The Frisco Kid (1935)
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Due to its setting and the similarity of its title to The Oklahoma Kid (1939), which also starred James Cagney and was directed by Lloyd Bacon, Frisco Kid (1935) might at first be mistaken for yet another Warner Brothers western. Laid against the backdrop of San Francisco's bloody Barbary Coast circa 1854, the screenplay by Seton Miller and Warren Duff tells of the rise and fall of Bat Morgan (Cagney, enjoying a break from gangsterdom), a merchant seaman who turns the tables on the scalawags who try to shanghai him and winds up owning half the town through force of will, a strong right hook and a complete disregard for anyone but himself.
It's an interesting character for Cagney, balanced as it is between the alpha dog determination of The Public Enemy's Tom Powers and the natural showmanship of Yankee Doodle Dandy's (1942) George M. Cohan. While Bat is the film's nominal hero, he's tough to actually like as his dog-eat-dog philosophy allows him to sell into conscription an unfortunate sucker somebody else has Mickey Finned. Bat does have a soft side, which he reveals to the high society lady (Margaret Lindsay) he loves and to the Yiddish tailor (George E. Stone) who once provided him refuge, but his redemption is far from being a done deal. Despite its antebellum blandishments (the muttonchops, the waistcoats, the hoop skirts), Frisco Kid has a contemporary thrust with Bat acting as a greed-is-good chancer who not only bullies his way into a majority share of the local vice racket but pushes through his brand in the form of a high class supersaloon with its own signature drink. However cold blooded Wall Street's reptilian Gordon Gekko may have been, he'd be no match for Bat Morgan, who proves as powerful a motivational speaker as he is a bucket of blood brawler.
James Cagney came to Frisco Kid after the unsatisfying experience of playing Bottom the Weaver in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle's arty adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). Although he had received a recent salary increase from Jack Warner, Cagney was still dissatisfied with his roles during this period and approached the production of Frisco Kid with little enthusiasm. In Cagney on Cagney, the actor remembered it as "one of those catch as catch can affairs Warner's put out purely because they had to be put out... Frisco Kid had already been sold to the exhibitors even before a foot of it had been shot or conceived...The picture was built just the way a Ford sedan might have been."
The production marked his last pairing with frequent leading lady Margaret Lindsay, whom Cagney disliked for her affected cod-English manners. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1910, Lindsay had used a phony British accent to bluff her way into a part in Fox's Cavalcade (1933). The actress was memorable as the gangster's moll who takes a bullet in the back while doing the right thing in 'G' Men (1935) and she enjoyed prominent roles in Jezebel (1938), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) and as Ralph Bellamy's partner in crime detection in Columbia's "Ellery Queen" mystery series. Never married, Lindsay was rumored to have enjoyed a longstanding lesbian affair with Janet Gaynor.
Fleshing out the ranks of Frisco Kid's supporting cast are Donald Woods (13 Ghosts, 1960) as a crusading journalist, Ricardo Cortez (charismatic star of the original The Maltese Falcon, 1931) as Bat's affable rival, Barton MacLane (another 'G' Man alumnus) as the scarfaced Spider Burke and French actress Lili Damita, soon to marry Errol Flynn and bear him his only son. Look fast for Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless) in the nonspeaking part of a vigilante.
James Cagney's fans were happy to see the actor back in two-fisted mode in Frisco Kid but critics were not so kind. Unflattering parallels were drawn between Howard Hawk's earlier Barbary Coast (1935), starring Edward G. Robinson, which the cognoscenti felt was the superior piece. Another nail in the film's coffin (at least as far as the press was concerned) was the release six months later of MGM's similar San Francisco (1936), starring Clark Gable as a slick Barbary ne'r-do-well. Among the admirers, however, was the critic for Variety, who praised Cagney's vigor and found Frisco Kid to trump the Hawks film. While undoubtedly a minor title in the Cagney curriculum vitae, the production does clip along, thanks to the brisk direction of Lloyd Bacon. Bacon had a reputation for speed, wrapping up his films in little more than two weeks. His personal best for set-ups in a single day came during the filming of Knute Rockne, All American (1940), when he completed 47 scenes in a single day. With Sicilian cameraman Sol Polito and art director John Hughes, Bacon etches the San Francisco waterfront as a fog-bound precinct of iniquity straight out of an Edgar Wallace novel. While hewing closely to the crime-shouldn't-pay maxims of the newly minted Production Code, the violence is often disarmingly brutal, with a double hanging late in the film being as disturbing as it is coyly elliptical.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff (uncredited)
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Warren Duff and Seton I. Miller
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: John Hughes
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Cast: James Cagney (Bat Morgan), Margaret Lindsay (Jean Barrat), Ricardo Cortez (Paul Morra), Lili Damita (Bell Morra), Donald Woods (Charles Ford), George E. Stone (Solly Green), Barton MacLane (Spider Burke).
by Richard Harland Smith
Cagney by Cagney by James Cagney
James Cagney: The Authorized Biography by Doug Warren
Cagney, The Story of His Film Career by Monty Clinch
Cagney, the Actor as Auteur by Patrick McGilligan
Cagney by Ron Offen
Cagney: A Biography by Michael Freedland
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Kat