"Barbary Coast" is part of MGM's recent wave of Samuel Goldwyn-produced films that were originally distributed by United Artists.
A prolific and speedy writing team, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur allegedly concocted the script when producer Goldwyn wanted a movie to accompany his snappy title. "Barbary Coast" is a classic example of a high-concept project taking advantage of popular elements: Edward G. Robinson plays a somewhat more refined thug in the wake of his successful "Little Caesar" characterization (here, with earring, and a silver-plated cane); Miriam Hopkins suffers onscreen again, though unlike "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," it's all emotional, further strained by mounting guilt; and Joel McCrea plays a good-natured idiot who nudges the film's maudlin conflicts into the bathos bathtub (with the song "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" endlessly quoted over a very blonde Hopkins).
The real stars of the film are the superlative cast - a marvelous band of character actors - and the moody black & white cinematography by Ray June; like MGM's Charlie Chan transfers, however, there's visible compression during some of the fog-enshrouded scenes, particularly during the film's waterfront finale.
Between his more iconic works - such as "Scarface," and "Brining Up Baby" - Howard Hawks directed a number of lesser-known films which still deserve a look, particularly for fans in search of Hawksian archetypes; in "Barbary Coast," you have a lonely, tough female surrounded by tough guys; fast-paced dialogue; and snappy nicknames for the multi-layered cast - Swan, Old Atrocity, Sawbuck, and Knuckles.
Hawks would re-team with co-star McCrea in "Come and Get It" the following year, for producer Goldwyn
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan