Barbary Coast


Crime, lust and vigilante lynchings in the wide-open city on the bay, back in the gold rush days. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea form a spirited triangle as a sharp roulette dealer strings one man along and can’t prevent another from throwing away a fortune. Sam Goldwyn’s impressive production shows Howard Hawks developing strong characters, in a somewhat old-fashioned story.

Barbary Coast
The Warner Archive Collection
1935 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 90 min. / Street Date June, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson, Joel Mccrea, Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Brian Donlevy, Clyde Cook, Harry Carey, Matt McHugh, Donald Meek.
Ray June
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Produced by Sam Goldwyn
Directed by Howard Hawks

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A Sam Goldywyn film through and through, Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast could almost be a template for a standard ‘golden age’ Hollywood movie. San Francisco in the Gold Rush days is completely manufactured in the fantasy factory, designed for precise impressions and to glorify the three star performances. The sets include a large hotel – casino, and a huge foggy harbor with an elaborate dock area and several ships. They all appear to be interior settings on a sound stage, with the lighting and the atmospheric effects in the control of the filmmakers.

Barbary Coast is a romantic epic that, like many Hawks films, is heavily invested in recreating a vision of a time long gone — 1820s Wyoming in The Big Sky, 1900 in Minnesota in Come and Get It, or even ancient Egypt in Land of the Pharaohs. This show gives us the full measure of what happens in an unregulated ‘wide open town’ that’s growing big too fast to keep opportunists and crooks from preying on the public. Barbary Coast cuts a pretty accurate image of the corruption, the gambling, and also the racism and vigilante justice. The Hawks version of America embraces the vitality of it all, even the ugly angles.

The Gold Rush has turned San Francisco into a lawless boomtown. Delayed by the fog, a passenger boat arrives carrying publisher Col. Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven of Our Town) and the beautiful Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), who has come to marry a man who has struck it rich in the gold fields. Mary is welcomed enthusiastically by the city’s males, who become excited at any news of a white woman coming to town. She and the Colonel also meet Old Atrocity (Walter Brennan), a self-described rascal who makes a living cheating newcomers, and separating naive miners from their gold. But the news for Mary is bad — her fiancé has been killed. Forced to stop pretending that she is ‘society,’ she takes a job spinning a roulette wheel at the Bella Donna casino, under her professional name Swan. Casino owner Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson) gives Swan a fancy room and clothes and is disappointed that she withholds her favors; he takes the attitude that everything under his roof is his property. Chamalis is actually the racketeer ‘boss’ of the entire Barbary Coast district. With no visible law or civil authority to stop him, he cheats the casino patrons, using women like Swan to bilk drunks at a crooked wheel. Those that object are often murdered by Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy), Luis’s hatchet man and a suave, conscienceless thug. Local activist Jed Slocum (Harry Carey) tries to put Knuckles on trial, but Chamalis has bought the only judge in town. When Col. Rutledge tries to print the facts, Knuckles threatens to smash his irreplaceable printing press. The trouble for Swan begins when she takes a ride in the country, is caught in the rain, and spends a chaste night with a gentleman miner, Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea). Jim treats her like a fine lady, so she acts the part of Mary again, knowing he will be returning to the East the next day. They part company and Jim heads to the docks – only to be waylaid by Old Atrocity, who takes him to the Bella Donna to be fleeced…

Barbary Coast is not particularly well remembered today, as there are few surprises in the story concocted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Yet it is easy to get caught up in its heightened melodramatic love triangle. The acting is excellent. Playing a mob boss from a different era, Edward G. Robinson gives Luis Chamalis some very interesting traits — styled hair with curls, flashy jewelry including an earring. Luis could be the younger brother of the Fur trader Frenchy Jourdannais from Howard Hawks’ later movie The Big Sky, gone West and gone crooked. Chamalis is ruthless when cheating miners out of their gold, and he doesn’t care who he kills. As far as he’s concerned, he’s above the law.

First-billed actress Miriam Hopkins was at this point near the top of the Hollywood pecking order, with Bette Davis on the horizon as a serious competitor. Swan/Mary is a bad woman transformed by love. Enchanted by her night in Carmichael’s rustic cabin, wooed like the lady she dreams of being, Mary knows that in the morning she’ll have to go back to her evil work as Swan. Joel McCrea’s Jim Carmichael is an idealist who becomes disillusioned through a romantic misunderstanding. Eager to read poetry, bright faced and love-struck, he’s the least appealing character, only because he’s such a dreamer. Despite being robbed and reduced to a dishwasher & waiter in Chamalis’ gambling hall, Carmichael retains a Cyrano-like poetic detachment, answering questions with literary observations about his romantic folly.

Actually, the whole movie is written in a slightly florid style. And it is a fact that folks in 1850 didn’t talk exactly as we do now, but they can’t have all spoken like Nathaniel Hawthorne. The letters in Ken Burns’ The Civil War are beautiful because literate people didn’t write the way they spoke another — putting pen to paper could be a big deal, even for casual correspondence. Letters were often composed to be read aloud at the receiving end.

In Barbary Coast every character that doesn’t make florid speeches, is a born raconteur. Old Atrocity talks like a cross between a pirate and Will Rogers, gleefully telling people what kind of a skunk he is. He even admits that he wears an eye patch to look more dangerous. Hawks clearly saw Brennan as a sure-fire audience pleaser, and brought him back for Come and Get It (where he won an Oscar), Sergeant York and To Have and Have Not. Frank Craven’s noble publisher seems to have been short-changed in the editing, after being solidly established at the outset.

Luis Chamalis doesn’t say ‘nyah!’ like Little Caesar, which allows Edward G. Robinson more room to develop the character. Chamalis remains interesting because Swan allows him to assume that some kind of relationship will grow between them. She makes him into more of a chump than she does Jim. Robinson handles this standard ‘old movie’ jealousy situation with great care.

Several ‘big speeches’ appear to have been written to give Miriam Hopkins showcase moments. She’s plenty florid and theatrical when trying to explain how her heart works, or trying to talk Luis out of killing Jim. It’s the core melodramatic stuff audiences came to see in 1935, and it’s still solid performing.

Joel McCrea’s performance isn’t as polished, not because he does anything wrong but Jim Carmichael is a tough character for anybody to play. Jim seems too much of a softie to have accumulated a fortune in gold without having already been robbed or murdered. He lets his guard down for love, throws away his fortune and future — and then transforms into a philosopher-cynic, embracing his bad fortune as if he enjoyed being cheated and degraded. When Jim offers Chamalis no resistance to being robbed, we don’t get the idea that it’s intentional, to avoid being murdered. One hates to associate Joel McCrea with acting limitations, but Jim Carmichael goes against McCrea’s natural practicality. McCrea is philosophical in other movies, but never such a full-on starry eyed dreamer.

The melodramatic finale seems intended to evoke an earlier era of drama, but it still seems too contrived and pat, even as the actors do great work with individual scenes. Everybody gets a turn to sacrifice his or her self for love, and even Old Atrocity comes through like a boy scout. The passive Carmichael ends up being a pure liability — when push comes to shove he waxes romantic instead of rowing for his life. Thus Chamalis’ big farewell isn’t the ‘famous movie moment’ that it might have been.

What really impresses us now is the film’s villain, Knuckles. Brian Donlevy was just establishing himself as a dependable character actor, not necessarily a bad guy but usually someone too harsh and narrow to take the place of the leading man. Knuckles is a genuine snake; he enjoys every sadistic thing he does. His devotion and subservience to Chamalis is scary, almost perverse. Donlevy is never so obvious as to chortle over his craven misdeeds. He plays his final scene so cool that we have to admire him — Knuckles is no phony and no coward.

It also needs to be noted that Barbary Coast inadvertently endorses extralegal lynching, when Harry Carey’s vigilantes clean up the neighborhood by cutting loose with a number of targeted murders. Vigilante justice was certainly a common occurrence in the San Francisco of 1850. But as the red-light district stayed corrupt for at least another century, it’s more likely that killings like the one depicted here served only to replace one set of crooks with another. Hawks’ film reflects the social norms of the day, but that’s hardly an excuse. The script makes jokes about Chinaman being harassed and abused. Spanish and ‘Portugee’ dance hall girls are deemed to be racially undesirable, of lower status than white prostitutes. It’s scary to think how certain Southern audiences of 1935 would have received Hawks’ ‘justified lynching’ scene.

We’re told that actors Hank Worden, Jim Thorpe and a young David Niven are in the movie. I didn’t know to look for them, so I can’t tell you how easy they are to spot.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Barbary Coast is a good transfer of this vintage Goldwyn feature. Although the encoding might have been improved, it doesn’t look much different than my older MGM disc. Still, it’s in fine shape. Cinematographer Ray June took great care with Miriam Hopkins all through the movie, and her close-ups and costume shots are pretty dazzling. So are all those foggy fake ‘Frisco Bay scenes, and the giant gambling hall layout paced with massive numbers of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Barbary Coast DVD-R rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 17, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson