“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 known story 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:
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.
Filed under: History, Movies | Tagged: antebellum, brian donlevy, david niven, donald meek, edward g. robinson, frank craven, harry carey, howard hawks, joel mccrea, miriam hopkins, movies, old california, old hollywood, old west, politics, travel, walter brennan | Leave a comment »