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!
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.
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.
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.
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!