I suppose in the most overtly literal sense, one could make an argument for Barbary Coast being Hawks’ first western, thirteen years before John Wayne would climb into the saddle for him on Red River (1948). It’s certainly set in the West, the action taking place in a gold-rush era San Francisco not dissimilar to the familiar frontier towns, but for all the lynch mobs and vigilante posses in the final act, it shows little interest in engaging (in even the most basic sense) with the genre’s many narrative archetypes. Instead we’re firmly entrenched in the traditions of the MGM melodrama, a point made clear in the opening credits. This is Samuel Goldwyn’s Barbary Coast, with Hawks’ name shoe-horned in at the bottom of the screen almost as an afterthought.
It’s apt in a way, as if you were to arrive at the cinema a minute or two late, or switch over to the channel playing the film after the credits had already rolled, you’d never guess you were watching a Howard Hawks film. For a start, the protagonist is a woman. Ok, maybe she is a gold-digging, essentially servile object of male desire in the unreconstructed early-Hawksian sense, but it’s unusual to follow the action of a Hawks film from a predominantly female perspective (she may ultimately have less screen time than Edward G. Robinson, but we’re introduced to the narrative through her). There’s little sexual tension, chemistry, or even the vaguest hint of innuendo between the two leads, it would seem a sign attached to one of the gambling tables in Robinson’s casino which reads “No vulgarity allowed at this table” is a rule disappointingly applied to the rest of the film as well. It has little visual identity beyond Ray June’s atmospherically foggy night-time photography (which does some fine work with shadows towards the end) and little of the cynicism or edge which marked out other collaborations with screenwriter Ben Hecht, instead opting for flowery, pretentious dialogue many of the cast clearly struggle with.
Robinson (one of the few people whose acting, along with the Great Wall of China, could also be viewed from space) plays Louis Chamalis, a casino owner and self-proclaimed ‘king’ of San Francisco. Dressed alternately as what can only be described as either a Dickensian undertaker or a kind of pirate Liberace, you half expect him to break into a flamenco with a stamp of his foot and an olé at any moment, and whilst the ham on display isn’t perhaps of as fine a vintage as his Portuguese tuna fisherman Mike Mascarenhas in the earlier Tiger Shark (1932), there’s still enough here to feed a small village.
Saying that, his leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) gives as good as she gets, her lazy eye and maniacally overactive brow veering sharply between glazed sincerity and forcefully tearful emoting, each piece of dialogue delivered with a gesture that resembles her juggling a pair of invisible watermelons. Once again Hawks demonstrates little interest in the male love interest, in this case Joel McCrea, so wonderful in his work for Preston Sturges and Alfred Hitchocock, but here a poetry-spouting plank of wood who’s every line and gesture are indistinguishably from the same directionless grain.
The supporting cast are a mixed bag. Apparently David Niven features (uncredited) in his first screen appearance as a cockney sailor thrown through a bordello window, but it was something I found out afterwards and failed to notice. Brian Donlevy as Robinson’s murderous henchman Knuckles Jacoby could well be the campest henchman in the West, but his trial scene towards the end is (aside from the very opening) one of the few uses of sound and camera technique that drew attention.
But then there’s Walter Brennan. With his unmistakeable voice and commandingly endearing screen presence, he manages to elbow his gangly frame into countless scenes with a whistle and a screech. It often makes little sense for his character to be in a given scene, but you don’t begrudge him a second he’s up there, and ultimately he’s one of the few reasons to recommend the film at all.
Barbary Coast – 1935 – USA – 91 mins – Dir : Howard Hawks