredible strength which he could keep unless his hair was cut. Delilah, a prositute and a spy for the Philistines, tries to find the secret of Samson's strength. In a moment of weakness, he tells her. She cuts his hair in his sleep and the Philistines capture Samson and gouge his eyes out. He is placed in between two pillars, in front of 3,000 Philistines for their amusement. He prays to God to give him one last bought of strength and he proceeds to bring down the pillars, and the building and he and all the Philistines perish in the rubble.

Dolores as Prostitute

Now back to the movie. Dolores has long hair, but her strength is really her innocence and beauty. Buckwell knows her strength is in her reputation as part of Spanish aristocracy and people believe and trust her because of her purity. Her weakness is Terrence O'Shaugnessy (Charles Emmett Mack), whom she loves. Buckwell traps O'Shaugnessy and uses him as ransom. He puts Dolores in a brothel (Delilah was in a brothel!) and the moment her innocence is at stake the walls fall down among everybody. It's not a perfect correlation but it's pretty darn close.

It's interesting that this story chose to equate the San Francisco earthquake as an act of God against the sinfulness of San Fransisco. I don't really have an opinion other than an objective one. In terms of storytelling, it's an interesting plot device to lead up to the earthquake. The event becomes part of the driving force of the storyline rather than something unfortunate that just happens.

I haven't seen any other films about the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 so I'm not sure how other movies have treated the subject. Old San Francisco (1927) is a film I highly recommend to anyone with a particular interest in this important moment in US history.


  1. I've seen the 1936 version of "SAN FRANCISCO". And yes, it also has religious overtones, although not as strong as the ones found in the 1927 version. And honestly, I found it not to my taste.

  2. Beautiful pictures of Dolores Costello.

  3. I love how you actually researched the biblical references! So interesting. Do you think the filmmmakers intended such a close relation to the Samson story? I could see them doing it unintentionally, even though there are so many similarities between the two stories.

  4. I've seen the 1936 film San Francisco, starring Gable. While it is a very good film, from the sounds of things it is not nearly as intellectual as Old San Francisco. It is a fairly straight forward adventure/drama movie.

  5. Dolores looks very beautiful in this film..

  6. Great analysis! I haven't seen this particular film but I guess your interpretation of it is correct.
    The later silents were often filled with all sorts of biblical references. It was also extremely popular to dress up tales from the Bible in "modern day clothes". When the talkies came along the biblical references was much toned down, or so it seems to me.
    I wonder why?

  7. Juanita - Which one did you find not to your taste or is it the message you don't like?

    Dsata - I could stare at Dolores Costello all day.

    KC - Yeah silent films were chockful of Biblical and historical references. That's one of the reasons they are so much fun to watch.

    Submit - Why yes she does!

    Jonas - True that! Why did they drop the refs in the talkie era? Maybe they needed less symbolism and more witty dialogue?

  8. I've seen the 1936 film San Francisco, starring Gable. While it is a very good film, from the sounds of things it is not nearly as intellectual as Old San Francisco.


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