Sunday 30 December 2007

Frisco Jenny (1932) William A Wellman

Just before William Wellman directed Ruth Chatterton in Lilly Turner, they teamed up for this film, another women's precode and they certainly start it off with a bang. Literally: we're in San Francisco in 1906 so it's one of the bigger bangs. More specifically we're on the Barbary Coast where the men are all drunk and the women all live in bars to feed off of them. We see the tricks early on: drink a glass of olive oil every day to protect your gut against the rotgut whiskey, give customers keys so that they'll wait for you and keep drinking all along, watch out for chalk marks on their shoulders to note that they've already been robbed.

Chatterton is the Jenny of the title. As we begin she's pregnant out of wedlock to piano player Dan McAllister, but they want to get married anyway. Her father who owns the bar she works at apparently has the power to stop the marriage and he's ready to do exactly that. And then the big one hits. It doesn't just take out the city, it takes out Jenny's bar, her father and her fiance and she has to start afresh with a new baby.

Chatterton is great for roles like this. She's as believably tough and strong as you'd need a leading lady to be in a women's precode, but she has a melancholy look to her face that works wonderfully. When she sets up in business as a high class madam and gets caught up in a murder scandal, she's forced to give her son up for three years to avoid the decency leagues. When it's time to get her back she finds she can't take him away from privilege and is so forced to watch him grow up from afar.

The catch, and this being a precode there has to be a catch, is that she becomes a major underworld force during prohibition and her son graduates from Stanford as a lawyer and is soon up for district attorney. Jenny makes the difference to get him elected but of course he's one of the good guys and she's a really good target for the good guys.

The great things about this film are mostly what made precodes great generally: the social issues, the irony, the brutal truth, the powerful roles for women. Chatterton is an excellent lead and she's ably supported here by a cast that includes people of the calibre of Louis Calhern and James Murray. The problems are typical ones too. It's too short, for one; Chatterton's character doesn't age enough, for another; and the worst one is that her loyal Chinese servant is about as Chinese as I am. There are real Chinese actors in the film, even speaking Chinese, but as always they aren't given real parts.

The weird thing is that in 1932 Ruth Chatterton was about to marry George Brent, and Brent was up for the part of her son in this movie! I'm sure she was very happy to see Donald Cook take the part instead and Brent become her love interest in her next film, Lilly Turner, instead.

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