Tuesday September 06, 2022

Movie Review: Barbary Coast (1935)


Didn’t a famous director once say that the drama on a movie set is often more interesting than the drama in the movie? I thought it was Hitchcock, and I thought it led to Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” but I’m not not finding any on that online. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place.

Whoever said it, you could apply it to “Barbary Coast.” The story in the movie is silly—dictated by its time and stars. A hifalutin dame, Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), soon nicknamed “Swan,” is set to land in gold-mad, 1850s San Francisco, the notorious Barbary Coast, to be the bride of a man she’d never met: Dan Morgan. Except Mr. Morgan, he dead. So she waits for the alpha dog to emerge. That’s Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), who runs the Bella Donna, a saloon/casino that cheats the prospectors out of their scraped-together findings. Swan, dressed in frilly white, does the same, while putting off the amorous advances of Luis. Then she falls in love with a tall, poetry-spouting prospector, Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea), but lies to him about her background. When he discovers the truth—just before the boat back to NYC and his beloved Gramercy Park—he gambles his earnings, she cheats him of them, and they’re both like “Fine!” But in the final act—as citizens form vigilante squads and string up the gangsters—they find love again and are ready to leave the place. But no, Luis won't have it, and he wings Jim and is about to kill him when Mary convinces him to let them go so they can blah blah. And he surrenders himself to the mob to die. And the lovers blah blah.

Yeah, blah. But behind the scenes? Wow.

In his autobiography, Robinson writes admiringly of Jean Arthur, his previous co-star in “The Whole Town’s Talking”: “She was whimsical without being silly, unique without being nutty, a theatrical personality who was an untheatrical person. She was a delight to work with and to know.”

Next graph, he lowers the boom: “Miriam Hopkins, on the other hand, was a horror.” 

He enumerates the problems. She was always late, changed dialogue, missed her marks, tried to upstage her co-stars, particularly Robinson, and was generally theatrical and haughty. For her closeups, Robinson read with her; for his, she couldn’t be bothered and the chore went to a script girl. In one scene he had to slap her, and he wanted to rehearse it so it would look real and not hurt. She wanted it once and done, and told him to slap her for real. “I slapped her so you could hear it all over the set,” he wrote. “And the cast and crew burst into applause.” His implication is everyone else was sick of her, too, but who knows? Maybe they admired her dedication to the craft? Or that it was one and done?

Such tensions, I'm sure, aren't untypical. But this is what I’m getting at: 

In addition, the set of Barbary Coast was highly politicized. … [screenwriters] Hecht and MacArthur were liberals; Howard Hawks, Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea Walter Brennan and Harry Carey were not liberals. … F.D.R. was still in his first term, and anti-administration forces were calling the New Deal un-American, Bolshevik, communist and socialist. These inflammatory points of view were constantly being aired on the set …The wealthy, the celebrated, the successful (and, realize, I could now count myself among them), saw F.D.R. as an enemy trying to change the fundamental fabric of the Republic. On the other hand, we saw him as a man trying to save capitalism by dealing with the fundamental inequities in the nation.

Robinson doesn’t go into how this politicization manifested itself—probably with the usual arguments—but plus ca change, right? These forces are still trying to undo the latest progressive step: Obamacare, Obergefell, abortion. Some are still trying to undo the New Deal.

And just think of the relevance to Robinson. Nine years later, Hawks helped found, and Brennan became a prominent member of, The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a right-wing Hollywood org that worked in tandem with Hoover’s FBI and HUAC to help create the circumstances that led to the Hollywood Blacklist, which curtailed Robinson’s career. A liberal, he was attacked for speaking out against Fascism but not Communism, and was forced to appear before HUAC and trout out a confessional article “How the Reds made a Sucker Out of Me” for American Legion Magazine in 1952. He had to go hat-in-hand to Ward Fucking Bond to get work again. And even then it was B pictures.

That’s your story. “Barbary Coast” is bullshit in comparison. 

White woman
I first heard the phrase “Barbary Coast” in 1975 when William Shatner starred in a short-lived TV series by that name. I don’t think I watched it much, despite Capt. Kirk. It didn’t zip to me. It was stuck in the mud.

For some reason, in the mid-1930s, we got an influx of movies set there: this one (released Sept. 1935), Cagney’s “Frisco Kid” (Nov. 1935), and Clark Gable in “San Francisco” (June 1936), which updates things to the 1906 earthquake, and which was a runaway smash hit. So was it just that Hollywood tendency to do what everyone else is doing? Or a novel way to use modern gangster-actors in non-modern settings? Maybe the production code growing teeth in 1934 made producers look toward, you know, “simpler times.”

The “W” word is dropped early: white. Mary Rutledge creates a sensation because she’s basically the first white woman in San Francisco. When she’s rowed ashore in the fog by journalist Col. Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven) and Old Atrocity (Brennan), we get this exchange:

Man: Who ya got there?
Old Atrocity: A white woman!
Man: Ah, yer lyin’!
Old Atrocity: No, I ain’t! She’s a New York white woman. Whiter than a hen’s egg!
Man: Whooo!

It’s New Year’s Eve, some white men are having fun cutting the pigtails off of Chinamen (as one does), and Mary and Luis toast each other. The next morning a deal is struck in the vague way of code movies. He offers protection, a position, and a way to make a mint. And she offers? I guess her plumage at the roulette wheel. In any non-code movie, he would also get her, i.e., sex, but this is code, so no. Plus it’s Robinson. He never gets the girl. He’s always desperately on the outside of that exchange.

McCrea doesn’t show up until about 40 minutes in. He’s good. He should’ve had more scenes with Robinson because they’re so opposite: tall, handsome, and an easy-going mark, vs. short, conniving, and having zero luck with the ladies. Could’ve done without the bad poetry, but I guess Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and probably Columbia, thought it high-class.

The movie never quite coalesces or resonates. In an early scene, the men in town carry the newly arrived Mary across the street so she doesn’t get mud on her dress, and unfortunately the movie does the same. It wants her innocent and mud-free when she’s more cutthroat than that. For half the film, she’s bilking the schmucks.

Older man
There’s also a subplot with Mary’s original protector, Col. Cobb, who decides to publish a newspaper in town. But when he tries to get involved with progressive reform, he’s killed by Luis’ muscle, Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy). I remember thinking, “Sure, Donlevy again,” but this was actually his first such role. Before this, he’d just been in silents and shorts. A string of 1935 flicks led to a long career expertly playing heavies. 

The actor who plays Cobb, Frank Craven, was an old theater friend of Robinson’s, and, despite being a rock-ribbed Republican, the two had a good time reminiscing. But Robinson noticed Craven had gotten older, and it made him realize that so had he. He was 41 now, with more past than future, and “I didn’t like it.” That said, a few years later, Craven got his biggest role yet, as Stage Manager in the original Broadway production of “Our Town,” a role he played in the movie version, too. So I guess it’s never too late.

Amazing with all the legendary talent in the room—Hecht, MacArthur, Hawks, etc., produced by Samuel Goldwyn, with costumes by Omar Kiam—that this was the result. “Frisco Kid” was much better, and it wasn’t particularly good.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Tuesday September 06, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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