Frisco Jenny (1932)

Ruth Chatterton and James Murray

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.

Ruth Chatterton and James Murray

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!

The earthquake strikes in 'Frisco Jenny'

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.

The brothel madams get together in style

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.

12 thoughts on “Frisco Jenny (1932)

  1. This is the film from the Wellman collection that I’ve saved for last. I suppose it seemed least interesting because it’s a period piece, at least at first, but you make its relevance pretty clear. It looks like another story in which the Depression is just the climax of the main character’s life of travails rather than the cause. Is there something about Wellman or did more Depression filmmakers take the same approach? In any event, you’ve convinced me to finally give Frisco Jenny a look.


    • That’s an interesting question, Samuel. To be honest my answer is that I’m not sure how much this approach was personal to Wellman – I really need to see more of his films and others from the era. Of course, with a story like this one, following a character from youth to middle age, it’s inevitable that the early scenes would be a period piece, but I think there is a gritty Depression feeling to the whole film nonetheless, elaborate costumes notwithstanding. Thanks for commenting, and I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the movie!


  2. Wellman made a couple of films where the depression is the direct cause of all that follows (Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale) and in other films used the depression as a back drop to the times. Some of his most interesting work was done during this period.
    I like your point on making Jenny a sympathetic mother to give the audience a reason to sympathize with her, and yeah Cagney always loved his mom (White Heat LOL!). Another well done review.
    I could never warm up to Chatterton, don’t know why. Should watch this again.


    • Interesting that you don’t warm to Chatterton much, John, because I found the same – somehow I don’t find myself gripped by her plight in the same way as I am by, say, Barbara Stanwyck. I suppose that might be one reason why Stanwyck is a bigger star, because she takes the audience with her. But I think Chatterton gives a good performance in this, all the same. As well as Cagney with his Ma in numerous films, Humphrey Bogart loves his big sister in San Quentin (played by Ann Sheridan, who was about 10 years younger than Bogie!) and Lew Ayres is always worrying about his younger brother in Doorway to Hell – so it might be a general thing to have gangsters taking care of their families as they destroy other people’s! I hope to get on to Wild Boys and Heroes for Sale soon. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on this film and Wellman.


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  4. OK, I finally took a look at this one and your assessment is sound and fair. I found it rather melodramatic, but not in an off-putting sense, and I like your description of it as a “female version of the Warner gangster films of the period.”

    “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.”

    Indeed, Ms. Chatterton added to the Wellman legacy with great female lead performances, and i’d also add James Murray to this mix. Murray, who degenerated into an alcoholic and panhandler, delivered one of the greatest performances in the American silent cinema in King Vidor’s THE CROWD, and completists who are fascinated with his life and career would want to check him out in this film, where he was solid as always.

    You are really doing such a terrific job with Wellman Judy!


    • Thanks so much for your comments and encouragement, Sam. I thought Murray was very good in his small part in this film – haven’t yet seen ‘The Crowd’ but it is one I definitely intend to see. It’s sad that he went on to such a tragic decline. I do agree this film is melodramatic – for me it is not the strongest in the set by any means, but still very interesting. Many thanks again for the kind words.


  5. Very thorough about this distress upon distress (teasing). Renee Zellweger recently made a film where we see her turn into a self-sacrificing (within limits) at the end. It was panned at the box office as feminist. I gather no whiff of this has “tainted” this one. Ellen :)


    • Thanks, Ellen, distress on distress is right, and I’m too thorough for my own good – I keep trying to make my reviews a bit shorter so I can do more of them, but then writing more than I intended!:) I haven’t seen the Renee Zellweger film but I do think it would be interesting to look at how some modern melodramas/emotion pictures compare with these older ones and how much the attitudes to women have changed.


  6. Judy, thanks for reviewing this movie. I saw it last summer and must admit I enjoyed it. Yes, it’s a bit melodramatic and even predictable at times, and I’m ashamed to say I got a huge lump in my throat at the end. What a sap. Sometimes melodrama makes me angry b/c I feel as if the director is deliberately trying to tweak my emotions, but I just let myself go with FRISCO JENNY. Maybe b/c it’s a Wellman film.

    I agree with you on the earthquake scenes. They were well done, and I was rather surprised at them.

    Interesting bit of info—I didn’t know that Wellman directed some of the scenes in FEMALE. Yes, it’d be interesting to know which ones.

    Another excellent article, Judy!


    • Thanks, CagneyFan – I have now read somewhere (I forget where, maybe at the TCM site) that the earthquake scenes were partly done with miniatures, as with the train crash scenes in Other Men’s Women – in both films I find the scenes very convincing.
      The odd thing about the melodrama aspect is that the first time I saw the film I did feel a bit manipulated, but the second time I watched it I let myself go with it – I think it depends partly on your mood when you are watching. I will hope to find out more about Wellman’s contribution to ‘Female’. Thanks again!


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