Thursday 3 September 2009

Barbary Coast (1935)

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Miriam Hopkins, Edward G Robinson and Joel McCrea

The names drip off this film so much that someone as important as David Niven is merely uncredited as a cockney sailor who gets thrown out of a saloon. It's a Howard Hawks movie, though it started out as a William Wyler movie. It stars the most unjustly overlooked classic actor of them all, Edward G Robinson, who simply didn't understand how not to be great. Only Cagney could compete on presence and the rest of Hollywood tried to do what he did in his sleep. There's also Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Harry Carey, Frank McHugh's brother Matt and the ever reliable Donald Meek.

The leading lady is Miriam Hopkins, playing a New York society dame called Mary Rutledge who's introduced with the memorable words, 'Jumpin' Jehoshophat! A white woman!' The man speaking them really arrived in this film as one of the screen's great old codgers, Walter Brennan. He's only a little more than forty here but he plays a lot older with panache, with his eye patch and cackle. He's a great example of San Francisco citizenry, given that he has 'a price on his head in every state in the union except Californy and they aren't organised yet.

This is the San Francisco of the 1850s, a muddy frontier land after they discovered gold in 1849 and people flocked there from everywhere under the sun, a place where millions were won and lost. Dan Morgan did both: after striking it rich he lost his million dollars on the gambling table. He was a bad loser and as we're told, San Francisco isn't a good place for a bad loser. So when Mary arrives on the boat to marry him, she finds nobody waiting and nothing there for her. So she asks where his money went and promptly follows it, to a gambling joint called Bella Donna and Luis Chamalis, the man who runs it and the rest of the town.

Needless to say this is Edward G Robinson, with a glint in his eye and the airs of a dandy. He has a frilly shirt, a pair of earrings and a belt of coins and he puts her to work at the roulette table, dubbed the Swan. Being a white woman, she's more than a minor attraction, and she earns a good deal of his income for him. He keeps after her too but she keeps him wanting until he's burning up, all ready to set the town alight. He's not the only one, as Col Marcus Aurelius Cobb has the same idea but in a very different way indeed.

He arrived on the boat with Mary and helped her get ashore, so has a powerful friend even if he doesn't realise it. What drives him is the truth, so he sets up the San Francisco Clarion where the truth must prevail. Of course with Chamalis running the town, there's not a lot of chance of that and his first task is to keep his modern printing press from being broken and his office from being burned to the ground. Given that the story is written by veteran newspapermen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, responsible for many great American stories on the screen but especially the one they're best known for, The Front Page, you know that this is going to be a crusading piece. It's not the only story in this plot though.

The other one is the Swan and the turmoil that she runs through in San Francisco. After one night of refusing to profess her love for Chamalis, she heads out to the goldfields for a break and discovers Joel McCrea as a gold prospector with a passion for words. Of course he doesn't get on the boat and of course he finds his way to her roulette table and you can write the rest of this subplot yourself with just a few keywords to trigger off: spiked drink, spitoon cleaning, bedroom window...

Hopkins and McCrea are good, but McCrea's a little out of place as he often was in the early days. What's more, Alfred Newman's soundtrack is uncharacteristically overblown. He won nine Oscars in his long and distinguished career but all he could do in this film was play the refrain to Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair on what seems like every instrument in the orchestra. It's almost like there are only ten notes in the entire film, always in the same order, over and over again. I'm not sure I ever want to hear the song again after this. It's going to play in my nightmares tonight, I'm sure.

There is fun here and excitement and drama and passion, but it really isn't in this overblown romance. It's more in how Sawbuck McTavish makes his stand, how the vigilantes organise and how the Clarion finds its guts and vision. It's in how Knuckles Jacoby meets his end, in a magnificent frontier trial unlike any you might expect. Jacoby is a tough yet somehow effeminate thug, played by Brian Donlevy, probably because of how he wears his shirt. McTavish is Donald Meek and Col Cobb is Frank Craven, and both are memorable too, especially Meek who never wasn't. They're given opportunities but then they're taken away, so perhaps the story just wasn't allowed to come together. I got the feeling that Hecht and MacArthur wanted to play up the newspaper angle and make what Sam Fuller later made with Park Row, but it backs down every time it begins and heads back to the overblown romance.

Edward G Robinson's part keeps turning into nothing but he keeps resurrecting it. He has a great introduction and a great departure, however much it loses track in between. None of that is his fault though. This sits in between The Whole Town's Talking and Bullets or Ballots and can't touch either as far as he goes. It's Brennan that steals the show here, as an old coot called Old Atrocity. He'd been acting since 1925 when he turned up to auditions with friend and fellow newbie Gary Cooper, but many of his first hundred or so films were in uncredited roles. He steals every scene he's in here and his success helped him into more substantial supporting parts. He'd soon win the first Academy Award for a Best Supporting Actor, for Come and Get It, and he went on to win three out of the first five, to this day the only actor to win three Oscars in that category.


Ed Howard said...

This is an interesting but uncharacteristic early Hawks movie, notable, as you say, mainly for the performances from Robinson, Hopkins and especially Brennan (love the line he delivers after he's reformed at the end: "I feel like a pure white kitten."). They're all fun to watch, and the exterior scenes have a lovely, moody fog-shrouded atmosphere that points the way ahead to Only Angels Have Wings. Of course, the plot is silly and melodramatic, and mostly perfunctory too, and the ending is just utterly unbelievable. It's a film that works as parts rather than a whole.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Ed. Yeah, you're spot on with the shrouding foggy atmosphere. It does remind of Only Angels Have Wings, which stunned me when I first saw it and really need to see again.

The ending was inevitably unbelievable because 1935 meant it was released under the code and the rules decreed that the bad guy couldn't get away with it. This is why for Kind Hearts and Coronets, the most deliciously dry black comedy ever made, the Americans required an extra ten seconds of footage to change the gloriously subtle and hinted ending into something definitively hammered home.