Barbary Coast (1935)

I’ve decided I’m going to try to write slightly shorter blog postings, as I’m so short of time these days due to my work situation. But I still want to try to record some of my thoughts on the classic movies I keep watching – so my mid-year resolution is to use more pictures and fewer words!

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

This is one of the early Howard Hawks films I didn’t manage to see during the blogathon organised by Ed Howard earlier this year. But I’ve now caught up with it after spotting the VHS video in a local secondhand shop (it hasn’t been released on DVD in the UK) and have also read Ed’s excellent review at his Only the Cinema blog. It’s definitely a lesser Hawks offering and doesn’t really have his stamp about it, but I’m still glad to have seen it.

Barbary Coast is a period piece set in a fog-wreathed San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849. The fog and darkness make the whole movie feel very atmospheric – and I possibly saw even more fog than intended because of watching on VHS. Although there isn’t a noticeable Hawks feeling about most of the film, the opening is similar to the start of Only Angels Have Wings, with a woman arriving in a remote place and finding herself in what is very much a male world, with different rules which she really wasn’t expecting.

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Edward G Robinson, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea

Edward G Robinson stars as Luis Chamalis, a flamboyant gangster with ruffled shirts and long sideburns, who basically owns the whole city, terrorising and if necessary murdering anyone who gets in his way. Miriam Hopkins is Mary ‘Swan’ Rutledge, the mail-order bride who arrives in the city to discover that her prospective husband is dead – in desperation, she hooks up with Chamalis and starts running the crooked tables at his gambling den, as well as apparently becoming his mistress. Since this film was made after the Hays Code came in, this relationship is hinted rather than spelt out, but I think it’s clear enough. It also seems at least possible that she is a prostitute.

However, Mary becomes increasingly uneasy about Chamalis’ violent methods, and, when she meets up with a handsome, idealistic young poet, Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea), who has wandered into the area clutching a spare copy of Shelley’s complete works, she sees her opportunity to escape. I found both Robinson and Hopkins’ performances fairly compelling, especially Hopkins – she does so much with her burning eyes, and makes you feel Mary’s increasing frustration and desperation to break away. However, for me, McCrea really isn’t very convincing as the incredibly naive Carmichael, who almost seems to have strayed into this tough world from another movie.

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But the real joy of the film is in two character performances. Hawks was clearly delighted with Walter Brennan as the eccentric and half-wicked Old Atrocity, a character who shows the way forward to Brennan’s later turns in other Hawks films. He was originally supposed to be filming for just three days, but his role was steadily expanded. I also liked Frank Craven as the wonderfully-named drunken journalist Marcus Aurelius Cobb, who sobers up long enough to open a local newspaper – only to have Chamalis storm in and tear up the type for his first edition. Admittedly, I’m always fascinated by newspaper scenes, but I do think this is one of the strongest sequences in the film, along with the surrounding violence in the fog-bound streets.

Edward G Robinson and Frank Craven

Edward G Robinson, Miriam Hopkins and Frank Craven

Todd McCarthy’s enormous biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood – a book I’ve just bought and which I’ve only read bits of as yet – suggests that the touch of The Front Page writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is definitely seen in this newspaper section, commenting that “political crusaders are otherwise entirely absent from Hawks’s work.” I agree the writers’ touch is seen here, but do think there is an element of political crusading in To Have and Have Not, where Bogart’s character is finally forced to take sides with the partisans he is helping.

The biography tells how producer Sam Goldwyn was determined to make a film with the title Barbary Coast after reading the book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, by Herbert Asbury, who also wrote The Gangs of New York. (I was intrigued to see the Asbury connection, because Barbary Coast rather reminded me of the Scorsese film Gangs in being a costume drama which is nevertheless a gangster movie – although there aren’t many similarities apart from that.) Goldwyn commissioned a succession of treatments and William Wellman was originally supposed to be directing before he was replaced by Hawks.

Hawks was frustrated at having so much of the film dictated to him and dismissed the finished product as a “lousy picture” – but, if you are attracted by a combination of gangsters and costume drama, you might think he was being a bit harsh. It’s no masterpiece and parts seem slow, but it’s still fun to watch. The biggest flaw is the tagged-on happy ending, which seems ridiculously unlikely – I wish I’d stopped watching a minute before the end!

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The sleeve of the US DVD

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13 thoughts on “Barbary Coast (1935)

  1. Excellent write up Judy. Robinson is always good even when he material is not up to par. I did like the feel of the film, like the muddy steets. Miriam Hopkins sparkles.

    Glad you got the Hawks books enjoy it!
    Also, if you don’t mind me asking, do you work for a newspaper or is it just a fascination your have. I always had a thing for newspaper themed films, and actuall train films too. BTW , I don’t do either professionally.

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    • Hello John, thanks, yes, I work for a local newspaper as a sub-editor. My husband is a train buff so I see quite a lot of train movies and programmes too! The Hawks book looks really good but I hadn’t realised it was quite so huge until a very large package arrived from Amazon…

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  2. Hi, Judy.

    Another great review. I haven’t seen this movie yet but it’s on my list.

    I hope it’s not sacrilegious to say this, but I’ve never particularly cared for Miriam Hopkins. She strikes me as an inveterate scene stealer, not a generous actor. Maybe I’ve simply not seen her in the right role. Still, I’m a fan of Eddie Robinson and would enjoy seeing him in this film. Joel McRea, too.

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    • Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the movie when you get to see it. I must disagree with you on Hopkins – she’s an actress I really like watching and want to see more of. I love her performance in the 1931 Jekyll and Hyde with Fredric March – if you haven’t seen that one, maybe it might change your mind, though we can’t like everyone, of course.

      I didn’t think all that much of Joel McCrea’s performance in this but I don’t think he had a very good role in it, so I’ll hope to see him in something else which gives him a bit more scope…

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  3. I have always really liked BARBARY COAST. I haven’t seen it in years and would love to see it again. It has three actors I always seem to enjoy watching: Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson, and Joel McCrea.
    Though I hadn’t thought of it, you’re right it’s kind of like watching 30’s Scorsesee, who I also like. Good job, shortened post or not.

    Rupert

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    • Thanks for commenting, Rupert – I’m getting to be a fan of Hopkins and Robinson too, though McCrea is fairly new to me. I don’t think I wrote as short a review as I intended originally – I find it quite hard to be concise!:)

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  4. It didn’t seem any shorter than your others :). It’s not a bit too long though and yet full of details. Barbary Coast is one of those early films that played on Channel 9 in NYC; thus I saw it when young. My memory is only of the opening and the rest as super-melodramatic, and that it was like others of the “type” Channel 9 would air.

    I did see an extraordinary film tonight which I want to see again before I write about it: _Lost Horizon_ (Jane Wyatt was in it), in a nearly restored version (it can’t be fully restored). It comes with 2 features (I suspect this is unusual, but then the film and restoration are also unusual) and I need to see them first too.

    E.M.

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    • Thanks, Ellen. I think the opening is probably the most striking sequence. I would like to make my reviews shorter so I could write more of them, but it doesn’t always seem to work out that way in practice!

      I do want to watch ‘Lost Horizon’ again soon – it’s a film I’ve seen a couple of times, but many years ago.

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    • Yes, I remember that scene too, very striking – though my memories of this film have faded a bit since reviewing it. Thank you for commenting.

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  5. Hi Judy,
    New to your site, how nice to read all of your comments and your commentary too!

    I just had to comment on Barbary Coast.
    I truly love Joel McCrea’s acting and persona on and off (he said he was a rancher and did acting on the side to get the ranch etc. and he did too).
    I almost chose not to see this film but am so glad I did!
    I honestly disagree with you all about Joel. I think he was a perfect balance to the gritty town he was gold-mining near.
    But !! . . . my favorite parts of the film have to do with his strong presence and integrity that he offers openheartedly ~ to Miriam Hopkins even though, she has been living a sullied life. His words are so uplifting and cleansing for her that she begins to believe that she still has some real goodness and purity left inside her to start anew ~ going with him is just more frosting on the cake.

    I loved the happy ending and didn’t find it trite but one of renewal for all of us . . .
    reminds me of the quote by
    George Sand (the woman): “Its never too late, to become what you might have been.” Pretty great quote, isn’t it?

    How inspiring Joel’s script was concerning helping to uplift her.

    If you want to catch more of Joel in true form see: “The More The Merrier” w/ the wonderful, wonderful Jean Arthur.

    Always maintain only a joyful mind – – Pema Chodrun

    Em

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    • Thanks very much for visiting and commenting, Em. Since writing this posting I have seen Joel McCrea in a couple of wonderful Preston Sturges films, ‘The Palm Beach Story’ and ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, so I’ve become much more of a fan of his work and might well like him more in this film if I were to see it again. I haven’t seen ‘The More The Merrier’ but will look out for it – I do like Jean Arthur a lot. Thanks again!

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    • Thank you for your reply.
      I am actually just starting a screenplay : Looking For Joel McCrea” a romantic story
      to enlighten men of this age about romance and how manly it can be.

      Glad your enjoying Joel M. films. I just saw Sullivan’s Travels and enjoyed it.
      Made we want to go on a road trip.

      Jean Arthur is so special~
      she chose her name from Jean Valjean of Les Mis and King Arthur!

      If you go on Youtube you can watch her and Herbert Marshall in “If You Could Only Cook” ! and its the full movie, delightful.
      Here is the link:

      Enjoy ~ & Have a great night!
      Em

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