"Eddie Robinson wasn't half as good an actor as he was supposed to be, but he was a hell of a personality." - Howard Hawks on Edward G. Robinson
“Barbary Coast” is the first film that Howard Hawks ever directed for Samuel Goldwyn. Although it was a marriage of convenience for both of
these strong willed individuals, it was probably the least tumultuous of their four collaborations.
In 1933, Goldwyn purchased the rights to a book called “Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld” written by Herbert
Asbury, the author of “Gangs of New York.” From June of 1933 through October of 1934, the producer spent nearly eighty thousand dollars trying to
find someone who could adapt this history of depravity and violence into a working screenplay.
By October 1934, Goldwyn had accumulated at least eleven different treatments of the tale yet none of them seemed to have the makings of a
Barbary Coast (1935) Movie Trailer
Director: Howard Hawks Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Music: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Edward Curtiss
Art Director: Richard Day
Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Barbary Coast - 1935 (Original Poster)
Edward G. Robinson
Released: October 13, 1935 Running time 90 minutes
By 1934, Hawks had known Goldwyn for several years but had no urge to work for him. His instincts told him that the powerful producer would interfere with every aspect of film creation, rendering the director as little more than a tool to Goldwyn’s vision. Time and future experience would teach Howard Hawks that his original instinct was correct. In this case, though, the lure of major money drowned out the director’s concerns.
Frustrated with his inability to get this project off the ground, Samuel Goldwyn offered Howard Hawks sixty thousand dollars to direct “Barbary Coast.” This was more than he’d ever received to direct a film and twice what he’d been paid to direct “Twentieth Century.” With most of the nation still staggering from the impact of the Great Depression, Hawks wasn’t about to turn down his biggest payday ever.
The director thought he had a simple solution to adaptation quandary. After some unsuccessful work with a few other writers, he contacted old friends Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to help him with writing the script. Hawks’ secretary, Meta Carpenter, was staying at the St. Moritz in New York City. Working in her living room, the trio struggled to come up with a story line that would make an entertaining movie. On weekends, they would continue working at Ben Hecht’s place in Nyack, New York. One day, during these long brainstorming sessions, an event occurred that has since become part of the legend of “The Grey Fox of Hollywood.”
As Carpenter tells the tale, one day while they were working in Nyack, the doorbell rang. Hawks, being closest to the door, went over to answer it and was greeted by an enraged Tallulah Bankhead. The moment she saw Hawks she growled, “Damn you,” and smashed her fist on his head and walked off.
Despite muted grins and raised eyebrows, Hecht, MacArthur, and Carpenter refrained from asking Hawks any questions about his relationship with the fiery actress.
Although Hawks was never completely satisfied with the screenplay they produced, Goldwyn liked the story and insisted that they move forward with production. As Hawks had feared, the busybody producer was soon intruding on the director’s turf to such an extent that Hawks lost interest in the project before it was completed. Despite these problems, “Barbary Coast” went on to be the director’s most successful film since “The Dawn Patrol.”
While “Barbary Coast” lacks the texture and feel of the best of Howard Hawks’ films, it remains an entertaining work. Edward G. Robinson in his ruffled shirt and earring has a fine time as the underworld lord Chamalis and the foggy night scenes establish a spooky atmosphere fraught with impending violence. Besides, how many movies in film history actually end with a climactic rowboat chase? Yes, you read that right the first time, rowboats! If you’re looking for an interesting time in the early days of untamed San Francisco, you might enjoy a visit to Howard Hawks’s “Barbary Coast.”
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.