Barbary Coast (film)

Barbary Coast

1935 Theatrical Poster
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Written by Ben Hecht
Charles MacArthur
Starring Miriam Hopkins
Edward G. Robinson
Joel McCrea
Frank Craven
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Ray June
Edited by Edward Curtiss
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • October 13, 1935 (1935-10-13)
Running time
90 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1 million[1]

Barbary Coast is a 1935 American historical drama film directed by Howard Hawks. Shot in black-and-white and set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era, the film combines elements of crime, Western, melodrama and adventure genres, features a wide range of actors, from good-guy Joel McCrea to bad-boy Edward G. Robinson, and stars Miriam Hopkins in the leading role as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge. In an early, uncredited appearance, David Niven can be spotted playing a drunken sailor being thrown out of a bar.


On a foggy night in 1850, Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), accompanied by retired Colonel Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven), arrives in San Francisco Bay aboard the Flying Cloud. A gold digger, she has come to wed the wealthy owner of a local saloon. The men at the wharf reluctantly inform her that her fiancé is dead, murdered most likely by Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), the powerful owner of the Bella Donna restaurant and gambling house. Mary is upset, but quickly pulls herself together and asks the way to the Bella Donna.

Mary meets Chamalis and agrees to be his companion, not only for economic reasons (as an attraction, she helps draw in customers), but for personal pleasure as well. Chamalis gives her the name 'Swan' and she becomes his female escort. She accompanies him on promenades in town and he showers her with extravagant gifts. Their relationship sours quickly, however, as Swan is angered by Chamalis's destructive power-mongering. She does not, however, mind running a crooked roulette wheel and cheating the miners out of their gold.

Colonel Cobb purchases a printing press, with the intention of starting a respectable newspaper for the people of San Francisco. His first issue includes an article criticizing an unpunished murder by Chamalis and his entourage. When Chamalis finds out, he threatens to destroy Cobb's printing press and burn down the building, but is halted by Swan. Chamalis demands that Cobb never print anything attacking him. The colonel unwillingly complies.

Swan becomes disillusioned with her life in San Francisco. Her distant behavior irks Chamalis. One morning she sets out on horseback. When it begins to rain heavily, she seeks refuge in a seemingly abandoned cabin, where she meets poet and gold miner Jim Carmichael (McCrea). Swan is taken with him, but lies about her current situation after hearing his criticisms of the city. He gives her his book of poems as a memento.

Carmichael decides to return to New York. Because of fog the ship will not leave for a few days. He meets Chamalis' helper, Old Atrocity (Walter Brennan), who, seeing his bags of gold is happy to show him to the Bella Donna. Carmichael is surprised to find Mary working there. He is served drugged liquor and plays roulette at her table. He loses his composure, insults 'Swan' and eventually loses his money.

Carmichael wakes up the following morning in the Bella Donna's kitchen. His eloquent speech impresses Chamalis, who hires him on the spot as a waiter. Carmichael's presence perturbs Mary, who offers him money to depart. Carmichael refuses, wishing to earn the fare on his own.

Cobb puts up a poster telling about a murder Chamalis' ordered and how the Bella Donna cheats customers. Seeing it, Chamlis' henchman "Knuckles" Jacoby (Brian Donlevy) shoots both the man who put it up and the publisher when he tries to defend him. Dying, Cobb orders his assistant to print the truth. A vigilante group is formed and hangs Knuckles.

Devastated by Cobb's death, Mary acknowledges her love for Carmichael, and works the roulette table so that he wins back the gold he previously lost. Chamalis finds out and sets out to kill Carmichael, who has snuck into Mary's bedroom. The lovers decide to leave together. They find a rowboat and attempt to board the ship in the harbor. They have trouble seeing in the fog, but can hear Chamalis pursuing them. He shoots and injures Carmichael, and corners them beneath a pier. Mary begs him, as proof of his love for her, not to kill Carmichael. Chamalis agrees, but tells her he does not want her anymore. The sheriff arrives with a mob, and Chamalis allows himself to be taken away. Mary returns to Carmichael's side aboard the ship as it prepares to set sail.



The film is based on the bestseller The Barbary Coast (1933) by Herbert Asbury.[2] When the first draft of the script was submitted to Joseph Breen, he commented to Samuel Goldwyn that "The whole flavor of the story is one of sordidness, and low-tone morality."[3]

After months of revisions by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the story changed from a story of an area of San Francisco where men came to find pleasure in drinking, prostitution, and gambling, to a love story.[4] Breen commented to Will Hays that it was now a love story "between a fine, clean girl" and a sentimental young man and that there was "no sex, no unpleasant details of prostitution" and contains "full, and completely compensating, value [...] the finest and most intelligent picture I have seen in many months".[5]


The New York Times's Andre Sennwald found the film entertaining.[6] Time felt it was "painfully uninspired".[7] Scholastic, a magazine for youth recommended the film for its "authentic background and characters of the days of gold-discovery".[8] Newsweek complained that the plot from the original book was thrown away.[9] Canadian Magazine assured Canadians that the film had "nothing to do with the cheap, tawdry 'coast' " from the novel.[10] Chicago threatened to ban the film. Goldwyn edited a few scenes and the film was allowed to be exhibited there.[11] The Chicago Legion of Decency condemned Barbary Coast. The Bishop of Los Angeles, John Cantwell, saw the movie with four other priests and enjoyed it; none found it immoral.[12]

Writing for The Spectator in 1935, Graham Greene declared the film a triumphant success, describing it as "melodrama of the neatest, most expert kind, well directed, well acted and well written". Despite the film's use of what Greene regarded as a conventional plot, he lauded the "fresh and interesting" use of flawed characters to "make something real out of the hocus-pocus".[13]


  1. FILM UNITS WILL EXPAND: Outlay for Year $25,000,000 Production Plans of United Artists and Reliance Pictures Disclosed Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Aug 1935: A1.
  2. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  3. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  4. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  5. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  6. Andre Sennwald, "'Barbary Coast,' a Thumping Melodrama of the Gold Rush Days", The New York Times, Oct, 14, 1935, p. 21
  7. "Cinema: The New Pictures: Oct. 21, 1935", Time, Oct. 21, 1935, p. 45
  8. Scholastic, Nov. 2, 1935, p. 28 (quote obtained from Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220)
  9. Newsweek, Oct. 19, 1935, p. 25 (quote obtained from Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220)
  10. Canadian Magazine, Oct. 1935, p. 42 (quote obtained from Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220)
  11. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  12. Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored, Cambridge University Press, 1994. 218–220
  13. Greene, Graham (1 November 1935). "Barbary Coast/Episode/The Passing of the Third Floor Back". The Spectator. (reprinted in: John Russel, Taylor, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. p. 32. ISBN 0192812866.)

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