'Frisco Kid' was made at Warner Brothers, the studio that most ruthlessly ripped off and recycled its own scripts in thinly-disguised remakes. This movie re-uses elements from 'Barbary Coast', another (and better) Warners film made the same year! The barroom brawl in 'Frisco Kid' seems to be inspired by the climax of Rex Beach's popular novel 'The Spoilers', which had been filmed before 'Frisco Kid' and would be remade afterwards.
James Cagney - always dynamic onscreen, yet not quite at the top of his form here - stars as Bat Morgan, a hustler who came west during the gold rush of 1849 and now finds himself a year later in San Francisco's notorious Barbary Coast. (Which got its name due to the lawlessness that prevailed: a reference to the real Barbary coast, which was controlled by pirates.) Morgan proves his mettle early on, in a spirited brawl with press-gangman Shanghai Duck, who has a hook for a right hand. We find out just how tough this community is when Ricardo Cortez gets killed by a lynch mob due to a misunderstanding.
Morgan soon sets himself up as proprietor of a Barbary Coast saloon with a crooked casino. He makes deals with the local politicians, offering them a share of the profits from his prostitution and gambling businesses to avoid being raided or arrested. (I found this absolutely plausible; the San Francisco city government was notoriously corrupt, from Gold Rush days right until the 1906 earthquake.) He also befriends Jean Barrat, the lady owner of the local newspaper. This is one of those movies in which the virtuous heroine is attracted to a crooked hero, fully aware that he's crooked, and we're expected to approve because the crook is such a charming guy. The newspaperwoman is played by dull unattractive Margaret Lindsay, so the romantic subplot of this movie isn't worth much.
Eventually, Judge Crawford - the only honest man in town - gets murdered, and the mob mistakenly decide that Bat Morgan is guilty. This whips them into a lynch-mob frenzy. Why the San Franciscans should be provoked to lynch-law over this particular crime - while ignoring so many other crimes in this movie - is never made very clear. We're meant to sympathise with Bat Morgan, who is genuinely innocent of Crawford's murder, even though we know he's guilty of many other crimes.
In 1935, when 'Frisco Kid' was made, lynching was a real and widespread problem in the United States. The tendency of white mobs to lynch black victims is well known, but at this time plenty of white victims were lynched too. (The makers of this movie were probably more concerned about the white victims than the black ones.) 'Fury', an anti-lynching movie made at MGM at this same time, is a much better film addressing the same problem. The torchlight climax of 'Frisco Kid' degenerates into a bathetic payoff that's clearly intended to mollify the critics and the moral guardians.
As is usual for Warners in the thirties, there's a fine assortment of supporting players on offer here. Barton MacLane is hissable as Spider Burke, little George E Stone is touching, and the woefully underrated actor John Wray is splendid as an underworld character named Weasel. (John Wray played another underworld character named Weasel in 'Boys Town': he had a talent for rodent-like roles.) Charles Middleton, Walter Long and Wilfred Lucas are onscreen just briefly enough to disappoint their fans. (Does Wilfred Lucas have any fans?) 'Frisco Kid' was made at the beginning of the Warner studio's greatest period - and at the beginning of the greatest phase of James Cagney's career - but it's neither first-rate Warners nor first-rate Cagney. I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10.
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