For the second time this year, I showed my students the 1927 film, Old San Francisco. And for the second time this year, I asked my students if they recognized any of the actors. Both times, my students figured out (likely by way of imdb) that the Swedish actor, Warner Oland, playing evil Chinese Chris Buckwell, was the same actor who played the rigidly Orthodox cantor in The Jazz Singer, which came out a month later (we watch that film, too). But no one recognized Dolores Costello, who plays the beautiful and chaste Dolores Vasquez, set up by the film as the rightful proprietress of Californian lands, by virtue of being descended from Spanish Conquistadors (the film brilliantly elides San Francisco’s history as part of Mexico, casting Dolores as a pureblood European, and a contrast to the other sketchy ethnic types who try to take possession of her rancho and the rest of the city–only to be crushed by the 1906 earthquake).
I gave them a few facts about Dolores Costello: “She was the daughter of actors.”
“She was married to an actor.”
“She was the mother of an actor.”
“She was the grandmother of an actress — who is still acting today. Can anyone guess who that actress today is?”
Then: “She’s about my age. And she was a child actress. I am willing to bet everyone has seen, if not some of her recent romantic comedies, one of the films she did as a kid. It was a very famous movie. I saw it as a kid when it was out in the theater, but it’s a classic. You would have seen it.”
Last semester, a student asked: “She was a kid when you were a kid?”
This semester, they all just thought and thought (and held their googling fingers back).
I didn’t break the silence. I waited. And both times, a student (the first time, the same who clarified the actress’s contemporaneity with me), finally piped up with a knowing response:
. . . the ’30s star who died this past month, at the age of 85.
Giant sigh. If you know the number of a good plastic surgeon, it seems I need it. Send it my way!