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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>
San Francisco's Experiment With Vigilantes (1851 - 1856)
In 1848 the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican - American War, with the secession of territory from Mexico to the U.S. of most of the current southwestern U.S. (California, Arizona, New Mexico, any claims to Texas - as well as parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada). This was a war of conquest by the U.S., but to assuage American consciences fifteen million dollars was paid to Mexico for this territory. Only a subsequent bit of southern Arizona and New Mexico (known as the "Gadsden Purchase") was made as an addition in 1853 by the Pierce Administration, giving us the current southwestern border.
While the territory of Northern California (as opposed to the territory of Baja or Southern California - still part of Mexico) had always been a bit too far from Mexico City for proper control over local government, the change to Washington, D.C. - more than twice the distance and across a continent - further seemed to weaken national control of the territory. Moreover the population, being mostly Latino, was hostile to the non-Latino U.S. Government. It is in the next few years that California's so-called answer to Robin Hood, Joachin Murrieta, is continuing the Mexican War by his guerrilla/bandit attacks.
Under normal circumstances, it would have taken a generation for the U.S. to be really bothered by this. But in 1849 gold was discovered in California, and the world rushed in. Suddenly the territory had nearly one million population within a year, and demanded statehood. This would lead to the controversy about admitting California to the Union as an free state, and unbalancing the balance of the U.S. Senate. This in turn led to the Compromise of 1850 which enabled California to enter the Union as a free state, but guaranteed a fugitive slave act as a sop to the South. It put off the Civil War (or ignited the path to the Civil War) ten years later.
But for a big state, with wealth and population and size, California had a bad reputation. The towns of San Francisco and Los Angeles boomed in population - in particular San Francisco with it's immense harbor. But their governments were pitifully unable to maintain public order. Fires (arson caused) were frequent. So were killings, usually tied to robberies of the prospectors with more gold than sense. Judges and police were frequently paid off by gamblers and crime gang leaders. Finally, in 1851, the better elements of San Francisco put their foot down and formed a vigilante committee. They arrested several dubious characters, held stream-lined trials (where many legal niceties were ditched) and if the parties were found guilty (which usually happened) they were hanged in public. It sort of calmed things down, but then the continued prosperity of the state caused the same problems to reappear. In 1856 two incidents reignited the Vigilante Committee. First a local outspoken newspaper editor, James King of William, was shot and killed by a corrupt local political alderman named James Carey. Then a gambler named Charles Cora shot and killed a police official. Both men were arrested, given the drum-head trial, convicted, and hanged. The Vigilantes retained control of San Francisco for the rest of the next year before disbanding. They never had to make a third appearance.
Were they real heroes or a lynch mob? It still is debated. James King of William was right about the corruption and crime, but he was a "Nativist", and his attacks were also against Catholics, such as Carey (an Irish American) and Cora (an Italian American). Many of his fellows were also Protestants, and some may have had pecuniary interests in attacking the businesses controlled by the Catholics. So the real situation is not black and white, like this film suggests.
Edward G. Robinson's Luis Chamalis was based on Charles Cora, although the triangle with Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrae is from whole cloth. Col. Marcus Cobb (Frank Craven) is based on James King of William (although King of William was never reduced to such stunning superficiality as Cobb is for nearly a year). Robinson's grip on the whole of San Francisco is fictitious (Cora never had that much power). The leadership of the Vigilantes (Harry Carey) reflect the moral center of the Vigilantes movement that was unquestioned in American History books of the 1935.
It is a good film, with fine performances by Robinson, Hopkins, Craven, Brian Donleavy (who's physical appearance makes him look like the corrupt contemporary Mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood), and Brennan. McCrae is sturdy and acts well, but his role seems terribly naive. It is fun trying to locate David Niven as a drunken cockney sailor tossed out of Robinson's saloon (he recalled it fondly in THE MOON'S A BALLOON). Robinson's recollections of the film were downers in ALL MY YESTERDAYS: he had political disputes about the on-coming World War II with isolationists Hopkins, Carey, Craven, Brennan, McCrae, and director Hawks. Hopkins kept trying to upstage him and the others, until he let her have it before the cast and crew (who applauded him for it). He also felt the end was a let down. Quietly told by Carey and his associates it is time to accompany them to his neck stretching party, he quietly joins them, as though they have come to take him to deliver a political speech! Still the film merits an "8" out of "10".
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