“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well done movie set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

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“GIRLS ABOUT TOWN” (1931) Review

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“GIRLS ABOUT TOWN” (1931) Review

When he first arrived in Hollywood in 1929, New York stage director George Cukor served as a dialogue coach at Paramount Pictures and occasionally, at other studios like Universal. Then in 1930, he co-directed three movies, two of them with Cyril Gardner. He had to wait a year later to serve as sole director for his first two movies. One of them turned out to be the 1931 comedy called “GIRLS ABOUT TOWN”

Written by Zoe Akins, Raymond Griffith, and Brian Marlow; “GIRLS ABOUT TOWN” is about two gold diggers named Wanda Howard and Marie Bailey who entertain stody, but wealthy Midwestern businessmen visiting Manhattan. However, Wanda has tired of her demeaning lifestyle until she meets the handsome Jim Baker during a yacht party. Also on board is Jim’s friend, stingy tycoon Benjamin Thomas, who is the richest man in Lansing, Michigan. While Marie entertains Benjamin and becomes the victim of his practical jokes, Jim makes his feelings about her and Marie’s racket. However, the pair fall in love when she nearly drowns and Jim rescues her. And when he proposes marriage to her, Wanda makes her feelings clear by ripping up her payment for entertaining him. But an obstacle stand in Wanda and Jim’s path to a happy ending in the form of her shiftless ex-husband Alex, who wants Jim to pay him a hefty sum for a divorce from Wanda.

In the movie’s secondary plot, Marie has become weary of Benjamin’s practical jokes. But she is also determined to swindle him into giving her as much money as possible . . . which proves to be increasingly difficult, due to his tightfisted ways. However, Marie acquires an unexpected ally in the form of Benjamin’s wife, Daisy. The latter is determined to divorce him for his stinginess, despite the fact that she still loves him. The two women, realizing that Benjamin is using his stinginess to string them along, the two women scheme to shame Benjamin into spending more money for them both.

How can I put this? I would not consider “GIRLS ABOUT TOWN” to be a particularly original tale. Or perhaps I simply found predictable – at least the main narrative about Wanda and Jim. Only a blind man would fail to predict how their relationship would unfold, especially when her ex-husband Alex entered the picture. But despite this element of predictability, I must admit that I found Wanda and Jim’s story rather entertaining, thanks to winning performances from Kay Francis and Joel McCrea. Not only did I predict that ex-husband would prove to be an obstacle for Wanda, so did Hattie, the maid that she and Marie shared. Louise Beavers, who portrayed Hattie, had one of the funniest moments in the film when she hysterically spilled out how Alex would prove to be a lot of trouble for Wanda and Jim.

But it was the movie’s subplot involving Marie and the Thomases that proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance. When Daisy Thomas first visited Marie and Wanda’s apartment, I had no idea on how this story would played out. It was not long before I found myself flabbergasted by the budding friendship between Marie and her sugar daddy’s wife, Daisy. And watching them scam the tightfisted Benjamin into spending cash for both of them made me appreciate how this movie seemed to be a prime example of Hollywood’s Pre-Code era. This subplot also benefited from some hilarious performances from the husky-voiced Lilyan Tashman, Eugene Pallette (another performer known for an unusual voice) and Lucile Gleason.

Overall, “GIRLS ABOUT TOWN” is an entertaining and slightly wicked film, well directed by George Cukor in one of his earlier Hollywood efforts. Mind you, I did not find the movie’s main narrative that particularly original. But the subplot really took me by surprise and in my view, really made the film; along with a fine cast led by Kay Francis, Lilyan Tashman and Joel McCrea.