Ending a film must be the hardest part of any screenwriter's task. I've seen so many films with bad endings lately. I could make a list but it would be too depressing; for instance, seeing Stardust on second run got me miffed again. Shouldn't they have crowned Una Queen of Stormhold, to demonstrate the end of misrule by fratricidal princes? And the end of 3:15 to Yuma sill leaves a bad after-taste. It's as if James Mangold had walked out in front of the camera and said, "I really don't know what this struggle between good and evil is about." A screenwriter may only be safe if he figures out the ending first and then works backward to set it up.
Barbary Coast, a minor film by Howard Hawks seems headed for tragedy in the end. The last few minutes have the hero with a bullet in him, being tended by a heroine in a fog-shrouded rowboat, with the villain in pursuit. You can feel everything in the movie heading toward the finish of Tristan and Isolde. But the movie doesn't finish there. Barbary Coast resolves is in a triptych of three-way dignity: villain, hero, and heroine all getting their respect in the finish. (Funny that Andrew Sarris himself misremembered the way Barbary Coast ended, in this book...but that was published in the days before home video and niggling little pedants on the Internet.) San Francisco got its famous nickname from the north coast of Africa, where piracy ruled for decades; the line in the "Marines Hymn" about the "Shores of Tripoli" comes from the war that helped end piracy in the Mediterranean. When the Gold Rush hit, San Francisco became a boom town, where merchants charged anything that pleased them. Laws were scarce and so were women. Producer Samuel Goldwyn had an idea about a drama set in the San Francisco of 1849. Reinfoced movie censorship interfered with the main idea, of having a kept woman as the main character. Goldwyn called in two of the most gifted utility writers in 1930s Hollywood, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht to work on the script; they'd demonstrated their way of getting around censors. According to A. Scott Berg's bio of Goldwyn, Hecht was so reluctant to sign up with Goldwyn that he made a deal: he'd get paid in cash at the end of every day's work. Even so, when the film was done Hecht tried to take his name off of it.
Someone -- Hecht or Hawks --added about a gallon of floral perfume to what should be a tough-minded film. The ornate writing and the unignorable racism ("Opium and Chinamen sure perfume a street!") have this movie from being celebrated even in San Francisco ...here, where we enshrine almost any movie about The City.
Miriam Hopkins plays Mary Rutledge, a woman coming to join her husband in the gold field. When she arrives, she learns he died after losing all his money. Determined to stay--"San Francisco is no place for a bad loser"-- Mary meets Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), who runs the Bella Donna casino and saloon: "Do you like San Francisco?...That's good--I own it." (The saloon is named in honor of the real-life music hall the Bella Union; Herbert Asbury of Gangs of New York fame wrote about it here.)
Mary and Louis celebrate New Year's Eve together, and in the hungover morning they come to a business arrangement. She asks Louis if he proposed marriage when she was drunk, and he counters, "That wasn't my offer." Instead, she'll be the eye candy at the roulette wheel, to be seen but not touched. Under her new nickname "Swan" she fleeces the miners with rigged gambling. And she doesn't protest when Chamalis's fierce, black-clad enforcer Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) ventilates the suckers who protest.The model familiar from TV's Deadwood is all in place. Frank Craven's Col. Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven), a newspaper publisher, submits to gangster pressure, just like Jeffrey Jones' newspaperman yielded under force from Al Swearingen.
Disgusted by Chamalis' violence, Mary goes out for a ride and ends up in the cabin of a virtuous buckskin-clad miner, James Carmichael (Joel McCrea). McCrea always claimed that he got only picked for a role after Gary Cooper had turned it down. So here we see Howard Hawks do what he did so often--go against the expectations of the audience on seeing the Gary Copper type. We'd expect the pioneer to be a man of few words. No, he's a chatterbox, presenting Mary with a book of Shelley, filling her up full of talk about Greek myths.
Admittedly, all this fancy talk could be Hecht's doing. Hecht, scriptwriter for over 70 movies, loved to draw on his hard-boiled past as a newspaperman in the 1920s. Not many screenwriters could accurately claim that they'd known serious gangsters like Dion O'Bannion.
But Hecht also dabbled in Parisian-style decadent literature, and was responsible for a film with as pearl-encrusted scripting as any made: 1946's The Spectre of the Rose, which is about six inches from being a Ken Russell film. In the last third of Barbary Coast, James--disillusioned by seeing his lady-love working in a den of sin--gets Mickey Finned and shorn of his gold. He takes work in the lowest-class job Knuckles can find for him: cleaning the spittoons. Hecht, always had a thing about script-writing as shameful work. He's celebrated as the man who used his Oscar for a doorstop. Let's guess he's including some veiled commentary here about the hired-writer's plight. One has to feel "kinda philosophical" says James, as he rolls up his sleeves and gets busy.
The San Francisco in Barbary Coast is a town that's half-mud, half-fog. Fog shrouds the sets and gives this a pre-film noir atmosphere. It's a wretched city where justice is drunk, people literally sink to their knees in the mud, and the newspapers are cowed. Our guide to this San Francisco is a great character actor in his first important role. The story is in Joseph McBride's Hawks on Hawks, as well as in David Thompson's encyclopedia, that a no-name walk-on actor called Walter Brennan turned up for the part and asked: "with or without?" Brennan meant "teeth"--once Brennan took out his false teeth he became the most reliably entertaining pioneer coot in cinema. Gabbling, long-underwear clad, shotgun-carrying gapper that he was, Brennan sidekicked for almost every cowboy who ever road a horse. And Barbary Coast was Brennan's first big role is as "Old Atrocity," an eye-patch wearing Charon who rows people into San Francisco, and does other odd jobs (petty theft and mooching, mostly). He is the compass that points to wherever the power is flowing in this film.
And the power flow changes after Louis crosses one too many people. A vigilante group forms, and takes out Knuckles, in an organized act of punishment that is choreographed as strictly as a dance routine. James gets over his foggy poetic delusions and recognizes that Mary is good, no matter what muddy job she's holding down, and no matter what kind of company she keeps. And when that happens, even Old Atrocity gets slightly more honest.
Trying to keep a grip on his city, and losing it, Edward G. Robinson also gives another fine villain-turned-anti-hero performance. He's fancied-up, with big sideburns, hair-oil and an earring; he's so lordly that he defies people to see him as he is: squat, frog-faced, with a beer-keg body. I wonder if George Lucas has ever claimed that Jabba the Hutt was modeled on Robinson? After begging for love from Mary (and Hopkins' customary frostiness is turned up all the way to Baffin Island when she hears him out) Louis gets his own back. It's another moment of grace under pressure captured by Hawks, perhaps the smartest and most entertaining director of the studio era.