Barbary Coast (1935)
During my reading of Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin I read how the Western went into decline during the 1930’s during the depression, John Wayne‘s career failed to take off with The Big Trail (1930), leading him to working on b-movies and serials for almost a decade. The genre went the same way, or did it really? The basic formula for the western may have left the frontier, the open spaces yet to be tamed for the civilised East in the guise of the Gangster genre, lead by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were the rebels against society pressing down on them. A few films were mentioned in the book, which also mentioned Barbary Coast (1935) which is a rare return to the frontier age – the gold rush of the late 1940’s in San-Francisco. Admittedly it was also a chance to see a younger Robinson on-screen, during his early on-screen appearances, this was a rare, very rare side-move to the western (of sorts).
A blend of the gangster and the western, an interesting combination by Howard Hawks who would have better success over a decade later with the straight Western including The Big Sky (1952) and Red River (1948). Staying in the mid-Thirties for now we have a strange cast line-up which would not out of place for the decade, it’s the genre which sticks out like a sore thumb. Until you really think about it, the arrival of a ship from New York to the coast of San Francisco, carrying people hoping to find their fortune in the new state. The genre typically depicts the long journey to the California, add a Gangster with a ring in his ear to make him look exotic we have Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson) we have our owner of a casino in period dress. Enter his new girl fresh of the boat from New York we have Mary ‘Swan’ Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins) who initially has her own intentions of getting rich quick, marrying a man who died off-screen before the film begins.
So we have the need to get rich quick, which was a strong desire during the depression, the rise out of poverty that held the country back. The Gold-rush was a similar (not guaranteed) way of getting rich, something the audience can relate to, finding that gold and starting over again. I can now see where this film sits, so time to sit back, enjoy and read between the lines of the two genres that have been brought together. As in the Westerns the casino game are rigged in favour of the house, run (under duress) by Swan a woman who came to easily accept her situation, yet still being able to see what is going on around her. She’s not your average screen female, holding her own in front of Chamalis who runs the town.
His organisation doesn’t work from shadowary crime underworld of the streets, instead he is able to flex his muscle in broad daylight. If anything the gangster character he usually played in the decade has more visible power than before. With his right-hand man Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy) who makes that power known around town, the then much smaller San Francisco which is deep in fog for the duration of the film which creates a depression look to the film. Adding to that cast we have a Western standard in Walter Brennan who plays a Old Atrocity an odd character who switches sides based on his conscience. Not the usual character he would play for Hawks in future films. Nonetheless he’s always a delight to watch, wondering if he will have his false teeth on or not, which adds another little layer to any of his roles.
A nice addition to the cast is Joel McCrea who I find to have much better roles in the 1930’s before he got trapped in his B-movies playing the by-the book cowboy which really leave me bored, by his reliable persona. Here he plays a young romantic who has struck gold, lived alone for a few years, not seeing a woman during that time. When he meets Swan in her moment of escape from San Francisco, for both it’s a moment of weakness, finding the good in each other. For me it’s his youthful optimism that make him more interesting to watch on-screen, here we see him discover what his woman is really like as he leaves his home to return to New York he has a realisation. We also have Harry Carey who is always an added bonus to any film he’s in, you know it’s going to be half-decent film
Back in the boom-town, we have a fight for the freedom of the press, which is controlled by Chamalis who oppresses the local paper to stopping spreading the idea of law and order which was going to feature in the first issue. It’s a power that organised crime can control in the frontier more easily unlike 80-90 years later when papers became more powerful, able to expose criminals for who they are, financially able to stand up against the low-lives of the street. That dynamic is not yet in place, out here in the frontier there is more power to be had.
Taking this as a mix of genre’s Barbary Coast is an interesting study of how the Western attempted to resurface during the depression from the standard formula and tropes of the genre which were already established in the previous 30 years. In terms of success, it stands out for being different, the fog, Robinson feeling a little out of place playing the same role except not on a city back-lot which we more easily associate with him, and that’s what I take away from this film more than anything else.