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Howard Hawks' Barbary Coast (1935) isn't one of the great works in Hawks' oeuvre, but its creation, at least the way Hawks told it, was peppered with the kinds of boisterous stories that followed the filmmaker throughout his career. Hawks was known for embroidering his past whenever possible so some of his anecdotes are a mixture of fact and fiction...but they're still fun to hear.
Set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the 1890s, Barbary Coast follows the wild and wooly exploits of Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), a crooked casino owner who falls hard for Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), a woman from the east who finds herself stranded in California. Soon enough, Mary is running the roulette wheel at Luis' casino, but things get complicated when she connects with Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea) an upstanding gold prospector. Robinson chews up the scenery in grand style, but the supporting cast is also a lot of fun in this standard-issue 1930s potboiler.
Hawks fell into directing Barbary Coast almost by accident. He'd been set to helm a doomed picture called Sutter's Gold at Paramount when the displaced Russian genius, Sergei Eisenstein, backed out of the production. Hawks couldn't make any headway either, so he abandoned it and happily agreed to help out his old buddies, writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who were attempting to produce their own pictures back in New York City. Hawks was more or less just guiding the two writers while they tried to shoot their first film. But he was also pleased to be on the opposite coast from his long-suffering wife, since that made it easier to chase actresses and showgirls.
Samuel Goldwyn eventually ended the vacation, more or less, when he recruited Hawks to adapt Herbert Asbury's book, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. (Asbury also wrote "The Gangs of New York," which Martin Scorsese shot some 60 years later.) After several failed attempts to wrestle the tome into a serviceable screenplay crews of writers regularly entered and exited the project Hawks put in a call to Hecht and MacArthur, whose dreams of becoming big-time producers on the east coast were collapsing.
Perhaps the highlight of the arduous Barbary Coast writing process was when Hawks was interrupted by a knock at his Nyack, New York front door, opened it, and saw Tallulah Bankhead standing on the porch. While Hecht, MacArthur, and other collaborators pretended not to watch from the next room, Bankhead shouted, "Damn you!" smacked Hawks in the head, and stomped off. No one had the guts to ask Hawks what the assault was all about, so they just kept on writing!
After the team completed five separate drafts of the screenplay, Barbary Coast was finally ready to go before the cameras. The shoot wasn't a particularly happy occasion. Robinson detested his co-star, Hopkins, and the cast was divided into loudly argumentative political factions, so there was always tension in the air. But Hawks pulled things together the best he could and made a lifelong friend of Walter Brennan in the process.
Hawks started laughing the moment the gangly, prematurely elderly Brennan was brought in to audition for the role of a character known as Old Atrocity. When he calmed down enough for Brennan to recite his lines, Brennan asked, rather cryptically, "With or without?" Upon further questioning, Hawks realized he was being asked whether Brennan should play the character with or without his false teeth! The line reading was promptly dropped, and Hawks hired the fledgling actor on the spot. The two men would go on to work together five more times, with Brennan winning an Oscar® for their next picture, an otherwise forgotten feature called Come and Get It (1936).
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Editor: Edward Curtiss
Cinematographer: Ray June
Music: Alfred Newman
Art Direction: Richard Day
Sound: Frank Maher
Costumes: Omar Kiam
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Luis Chamalis), Miriam Hopkins (Mary "Swan" Rutledge), Joel McCrea (Jim Carmichael), Walter Brennan ("Old Atrocity"), Frank Craven Col. Marcus Aurelius Cobb), Brian Donlevy (Knuckles Jacoby), Clyde Cook (Oakie), Harry Carey (Jed Slocum).
by Paul Tatara