Frisco Jenny was orphaned by the 1906 earthquake and fire and has become the madame of a prosperous bawdy house. She puts her son up for adoption and he rises to prominence as district ...
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Frisco Jenny was orphaned by the 1906 earthquake and fire and has become the madame of a prosperous bawdy house. She puts her son up for adoption and he rises to prominence as district attorney dedicated to closing down such houses. When her underling Dutton proposes telling the DA that Frisco Jenny is his birth mother, she kills the underling not to cause trouble for her son now the successful DA, she must face execution. Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I found this remarkable. I can guess that some people will balk at the "oldness" of the scenes and acting. Yeah, of course it's black and white. It ahs characters that might seem like caricatures, simple and obvious. But more important is the leading woman, who is terrific, Ruth Chatterton.
And key to it all is the great San Francisco earthquake. The movie is set in 1906 (this is shown in the opening frames) and so the incredible devastation is a given. And it's really well done, with buildings falling, the ground rolling (really!), and even what looks like some actual footage of the burning. Despite a lighthearted element throughout (there is a healthy sense of humor even in some of the serious moments), the overall intention is a serious social drama. Not only do we see the difficulty brought on by the quake, but the problem of an unwed mother in the middle of it all.
Only a pre-code film could pull off this kind of crossed intentions and make a drama without all kinds of covering up. So expect something terrific.
William Wellman is a great underrated director, a little like Michael Curtiz a decade later, making mainstream films really well. Both of these directors (and throw in William Wyler) were part of the Hollywood style, and in some ways helped formulate that "style." So they seem unexceptional in some ways even if their movies are really sophisticated. Here, Wellman pulls one great move after another, with moving camera, or a slow track in on a face, or quick pans instead of cuts from one face to another, and so on. The filming and editing is unsually smart. The acting works well in every case, and sometimes works exceptionally. Besides Chatterton in the title and lead role, who is remarkable in every way, there are a few side parts, including one by the dependable Louis Calhern.
And the story moves and moves. It's like an epic novel going through many years in just over an hour.
If you are plot oriented, I think you'll also find this movie special. The first scenes lead to the quake leading to a series of different kinds of scenearios that are really unexpected. So it continually surprises. And there is a weird and wonderful conflict between utter virtue (a mother watching out for her child) and ruthlessness (a mother coolly breaking the law to do so). Not all goes smoothly, of course, and so the movie takes on still other levels.
So, watch this with fascination and visual appreciation. If you let it, it will tug on your heart strings (even if the baby is an unsympathetic shouting brat!). If you have trouble finding it, look for Warner Archive Instant, which has a ton of old movies set up a little like Netflix. Enjoy!
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