Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Barbary Coast (1935): The Gangs of San Francisco?

In Edward G. Robinson's autobiography, he relates his on-set relationship with his co-star Miriam Hopkins, during the filming of their joint venture, Barbary Coast (1935). According to Robinson (and many others through the years), Hopkins was a diva extraordinaire, snobby, impossible to deal with and constantly late to the set, making cast and crew wait to prove she was the true star of the film. When Robinson finally called her on her behavior, she egged him on to give it all he had in an upcoming scene were he was supposed to slap her. When the time came, he did just that and received a roaring burst of applause from the entire crew. So was the backstage atmosphere for Barbary Coast.

The film was inspired by a book called The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underground by Herbert Asbury, who also authored The Gangs of New York. The latter story was a gritty period piece which was famously filmed in 2001 by director Martin Scorsese and starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo diCaprio and Cameron Diaz. While the story lines of the movies do not mirror one another, there are similarities; older, darker bad guy (Edward G. Robinson/Day-Lewis), younger romantic guy (Joel McCrea/diCaprio) and blonde cutie (Miriam Hopkins/Diaz), all gathered within a lusty, boisterous male driven setting almost two centuries ago. But this is not a comparison of the two films, merely an acknowledgement that they are based on work by the same author.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn had read the Barbary Coast story and wanted to film it as early as 1933. At one point the film was thought to be a comeback film for silent star Gloria Swanson and Goldwyn also contemplated it as a vehicle for his European "discovery" Anna Sten (his answer to Garbo) and Gary Cooper, but when the first few pictures Sten did for the producer flopped, he backed off. The final verdict was Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, Goldwyn regulars in the mid 1930's. Robinson, borrowed from Warner Brothers, rounded out the starring cast. Noted director Howard Hawks was set to oversee the film, while the renowned writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur handled the script.

The story isn't an extremely complicated one. Mary "Swan" Rutledge comes to old San Francisco during the famed Gold Rush of the 1840's, with its muddy streets and rugged, dangerous atmosphere, as a mail order bride for a wealthy saloon owner. She finds instead that her "beloved" has been murdered and his fortune overtaken by rival Luis Chamalis (Robinson). Intent on getting her share of the dead man's money, she cozies up to the loud and barbaric Chamalis, who puts her in his place, the Bella Donna, running a crooked roulette wheel. She is content to make money and be the belle of the ball (one of the few white women in Frisco at the time) when she accidentally meets up with a poety readin', deep thinkin', nice lookin' prospector named Jim (McCrea). Drawn to Jim but not daring to hope they could be together due to what kind of gal she is/has become, she goes back to her roulette wheel, Jim none the wiser. On his way out of town, Jim stops in at the Bella Donna to find Swan in her Jezebel garb and men aplenty. She gets embarrassed, he loses his gold and Chamalis gets suspicious. Enough for now, no spoilers here.

Miriam Hopkins may have been a prima donna both on-screen and off but her career was in high gear during the filming of Barbary Coast. She had just finished making Becky Sharp, based on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which was notable in film history as the first feature ever filmed in full Technicolor. For her efforts in Sharp, she would be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and begin her rich association with Goldwyn. Joel McCrea, always a favorite in Hollywood, didn't have much to do in the film except look attractive and let Robinson chase him around. Still his good guy persona stood him well and his career continued to flourish. Also cast was Walter Brennan, an extra and bit player for years. According to the Howard Hawks biography, "The Grey Fox of Hollywood", Brennan went to his audition and asked "With or without", to which he was asked, with or without what. He was talking about his dentures and did the test without his falsies. He not only gained the role but the part was gradually expanded until he ended up with fourth billing! As another example of his continued success, Brennan was awarded the very first Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year for his role in Come and Get It. Brian Donlevy is another up and coming wannabe who gained great success after appearing in Coast as Robinson's henchman, Knuckles (boy was he a chipper chap).

With the production values afforded a Goldwyn picture, the tight direction of Hawks and the fiery performances of Hopkins and Robinson, Barbary Coast is a very worthwhile flick. Catch it if for no other reason than to see Edward G. with muttonchop sideburns, fluffy, puffy shirts and a single dangling earring. A long way he is from the milquetoast in Scarlet Street for sure.


  1. Miriam Hopkins was such a drama queen! But she was so talented. Too bad she made life hard on her co-stars. (Maybe husbands too!)

  2. I just "discovered" this film last year, because I am a huge Joel McCrea fan and I really love it. Robinson is of course amazing, and seriously, NOBODY can be cooler than Walter Brennan! I actually really like Hopkins in it and I'm not usually a huge fan of hers.

    Anyway, great review!

  3. This is a pretty good movie, mostly because Hopkins is really fun to watch, and so is Robinson, both of them shamelessly mugging. Somebody had to: McCrea is a total bore. And then of course there's Walter Brennan, whose part just seems to keep expanding and expanding out of all proportion to its purpose, just because Hawks loved the guy so much and realized that he was so much more interesting than anything else going on in the movie. It's like any moment when Brennan could possibly be crammed in with a great line or a goofy bit of business, suddenly there he is. Great stuff. Love the foggy atmosphere too. Other than Brennan, it never feels much like a Hawks film, and it's ultimately pretty slight and saddled with an awful, nonsensical ending, but it's still an enjoyable diversion.

  4. Apparently, the life-long feud between Ms. Hopkins and Bette Davis is made up of the stuff of which legends are made! Their intense dislike for each other is what many have stated is the reason Old Acquaintance and The Old Maid fairly flame up on the screen.

    I haven't watched Barbary Coast in years. Your review has whet my appetite for another viewing!

  5. Enjoyed this review, Rupert. I saw this movie last year and agree with you that it is a lot of fun to watch - I was very interested in the background information you drew out and the comparisons with Gangs of New York. I love Hopkins and Robinson - must agree with Ed's comment that Brennan's role seems to keep growing and growing because Hawks loved him so much, and also that McCrea doesn't do much. One of the scenes that struck me the most was when the newspaper office is smashed up to silence the newspaper owner/editor.

  6. The scene where they get Knuckles is classic.

  7. I had never heard of this movie until now and after reading this I really want to see it!

  8. I wasn't that impressed by this film. Which is a pity. It had such promise, especially with the cast and the Gold Rush setting. But in the end, I only felt disappointed with it.



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