erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Frisco Kid (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It works for a while. Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor who comes ashore in 1850s San Francisco only to be shanghaied onto another vessel. Or nearly. He wakes up as his attacker is rowing him to the ship, attacks the attacker, and both men go into the drink. Bat swims ashore, where, under the boardwalk, he’s found by a friendly Jewish tailor, Solomon “Solly” Green (George E. Stone), who could get as much as $250 for him but instead nurses him back to health. Bat chastises him later for it. 

Bat: And you call yourself a businessman? Why didn’t you turn me over to his ship?
Solly: I sell merchandise, not men.

Nice line. After that, Bat follows Solly’s example and becomes a better man.

Kidding. Bat adopts the code of those who shanghaied him (“dog eat dog”) rather than the one who saved him. In fact, he winds up causing the death of the one who saved him.

Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.

The swells
“Frisco Kid,” directed by Lloyd Bacon (“42nd Street”), and written by Warren Duff (“Angels with Dirty Faces”) and Seton I. Miller (“Adventures of Robin Hood”), is Cagney’s first period piece. He’s in fine form with longish hair and a stocking cap, but he never thought much of the flick. In his autobiography, he called it “one of those catch-as-catch-can affairs Warners put out purely because they had to be put out. By that I mean Frisco Kid had already been sold to the exhibitors even before a foot of it had been shot or conceived.”

Bat’s rise on the Barbary Coast is fun but too quick. He shanghais Slugs (Joe Sawyer), the guy who shanghaied him, then tosses in another of Slugs’ victims for a quick $500 ... which he quickly loses at the blackjack table to a cheating Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez, Sam Spade in the original “Maltese Falcon”), who also happens to own the place. So much of Bat’s rise is in the establishments. At the low end is The Occidental, where he first got shanghaied, and which is run by Spider Burke (Barton MacLane, the future Gen. Peterson on “I Dream of Jeannie”). With cash, he rises to Morra’s, which includes a few respectable people, and where he becomes a bouncer after killing Slugs’ accomplice, the Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler). But he’s got bigger dreams. He wants to be the biggest and most important guy in town—and he does that by enlisting the help of powerbroker Jim Daley (Joe King). Together, they create the Bella Pacifica, with its mirrored glass and marbled bar, and which caters to “the swells” and “society blades.”

Why does Daley even listen to Bat? Because he’s got an idea, see? The local newspaper, run by Charles Ford (Donald Woods), is on a campaign to clean up the Barbary Coast. “The town is tired of having a dirty neck,” Bat tells Daley. “And they may try to wash it—unless we buy up all the soap.”

Right. It’s a little vague. All the businesses kick in to Daley/Bat—protection money, I believe—but the first part of Bat’s scheme? Quieting Ford and his newspaper? Doesn’t happen. In fact, Daley wants Ford dead. But Bat met Ford once and immediately liked him, for no good reason other than he’s supposed to like him, so Bat confronts the would-be assassin, Spider Burke, and knocks him out. Later, Burke tries to shoot Bat, but Solly inadvertently steps in the way. Down he goes. And with him, the best part of the movie.

Now we’re just left with the romance. Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay) is the publisher, or something, of the newspaper. Her father used to run it but he was knifed in the back for taking on the Barbary Coast. “I’m only telling you this,” she says to Ford, “so you know you’ve taken a dangerous position.” Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) warns Ford, too, but in the other direction: He has to say something to clean up the town. The Judge is a pain throughout. He shows up just to hector people: Ford isn’t doing enough; Jean shouldn’t get involved with Bat. Etc.

Jean: I think there’s a very worthwhile and human side to his character.
Judge: I can’t understand you, Jean.
Jean (light laugh): I can’t understand myself sometimes.

Yuck. But it’s that Warner Bros. ethos. Our guy isn’t bad, he’s just trying to survive in a crummy world. If only he could become respectable. At the same time, we don't want him to become respectable. Those guys are boring. Basically:

Scum Charming Crooks Dull Society
Spider Burke Bat Morgan Jean Barrat
Slugs Crippen Paul Morra Charles Ford
Shanghai Duck   Judge Crawford

The Judge is so annoying that when he builds an opera house, Bat can’t resist tweaking his nose. He invites a few raucous Barbary friends, who horrify the swells. Unfortunately, Morra shows up uncharacteristically drunk and invades the Judge’s box; when the Judge objects, he shoots him.

The rest of the movie is lynch mobs. Ford turns back the first mob with a fiery speech about rule of law—only to discover Daley has freed Morra. So he confronts Daley, decks him, and is shot dead by him. That leads to the second lynch mob, which extracts both Morra and Daley from prison, puts them through a kangaroo court, and hangs them. (Morra goes with aplomb; Daley whimpering.) Now they target Bat. He prevented the Barbary Coast mob from burning down the newspaper, but the citizens’ mob doesn't know that, and probably wouldn't care, and they burn down his place and take him prisoner. At the kangaroo court, he's about to get a death sentence when Jean shows up and pleads his case: “You hanged Morra and Dailey because they killed. Bat Morgan has killed no one!” 

Me: Well, Spider Burke, most likely, but we can let that one go. 

In his own defense, Bat says this:

The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to make good. Make good my own way. [Pause] Which was wrong, I found that out.

Ouch. That pause. 

Anyway, the vigilante committee remands Bat to her care. She says she has faith in him. He says she won’t regret it.

We regret it. The end.

Where have you gone, Lili Damita?
It's an odd end. The couple is together but basically surrounded. This was from the period when Warners didn't kill off Cagney. After “Public Enemy,” I don't think he died onscreen again until “Ceiling Zero,” his next picture after this one, which was a sacrificial death, as was, in a way, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” a few pictures after that. Then it was off to the races. Then moidah the bum. 

A couple more things worth mentioning about “Frisco Kid.”

On race matters: There’s just one non-white face, Wong Chung playing Chung. We first see him as another player at Morra’s blackjack table; after Bat builds Bella Pacifica, we see him in Bat’s office, shining his shoes. That’s about it. Of the 45 credits IMDb lists for Wong, 44 are uncredited. The one that isn’t is the Anna May Wong vehicle “King of Chinatown” (1939), in which he plays “Chinese man”—which is his credit (or uncredit) in 11 other movies. This is the fourth movie in which he actually has a name, and it’s his third with “Frisco” in the title. The others: “Frisco Jenny” (1932) and “Fog Over Frisco” (1934).

Charles Middleton, soon to play Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon,” also has a bit part as a rabble rouser.

Fourth-billed is an actress named Lili Damita, who’s barely in it. She plays Belle, Morra’s girl, and helps him cheat. She’s also in a lot of publicity shots for the film—including cheek to cheek with Cagney—but again, she’s barely in it, and never with her cheeks near Cagney’s. Was her part cut? Was she was just a name to draw in the crowds? In her obit from 1994, The New York Times says the French-born actress was “one of Hollywood's most glamorous celebrities in the early years of talking pictures,” starring opposite Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier, while romantically linked to Prince Louis Ferninand. A 1929 Times headline reads: LILI DAMITA ENGAGED TO KAISER’S GRANDSON. A day later, this errata: HOHENZOLLERNS DENY PRINCE IS TO WED.

“Frisco Kid” is one of her last pictures. What happened? Chiefly, she married an up-and-comer named Errol Flynn. They divorced a few years later, of course, but they had a son, Sean, who—no surprise—was a handsome sonovuabitch. He made a few knockoff movies in the early 1960s trading on his dad’s fame but apparently died in Cambodia in 1970. As a soldier? No, a photojournalist. He went to Vietnam in 1966 for Paris-Match, was wounded, left to cover the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, then returned with plans for a documentary. He and a colleague went missing from Cambodia in 1970; they were never found. His mother had him declared legally dead in the 1980s.

Me: Wow, they should make a movie of this.

They did: “The Road to Freedom,” 2010, loosely based. The Times thought it awful, calling it “a howler.”

Damita did marry again. From her obit: “Her second marriage in 1962 to Allen B. Loomis, an Iowa manufacturer, also ended in divorce.” Not sure why the Times sounds so dismissive here. They were married 20+ years. Plus it’s somehow charming: from a prince, to a movie star, to an Iowa manufacturer. Even those guys—us guys—get a chance now and again. 

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Thu. Feb 13, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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