Barbary Coast (1935)

“San Francisco is no place for a bad loser — man or woman.”

Synopsis:
Accompanied by a retired colonel (Frank Craven), a single woman (Miriam Hopkins) sails to San Franciso during the Gold Rush, hoping to marry a wealthy man sight unseen. After learning her fiance has been killed in a lawless dispute, the local crime-boss (Edward G. Robinson) offers Hopkins work in his corrupt saloon, hoping she’ll come to love him — but Hopkins instead loses her heart to a poetic goldminer (Joel McCrea).

Genres:

Review:
Howard Hawks directed this cryptically titled historical drama which manages to cover an enormous amount of dramatic territory — mistaken identities, unrequited love, gold-digging, goldmining, feminism, vigilante justice, corruption, and freedom of speech, to name just a few topics — in its 91 minute running time. Robinson is suitably cast as a power-hungry crime-lord who wants to possess the most beautiful creature to enter “his” town in recent years — speaking of which, there are some uncomfortably dated moments early in the film when much is made of Hopkins being an enormously desirable WHITE woman (after the camera has panned past attractive women with darker skin), as well as a scene openly mocking Chinese immigrants’ presumed beliefs about wearing a braided queue to get into heaven (see here for a more accurate history of this hairstyle). With these caveats aside, the cinematography is atmospheric, and the story is reasonably engaging — particularly the critical subplot about Craven’s attempts to start an honest newspaper in a town that would rather keep its law and order tactics secret. (The more things change…)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Walter Brennan as Old Atrocity

Must See?
No, though Hawks fans will surely want to check it out.

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One Response to “Barbary Coast (1935)”

  1. Not must-see. Overall, it’s… ok without being wildly memorable. Fairly standard stuff for a melodramatic tale with a gold rush setting. Even if it feels like a script drawn heavily from history books – with stereotypes intact and with little of a personal touch – it’s well-directed by Hawks and (I suppose) reasonably engaging.

    Of the three leading performances, Robinson comes off best but he could almost sleepwalk through this one; as written, the role lacks nuance. Hawks is occasionally able to rein Hopkins in – but there are times he also lets her overdo things in her typical, self-conscious and actor-y way. McCrea doesn’t fair all that well too often, mainly because he’s saddled with a lot of over-ripe dialogue that is typical of co-writer Ben Hecht’s style.

    (Even for Brennan, his ‘Old Atrocity’ can be a bit much. And I was thrown by one of his early moves: When he’s taking Hopkins and Craven ashore from their ship, he suddenly demands an increase in pay for the privilege. Hopkins convinces Brennan to continue by telling him she’s engaged to a rich man – a man Brennan already knows is dead. Brennan’s character is a larcenous type; why would he agree to a certainty of non-payment?)

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