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Edna May Oliver
Mary Rutledge arrives from the east, finds her fiance dead, and goes to work at the roulette wheel of Louis Charnalis' Bella Donna, a rowdy gambling house in San Francisco in the 1850s. She falls in love with miner Carmichael and takes his gold dust at the wheel. She goes after him, Louis goes after her with intent to harm Carmichael. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
I love the story about Sam Goldwyn who said that he bought the rights to the title, Barbary Coast, and then said to the writers hired to write a story with that title.
They gave him a story that made a pretty good picture. Edward G. Robinson is at his snarling best as a nineteenth century version of Little Caesar on San Francisco's Barbary Coast during the gold rush days.
Basically Miriam Hopkins has come to San Francisco to marry a newly minted millionaire whom she barely knows, but finds he's dead and fortune gone on her arrival. Since there was no real love involved, she doesn't have a problem teaming up with the man who probably had her fiancé robbed and killed, that being Edward G. Robinson.
It's a pretty lawless place San Francisco. It's been newly acquired by the USA in the Mexican War and it being one of the great natural harbors of the world, a perfect arrival point for people traveling by sea to the gold fields. And such law that's operating is pretty much operating for the town bosses. There is a scene where after Brian Donlevy, who's Robinson's chief henchman, kills a man a trial is held right in Robinson's gambling palace. It's an impromptu affair with a crooked judge who naturally finds Donlevy not guilty.
It's no wonder that certain citizens form a vigilante committee to restore some kind of justice to San Francisco. All part of the colorful history of that place. And that part of the film is well done.
Where Barbary Coast fails is in the romance department. Miriam Hopkins though a woman of conscience has a practical side to her. The weakness of the film is in Joel McCrea's performance. He's a prospector who having made his fortune wants to return home. He has a chance encounter with Hopkins and she takes a shine to him and McCrea doesn't know she's Robinson's main squeeze.
Now I'm a big fan of Joel McCrea, the most virtuous of heroes Hollywood ever produced. But in this one, he's not really virtuous as much as he's an idiot. Let's just say that I cannot understand why Hopkins wants anything to do with him. A much stronger character might have believably taken her from Robinson, but not McCrea in this film.
Barbary Coast was responsible for the first real notices of two prominent character actors. Walter Brennan had been knocking around for years, but he received his first real attention as a player as waterfront character Old Atrocity. And with minimal dialog, Brian Donlevy made his first real impression on film audiences as Robinson's strong arm killer.
It's entertaining, but I'd mute the sound when Barbary Coast turns away from the action.
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