For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.
However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again. Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.
Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t a big success at the box office, apparently because it was thought to be too similar to Chatterton’s earlier Oscar-winning role in Madame X (1929). Both movies see her cast as a mother separated from her child, who goes on to be involved in a court case with her adult son, although in the earlier movie the son has the task of defending her and in this one he is counsel for the prosecution. I haven’t as yet seen Madame X, which was directed by Lionel Barrymore and is said to be very static and stagey – but must say I think Frisco Jenny stands up as a powerful melodrama in its own right, whatever it might owe to the earlier movie.
There were a lot of films involving noble, self-sacrificing mothers around this time – I suppose partly because giving up everything for your child is seen as the ultimate in female heroism, and this was all the more so in the context of the Great Depression. Also, as so many mothers really had been forced to give up children for adoption, this was something which would strike a chord with many people. It also strikes me that stressing the heroine’s role as a mother is a way of making her sympathetic despite her life of crime – so the audience doesn’t have to feel too guilty about rooting for her as she lies, covers up murder, runs a vice ring and fights the legal authorities all the way. This is rather like the way male gangsters, such as Tom Powers (James Cagney) in Wellman’s The Public Enemy, tend to love their mothers, giving them a chink in their armour.
Although Chatterton was around 40 when this movie was made, I think she carries off playing a teenager in the early scenes of the movie, which see her character, young Irish-American Jenny Sandoval, working at the front desk of a speakeasy run by her father, Jim (Robert Emmett O’Connor). As this is a pre-Code, it is made perfectly clear that the club is also a brothel – and it’s equally clear that the girls partly make their money by getting men drunk and then picking their pockets, even chalking a victim’s shoulder afterwards to show that this man has already been robbed!
Jenny is in love with the joint’s piano player, Dan McAllister (James Murray) – but her father wants something better for her, and contemptuously refuses Dan’s offer to marry her. After closing time, when Jenny reveals that she is pregnant and has to get married, her father’s reaction is to knock her down on the floor – a violent action which is immediately followed by him being knocked down himself and the whole building falling apart, as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 strikes. I thought the scenes of the earthquake and fire were powerfully done and would love to know how all this was shot, but unfortunately this is one of the movies in the set without a commentary track to give this kind of background information. In any case, Wellman is very good at scenes of disaster, as with the train crash and landslide in Other Men’s Women.
In the aftermath of the fire, Jenny discovers that her fiancé, Dan, is dead, and she will have to give birth and care for her baby alone. She is taken in for a time by her Chinese maid, Amah, who is her loyal friend all through the film, and her relations in Chinatown. Unfortunately, as so often happened with Chinese characters in films of this era, Amah is played by a Caucasian actress (Helen Jerome Eddy), in heavy make-up – a jarring element in the movie and a real shame, as the other, more minor, Chinese characters are played by Chinese-American actors.
Once Jenny’s baby has been born, she tries to go straight, joining the Salvation Army – but, when donations dry up, Jenny goes back to a life of crime, telling the band’s captain “God helps those who help themselves.” There is a very similar scene to this in Wellman’s Midnight Mary, with another bad-girl heroine trying the Salvation Army but falling away again.
Stressing that she is doing all this to feed her son Dan, Jenny is soon busy organising vice parties for the powers-that-be in San Francisco. Probably the best scene of the movie comes when Jenny’s partner in crime, crooked politician Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern, who is excellent throughout) murders a man over a game of dice, and Jenny manages to cover up for him by daringly hiding the gun in an iced cake right under the noses of police – another example of Wellman using food in a key scene, as in the famous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy. Jenny’s brand of crime doesn’t seem particularly violent most of the time – she chats to the other madams at a tea party before collecting in their protection money, as they all laugh and joke – but moments like this one come as reminders of the violence she and Steve are orchestrating in the world outside her front room.
With irony piling on irony, Jenny is forced to give up her son to be adopted by a top lawyer – and decides not to reclaim him when she sees how much he loves his new parents. He then grows up to be the district attorney, and, through a series of tragic twists, ends up prosecuting his own mother, unaware of her identity – as she nobly keeps her mouth shut to prevent tearing his world apart. Donald Cook, Tom’s older brother in The Public Enemy, plays Dan. Cook is convincing as another fiercely moral loner, but he was only about nine years younger than Chatterton and looks much too old to be her son!
The last scenes of the film, with Jenny waiting in the condemned cell, do reach the heights of melodrama, and the first time I watched it I must admit I found it all a bit much – but second time around I liked it a lot more, which perhaps shows that you really have to be in the right mood for this kind of emotion. In any case, I think anyone who likes early 1930s melodramas would find this worth watching, especially if you are also interested in either Chatterton or Wellman. The two worked together again twice the following year, in Lilly Turner which I haven’t seen, and also in the pre-Code comedy Female, a strange role reversal movie with businesswoman Chatterton sexually harassing her young male employees – Wellman directed some scenes of that film, though I’m not sure which ones.