In old-time Hollywood, the rule was: if you weren't American, or weren't white, you could play any nationality. The rule even applied, albeit rarely, to blacks: Noble Johnson played a Russian in "whiteface" makeup in The Most Dangerous Game, and John Ford cast both Johnson and Woody Strode as Indians, and Strode as a Mongol. Throughout movie history, there have been designated ethnics, actors presumed capable of playing characters of any background. The actors themselves ranged from the Irish-Mexican Anthony Quinn to the Jewish Eli Wallach and the Egyptian Omar Sharif. With the coming of sound Ramon Novarro, who had a number of WASP roles on his silent resume, became one of the first designated ethnics. He made his first sound hit playing a South Sea islander in The Pagan. From there he could jump, with director Jacques Feyder in tow, from the Austrian soldier of Daybreak to a Hindu in Son of India. With Novarro's racial transformations the stakes of romance changed. Interracial romance was one great taboo against which Pre-Code cinema was loathe to transgress. Films from The Sheik to Whoopee! would tease the transgression, only to cop out with a sudden revelation that a hero of forbidden ethnicity was in fact white. But if Pre-Code can't countenance interracial romance -- or, to be more specific, interracial marriages -- it sometimes acknowledges that something's wrong with the picture its compelled to show. Son of India is such a film: a tragedy that could be condemned for its cowardice by 21st century standards yet ought to be acknowledged as a protest, albeit still cowardly, against the circumstances of the tragedy.
Novarro plays Karim, the son of a wealthy Hindu jewel merchant and an expert appraiser by training. Father and son are travelling with some of their treasures concealed in various trick compartments, but that doesn't deter a bandit band from attacking their caravan. The father dies, but Karim survives with the help of an ascetic he'd befriended, who briefly buries our hero alive, with a big diamond for company, while the bandits ransack the camp. In rags, Karim makes his way to Bombay (the modern Mumbai), where he enters a fancy jewelry shop to sell the diamond. The merchant tries to tell him it's worthless, offering just 20 rupees, while Karim claims it's worth more like 20,000,000. When Karim leaves in disgust ("I thought you were a connoisseur!"), the merchant follows him out and publicly accuses the ragged young man of robbing him. The case gets taken to court, where an American tourist (Conrad Nagel) who had been in the store when Karim came in confirms our hero's story. In effusive gratitude, Karim offers to give William Darsey the diamond as a gift, but Darsey politely refuses the excessive offer, accepting instead a promise that Karim will do anything in his power to help him in the future. Others are now quite willing to buy the diamond at a fair price, and Karim is soon a wealthy man, a polo star and a social lion.
Among the fans at the polo championship is Janice (Madge Evans), who's smitten by the dashing turbaned young horseman. Romance ensues despite the prejudiced objections of Janice's aunt; Karim appeals to the adventurous American girl, who goes with him on a tiger hunt. Karim discovers that his guides are the bandits who killed his father and takes revenge on the leader, but in the confusion Janice scratches herself on a poison plant. She's terrified at the necessity of Karim having to slice her arm with a dagger to release the poison, but she braces up when he slices his own arm to show how little it hurts. In a way, this moment is a symbolic wedding -- as far as I could tell, Karim didn't wipe his blood off the knife before applying it to Janice -- but Janice wants something more than symbolic.
Re-enter William Darsey, who reveals to Karim that he's Janice's brother, and that he has a big favor to ask. However Janice feels, William insists that the couple can't wed, that Janice would never be able to return to America, that she and Karim would be ostracized even in India, and that for her sake Karim must renounce her. This is unthinkable and unacceptable to Karim until William reminds him of the obligation Karim placed himself under all those years ago. Now it's a matter of honor for both men, and a sadly triumphant William goes to Janice to tell her that Karim has come to his senses. Rightly, Janice won't believe this until she hears it straight from Karim. When they meet for the last time, it's clear that their ardor for each other is undiminished, but Karim has been steeled for duty by a visit from the holy man who'd saved him in the past, who calls him now to renounce worldly life altogether. In this way, Karim tells a heartbroken Janice, his love for her will remain pure and safe from society's scorn, as he hopes hers for him will remain despite everything. Maybe it will.
Not until later in his life, as a character actor, did Novarro frequently play roles of his own Mexican nationality; as a leading man he more often played Spaniards. I'm not entirely sure of the rules for Mexicans in the bad old days, so I can't say whether it would be considered a forbidden romance for a white woman to love Ramon Novarro himself. You wonder whether seeing a handsome star like Novarro in a variety of ethnic roles raised questions about ethnic barriers for his fans. Did he become less desirable the less white he became? It's hard to imagine, and the message of Son of India is, in fact, that Novarro is no less attractive as a "brown" man. But Feyder's film -- his last in the U.S. -- betrays its (and Novarro's) roots in an older era in its finish, not because the star-crossed couple surrenders to prejudice, but because the surrender is an exercise in the pathos of renunciation that was common in American silent film, whether practiced by a clown like Chaplin, a grotesque like Chaney or any number of fallen women. While Son of India's surrender to racism makes it an obsolete film for 21st century viewers, the pathos of renunciation more likely made it obsolete (depending on its actual box-office performance) for Depression audiences who increasingly wanted to see people get away with stuff. However obsolete it may be by any standard, it's another charmer of a dress-up star turn by Novarro and an amiable bit of exotica overall until its obnoxious ending. Obnoxious it may be, but it was made to make people cry eighty years ago, and it might well do that today.