BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.
When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.
Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.
The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.
All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…