Pre-earthquake San Francisco was ripe for the Hollywood treatment, and there were a number of films to tackle this era including San Francisco or Barbary Coast. Frisco Jenny is more than at home in the same company. In the opening moments, the camera follows a constable into the local watering hole alive with song, dance, and the general gaiety one comes to expect in such places.
It’s like an ecosystem unto its own with certain laws. The female floozies know how to dip into men’s wallets while avoiding customers with chalk marks like the plague. They have already been picked dry, and thus the women help each other navigate the nightly circuit.
Preachers espouse their tirades from the bar counter on deaf ears. Conservatory-trained pianists hammer out second-rate compositions and some people get socked around. You get all types.
I recall being fairly impressed by the gravity of San Francisco‘s earthquake scenes from 1936, and I assumed Frisco Jenny might pale in comparison. But the fact the disaster goes on and on for several substantial scenes, made them harrowing with an all but palpable scope. It felt like genuine destruction was taking place, and the world was thoroughly disposable, even if it was only a movie world.
As we grow into the movie, Three on a Match becomes another reference point along with a touch of Stella Dallas and other such maternal dramas. Because the narrative is simultaneously all over the place — expansive in scope — and yet extremely elliptical in the story it sets out to tell. Time is so easily manipulated with years whittled down to moments and so on.
It’s thoroughly melodramatic, but it mostly works because it’s fully committed to the story being told. With her livelihood decimated and a young son to care for, Jenny turns her back on street corner spirituality and goes off on her own. She does it out of a deep-seated maternal affection, but it comes with consequences.
The only permanent fixture in her life, among the men like her first love (James Murray) and a dubious lawyer (Louis Calhern), is the faithful but utterly ridiculous Ahmah (Helen Jerome Eddy), the picture’s most unfortunate blind spot. But greater than its roving structure or any of the blemishes that come with age, it’s so emphatically contrived that it works for this very reason. It knows full-well what it’s setting out to accomplish, and it pays off.
Because now her son has grown up to become a district attorney avowing to get tough on crime. Unbeknownst to him, his mother is the notorious harpy Frisco Jenny. She won’t tell him lest it ruins his career. She finds her way into the courtroom. In fact, it’s this foremost scene that is seared into my mind.
Is Wellman whip panning around the courtroom again and again? It’s so unique as a way to reintroduce all his characters, and it stays with me. But this is a mere distraction to dress up the moment. We know why we’re here. We know what’s inevitable.
Soon Jenny Frisco is in prison. But Ruth Chatterton is fearless. The whole movie she’s made-up, attractive, and exuding a movie star ethos even as she suggests the rough existence of her character. Here there’s no pretense. She looks sorry and defeated. Stripped of everything and there she stands before us.
The true ending would have more relevance if not for yellowface. And even then, we hardly need this final moment. The movie was made in Ruth Chatterton’s final scene just as Cagney made Angel With Dirty Faces in those final moments. Their reactions are diametrically opposed and yet in both scenarios how they conduct themselves speaks volumes of who they are as human beings. We learn so much about people in moments of immense duress. On the doorsteps of death, there are many ways to respond.
Chatterton is galvanized as much by what she doesn’t do as much as by what she does. Before I knew her only mildly for Dodsworth, a picture that hardly puts her in a good light even if her performance is quite candid. Frisco Jenny is simpler, but it gives her the prime spotlight, and if you are mostly unaware of her, you need only look here.
In an industry mostly ruled by youth, she manages to exude both beauty and dignity as a woman over 40. We shouldn’t have to make a big deal out of this. Still, even today although the industry has changed, age can catch up with actors. Thus, it’s pleasant to be reminded of Chatterton. My esteem for her has grown even if this isn’t the most exemplary picture.