Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan play an ill-fated interracial couple. When their secret marriage is discovered, Talmadge is executed by the Emperor of China for daring to marry a white man. Her daughter (also Talmadge) grows up and sets out to discover her American roots. A very, very odd film, full of outdated racial views and a rather icky father-daughter relationship.
Is big strong love-man gonna kiss us?
Oh my. Where do we begin? The silent era had its share of strange movies but this is one of the oddest to be released. From the normally-stolid talents of Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan, we get a gonzo romance that spans two generations.
The Forbidden City begins with a doomed love affair between a Chinese aristocrat (Norma Talmadge) and an American diplomat (Thomas Meighan). San-san’s father has offered her to the emperor as a concubine but she is secretly married to her father’s American friend, John Worden. While Worden is called away on official business, San-san’s father takes her to the Forbidden City.
When Worden returns, he finds no sign of his wife. After a fruitless wait, he comes to believe that the marriage was discovered and San-san’s father murdered her. He sadly departs for his new assignment. Meanwhile, San-san has given birth to Worden’s child, a daughter named Toy. When the emperor discovers what has happened, he has San-san executed. Toy (Norma Talmadge, again) is raised in the palace as a warning to others contemplating a marriage union between East and West.
Mistreated and willful, Toy escapes the palace at last and goes in search of her American roots. She meets a young Lieutenant and falls in love but is her love doomed as her mother’s was?
The Forbidden City was one of five full-length films that Norma Talmadge released in 1918. Sadly, it is not one of her best vehicles. While the direction is competent and the idea of following the child of an interracial union is interesting, the film is undone by some rather sloppy mistakes.
The intertitles are among the worst. As stereotyped as it seems today, dialect writing was seen as a legitimate way to further a silent film plot. In The Forbidden City intertitles are not so much dialect as baby talk: “Oh, Buddah, please send love-man here to give me million sweet kisses.”
To paraphrase Groucho Marx: “If little icky baby keep talking that way, big strong love-man gonna kick all her teeth right down her throat.”
The white actors in Chinese roles all sport heavy eye makeup and silk costumes but no one seemed to have bothered studying Chinese customs and manners. That might be forgiven considering when the film was made. Seeing actors read Chinese upside down is a little harder to get past.
I won’t even begin on the plot holes and lack of motivation for most of the characters. And I can’t possibly be the only one who found Thomas Meighan’s sickbed scene with Toy extremely creepy: Toy enters the room wearing the blood-stained clothes her mother was executed in and plays San-san in hopes of curing her father. It’s meant to be touching but it comes off as ghoulish and frankly incestuous.
On the positive side, San-san’s death scene is indisputably moving and the film is beautifully shot. The somewhat garbled message of the film seems to promote interracial marriage (although there is a 50% chance of death as a result), something rather unusual at the time. Thomas Meighan and Norma Talmadge are convincing as the ill-fated pair of lovers. Less so as father and daughter.
While not a terrible movie, The Forbidden City is also not a very good one. If you are in a Madame Butterfly mood, try The Toll of the Sea (1922) starring the incomparable Anna May Wong.