Barbary Coast (1935):

So scintillating to his ear, Samuel Goldwyn snatched the title and then got Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to pencil in a narrative around it. The roistering San Francisco of the 1850s, ships docking in from the fog and bags of gold lost in lowdown saloons -- a brawling El Dorado for any Hathaway-Conway hack, only the director here is Howard Hawks, thus an unspoken sexual agreement between a woman and a man is calmly isolated amid the pistol-firing raucousness of "Auld Lang Syne." The woman is belle Miriam Hopkins, in from New York City and already widowed before she's married; the man is casino boss Edward G. Robinson, who has the run of the town and, by all accounts, killed her fiancÚ for being a "bad loser" at the roulette wheel. Tears swell momentarily upon discovery, but she's a tough realist, out to the Coast for one thing, and one man's as good as the other; Robinson dubs her "Swan" and plunks her by the betting pit, and the mechanics of the relationship extend to the boudoir, if not to the woman's heart. Outside, meanwhile, a lampoon of Fordian frontier towns before Ford fashioned them, with Clarion press (promptly dealt censorship by Robinson's men) or "I Dream of Jeannie" swelling, stocked with gags -- dwellers terrorize "Chinamen" by slicing off their pigtails (one severed piece is snuck under a soused judge's top hat) and Frank Craven declares his outrage only to slowly sink into the mud. "I was raised in a Bell Jar with forget-me-nots in my hair," Hopkins tells miner Joel McCrea, a poetic dandy who's smitten until he learns of her connection to Robinson and fatuously digs deep into his Greek mythology to spot harpy-snakes in her tresses instead. Survival above all, and McCrea survives because he's a good loser, rising from polishing spittoons to skipping town with Hopkins as vigilante law threatens Robinson's hard-earned disorder. Goldwyn gets the blame for the tepid romance, Hawks the credit for Walter Brennan lifting his eyepatch to scan a menu, and stylized henchman Brian Donlevy's svelte mock-trial and dangling exit. With Harry Carey, Clyde Cook, Matt McHugh, and Donald Meek. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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