Friday, June 18, 2010

Frisky in Frisco

One aspect of early talkies that doesn't get enough comment is the amount of drama and life experience they could cram into 70 minutes or less. In Frisco Jenny (1932), Ruth Chatterton goes from hard-boiled youngster keeping the books in her dad's San Francisco saloon, through the 1906 earthquake (in an impressive sequence for a program picture), becomes the city's leading madam-of-madams and political fixer and self-sacrificing (secret) mother of the crusading district attorney who not only wants to put her kind out of business, but has her sentenced to death for murder--a murder she committed in order to prevent the son from finding out she is his mother. This is Madame X stripped down and short of sentiment, and Chatterton's just the gal that can deliver the story straight from the shoulder with the support of the breezy William Wellman directing.

A few Wellman tropes turn up here--rain; a corrupt power system; and most notably action which is partially obscured, usually hiding the most essential moment. In Frisco Jenny, that moment comes when Louis Calhern, crooked lawyer pal of Jenny, is wrestling with degenerate gambler J. Carroll Naish. They disappear behind the round top of a large table and a gun goes off. Calhern straightens up suddenly and staggers and we think he is the victim until we see the pistol in his hand. Then we realize Naish is the one who has bought the farm. There is a very entertaining gavotte as Calhern and Chatterton hide the pistol from the police who have just shown up, transferring it from one location to another. It spends the greatest time in an ice cream log/cake; is this meant to be an image of death and corruption buried in sweetness?

The conclusion of the film raises the question as to what one considers sentimental. Yes, our heroine is self-sacrificing for her son. But the real sentimental ending would have been for her identity to have been revealed at the last possible moment and for her son to have prevented her execution, as they fall, grateful and weeping into each other's arms. This film has no tears to spare, no pity for characters or audience. Chatterton continues straight along the path she set out on many years before, without complaint, explanation or a demand for understanding. Aside from the great Stanwyck, I can't think of another female actor whose characters conducted their lives more like a man. We really need a Chatterton renaissance.

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