Based on a story by Rex Beach, Son of the Gods (1930) is an early sound-era drama of racism in the “civilized” society of the rich and sophisticated in America and Europe. A stoic Richard Barthelmess, playing with even more restraint than usual, stars as Sam Lee, who we first see as the star player of an Ivy League polo team. He’s rich, smart, cultured, studious, and generous, seemingly the all-American ideal, and yet he’s reluctant to join his college buddies on a triple date with a trio of girls. “Do you think it will be all right?” he asks, warily yet hopefully. “Do you think they’ll understand?” He asks because Sam Lee is not American. He’s descended from Chinese royalty, the son of Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), who runs a vast financial empire from his headquarters in New York. In 1930 America, that simply marks Sam as “a Chinaman,” or as one sneering, intolerant debutante spits out, “a chink.”
Yes, Barthelmess doesn’t look like he has a drop of Asian blood in him and the filmmakers don’t add any make-up enhancements (as Griffith did when Barthelmess played a young Chinese immigrant in Broken Blossoms, 1919). While it may seem an oversight, it actually serves the point of the film. His politeness and seriousness instantly impress people and women are certainly attracted by his good looks and generosity. It is only when they discover his lineage that their attitude changes. That small-minded bigotry is finally too much for Sam and, with his father’s blessing, he drops out of college to make the world his classroom, working his way across the globe to get a different kind of education.
Constance Bennett is Allana Wagner, a sophisticated and worldly American heiress in Europe with her protective father. Through an improbable set of coincidences, Sam lands in the lap of high society in casinos and night spots of the Riviera and is soon romancing Allana, who covets and requires a lot of attention. But along with the issue of his “secret” – is she as free from prejudice as she proclaims? – Son of the Gods throws out all sorts of complications on his road to happiness and acceptance: illness, death, disillusionment, retribution, and more secrets.
Plays Tuesday, November 6 on Turner Classic Movies. Not on home video.