Son of the Gods (1930) stars Richard Barthelmess as Sam Lee, an amiable college student, with a good supply of disposable cash. Sam plays polo, and is frequently requested to fund his classmates when they run out of money. One evening, he is approached by Kicker (Frank Albertson); he and Bathurst (Claude King) have a double date planned, only a third girl arrived with their dates, and now they have insufficient funds. Would Sam loan Kicker a few dollars? Better still, would Sam join them, and squire the extra lady? Though at first reluctant, Sam agrees. All is well on the drive over; the girls like Sam, and he is shy, but friendly. When the group arrives at the restaurant, the young ladies retreat to the powder room to fix their faces. A few minutes later, a restroom attendant asks Kicker to come to the ladies' room. The women are in a furor - how DARE he inflict that CHINAMAN on them! Sam might ask them to dance! It is repulsive, and they want to leave NOW. The young men refuse to bring them home, but finally agree to get them a cab. And then they have to tell Sam. He's not surprised; he's been through this before.
Though it is hard to fathom why no one questions Sam Lee's parentage (he certainly does not have physical features that would lead one to believe he is of Asian descent), it is equally hard to believe that Sam's race is so important. And, while Sam is Asian in all but color, he is also generous, kind, loving nature, and noble of spirit. Yet, he is abused by every woman he meets (save one) and is literally flogged because he is of another race. The single exception to this is Eileen (Mildren Van Dorn), who acts as secretary to Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), Sam's father, and who regards Sam as a brother.
As Robert Osborne said in his commentary on TCM, some moments in the film are "cringe-worthy". The reaction of Allana Wagner, played with vehemence by Constance Bennett, is certainly offensive to modern audience, but it is also apparent that it is intended to be repugnant to the audience of 1930. Of course, it's clear that we are supposed to feel for Sam BECAUSE he is pure of spirit, not a "coolie" This TCM Article discusses the attitudes present in the film in more detail.
We were particularly impressed with Richard Barthlemess in this film. His conversations in Chinese were quite convincing, and he is able to make Sam likeable without becoming saintly. Barthlemess had already played an Asian man in Broken Blossoms (1919); in that film, he was in full Asian makeup, and had a more tragic end. Also quite good was Mildred Van Dorn; while her Irish accent comes and goes, she is able to make Eileen an appealing character. Van Dorn only appeared in 15 films (between 1929 and 1934), 8 of which are shorts. She died in 2004 at the age of 93. We also have a brief appearance by Dickie Moore as Young Sam. Though we generally like Constance Bennett, she is rather histrionic in this part. We're not really supposed to like Allana, but Bennett's over-the-top performance is a bit hard to take.
Next time, we'll be back with another film from the 1930's.