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Frisco Jenny on Monday morning


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*Frisco Jenny* is on TCM tomorrow morning. IMHO it's one of the best pre-codes, possibly my favorite (pace, Stanwyck and Young fans). It has a great performance by Ruth Chatterton and a heart-breaking final scene -- featuring Helen Jerome Eddy -- to end all heart-breaking endings. It's sort of an inverted Madame X and involves a poor but resourceful woman, the "rackets," prostitution, blackmail, murder, and mother love. Oh, and it also has the San Francisco earthquake, which seems to be caused by a slap in the face that Ruth Chatterton receives from her father, played by Robert Emmett O'Connor. Also stars Donald Cook and Louis Calhern. Try to catch it if you haven't see it.

 

 

 

 

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Frisco Jenny is definitely on my must-see list for the plot and for Calhern, even if Chatterton's looks are to Stanwyck's or Young's as Mayo Methot's were to Lauren Bacall's. I know she's a big favorite among most of the other pre-code fans I've met, but I've never understood her appeal. Hopefully I'll change my mind after seeing this one.

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Hope you like it. I fear I'm not a fan of Loretta's, not even of her pre-code performances. And Stanwyck, the "Queen of the TCM Boards," is ok by me, but I do not understand the extent to which she is worshipped here. I tend to gravitate to the character people anyway. But do watch out for the slap that caused the earthquake.

 

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But do watch out for the slap that caused the earthquake.

 

It's funny, but I've been watching my DVD of Greed for the first time tonight, and when I saw it was apparently set in northern California, if not San Francisco itself, I was wondering when the earthquake was going to make its appearance in the McTeague household. Three hours into it and no earthquake so far**, and it's only after seeing these references to the earthquake in Frisco Jenny that I realized that I'd previously read the earlier comments about the Chatterton movie and conflated this part of the plot with the plot in Greed . Small world, so to speak, or at least a bit of a coincidence.

 

**Which makes sense now that I think of it, since it's already up to 1922 at the three hour mark, and anyway, the Norris novel was written in 1899, seven years before the quake.

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Jusf finished watching Frisco Jenny a few minutes ago. Not bad, but nothing to write home about compared to Baby Face or Temple Drake or Red-Headed Woman or dozens of other much grittier pre-codes. Chatterton did play her part very well, but that noble ending is used to death as a way of getting around the censors, most famously by Cagney in that "ROCKY DIES YELLOW" ending to Angels With Dirty Faces . It would have been far more compelling (not to mention unusual) a twist to let the D.A. son know that he'd just fried his own mother, even if the scene would've likely wound up in the cutting room.

 

Besides Chatterton's first rate performance, though, there was one other redemptive feature, and that's that I can now count one more film where Louis Calhern plays an almost perfect bounder. From The Blot to The Man With Two Faces to Asphalt Jungle to Executive Suite and many points in between, he's got to be one of the greater portrayers of romantic and criminal slime that the screen has ever known. They could really use a Louis Calhern SUTS day.

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> {quote:title=lzcutter wrote:}{quote}Markb,

>

> Thanks for the recommendation on *Frisco Jenny*. One of Wild Bill Wellman's best!

You're most welcome, Lynn! Great poster, Kyle, my man!!!

 

I love this flick, but largely because I'm a huge Ruth Chatterton fan! It's a story that's been told many times, particularly in the 30s. I'll go along with Andy as well, in singing the praises of Louis Calhern! William A Wellman, one of my all time favorite directors!

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Cagney in Angels was of course much later. You can't fault Frisco Jenny for a similiarity to a later film! Helen Jerome Eddy could have disobeyed Chatterton and told Donald Cook, but that would have robbed us of one of cinema's great ending images: Eddy burning the press clips, shot from behind the fireplace. And if Cook found out before Chatterton got the death penalty, that would have been a 50s happy ending, sort of.

 

Baby Face is fun, particularly in the early parts, but it would have been better if Stanwyck ditched Brent at the end. The ending of Baby Face is its weakest point. Stanwyck's exit, keeping the gifts, would have been better; or, if she had to return to him, simpering because she finally found a man she could love, he should have died from the shot. The ending of Baby Face isn't true to the grit that the film opened with.

 

I tried to watch Temple Drake but found it to be a bore. How it was touted on this board! If you want true grit, try Safe in Hell.

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When I wrote that the noble ending is used to death, it isn't that I'm blaming Frisco Jenny for copycatting Angels With Dirty Faces , it's just that after seeing so many movies with similar endings, after a while they all run together, regardless of what the particular release date might be. This even affected my take on the scrapbook burning, which though it was a dramatic scene, was still utterly predictible. What other favor was there left for Chatterton to ask, since she'd already sworn Amah to secrecy?

 

I agree about the ending in Baby Face , but the sheer rawness of the opening scenes goes far beyond anything in Frisco Jenny , and while Stanwyck is portrayed as a "ruthless schemer" (although forced by circumstance) right up until the very last scene, the Chatterton character is always motivated by her motherly instinct for her child. She states that motivation right up front and never once wavers from it. Noble, no question, but far more conventional a Hollywood story. Given the ending, I don't see any reason it couldn't have passed by Joe Breen himself.

 

And yes, Safe in Hell is nearly the gold standard, and I love the movie, but it also has the ending with the woman (in this case, innocent) who nobly chooses death rather than (in this case) dishonor. The truth is that code or no code, the censors simply weren't letting even "good" lowlifes "get away" with anything at the end, This led to a few good dramatic finishes in individual movies like Frisco Jenny , but taken as a group it's (to me, anyway) rather maddening. One of the very few movies that seems to keep its full integrity in the ending is I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang , which had the advantage of being based on a real life character. Muni didn't "get away" with a crime he didn't even commit, but at least the movie didn't end with violins implicitly playing in the background, and " *I STEAL!* " may be the most memorable final line Hollywood ever gave us this side of " This is Mrs. Norman Maine ", though the Garland line was obviously memorable for a far different reason.

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But still Andy, you use the phrase "It isn't that I'm blaming Frisco Jenny for copycatting Angels with Dirty Faces." Angels was made five or six years LATER! I went to a screening of Cavalcade at AMPAS in NYC last night. The film was introduced by a scholar who said that many of the plot lines and technical effects may seem cliched to us today, but Cavalcade was the first film in which they were used, so they have to be seen in that context. Of course Madame X, originally a play, was an early mother love scenario; but Frisco Jenny is a really interesting inverted riff on Madame X.

 

It's important to remember that there is something that we call a "Hollywood ending," generally meaning a happy ending which is forced and/or against the logic of the plot. Frisco Jenny does not cop out on that score; Baby Face does. And visually, thanks to director Wellman, Frisco Jenny excels. I particularly like the sleazy opening scenes in Jenny's father's saloon; a 1906 dive very well portrayed.

 

As far a film's final words, Helen Jerome Eddy and the clippings has no spoken words; only the song over the scene, which makes it particularly effective and mood conjuring, I think.

 

 

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Again, it's only because that I've seen that sort of a "noble" ending in so many other movies before I watched Frisco Jenny that the ending of the 1932 movie seemed somewhat of a cliche. If I had watched all these movies in the order in which they'd been originally released, my reaction would likely have been much different. But since I watched Angels With Dirty Faces for the first time about 40 years ago, it was *ROCKY DIES YELLOW* that seemed fresh and original to me, even if it actually came out 7 years after Frisco Jenny . Which means that while I can appreciate Frisco Jenny for its historical significance, on its own two feet it doesn't particularly stand out from dozens of other pre-codes that feature criminals with good motives.

 

And yes, I understand the definition of "Hollywood ending" as you describe it, but even if the ending of Frisco Jenny , unlike Baby Face , is more consistent with what went before, it still fits the "no criminal deed should ever go unpunished" formula for avoiding the censor's scissors. That doesn't make it a bad movie at all, but it reduces it more or less to a very well made Hollywood soap opera about a mother's love for her child. Not exactly an original concept.

 

And while Stanwyck's Lily Powers in Baby Face is forced into a rather implausible ending (to say the least), for the first 99% of the movie she's a much more believable character than Frisco Jenny, depicted without a single redemptive quality other than the standard "my environment made me what I am" defense. There's absolutely nothing in Frisco Jenny to match in force the tirades that Stanwyck launches against her father in the opening scenes of Baby Face . Those early scenes define the pre-code spirit just about as well as any movie you can find, matched only by a tiny handful of others.

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Unfortunately, I only caught the last 20-30 minutes, but it was enough to tell Chatterton was such a fun actress. I mean, she's great, but she's also just fun to watch in things, you enjoy watching her.

 

I wish she had kept working in films through the forties (didn't she retire early to become a romance novelist or something?) Maybe because she had her big screen hurrah in the late 20's-30's, that makes her embody the zeitgest of the time all the more.

 

Edited by: JonnyGeetar on Mar 13, 2012 10:46 AM

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Chatterton was older than the other pre-code actresses, which probably accounts for her second career as a novelist. Dodsworth was her final Hollywood film. She did return to acting for television later on. Wikipedia says she's a descendant of the English poet Thomas Chatterton. Don't know how that's possible, as the poet died -- probably a suicide -- at the age of 17. Perhaps she's of the same family, rather than a descendant.

 

 

 

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I like FRISCO JENNY quite a bit. Yes, it is kind of "Madam X"-like in plot, but it's an enjoyable enough film, plus it has in a small role James (THE CROWD) Murry. Sad to see such a promising actor already hitting the skids by this time.

 

 

It may be more an exception than the rule, but I feel that the characters in TROUBLE IN PARADISE seem to "sin" and get away with more than most other pre-code film characters.

 

For exapmle: Gaston and Lily are thieves who also live together. Gaston steals Madame Colet's purse, then later sleeps with her. Later Gaston and Lily steal from Madame Colet (who all but thanks them for it), and get away with the crime at the end of the film. No wonder this film was not seen after 1934 until the late 1960s.

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It may be more an exception than the rule, but I feel that the characters in TROUBLE IN PARADISE seem to "sin" and get away with more than most other pre-code film characters.

 

Except that in Trouble in Paradise Hopkins and Marshall play the archtype "gentlemen thieves", and Kay Francis is for the most part a willing victim. Everyone more or less is in on the deal, nobody really gets hurt, and everyone's a good sport about it. It's a fabulous movie, but it's never presented as any sort of moral tale.

 

OTOH in Red-Headed Woman , Jean Harlow plays the sort of home wrecker who inevitably winds up either dead, disgraced or punished ( Safe in Hell , Frisco Jenny ), or repentant and marrying the Good Man in order to live happily ever after ( Baby Face ). But while nominally disgraced, in the final scene you see Harlow not only living the grand style at a French race track, you also see that she still has her long time paramour working as her new husband's chauffeur. It's a wonderful ending, but by Hollywood standards, even pre-code, it totally goes against the grain. Apparently they got away with it by billing it as a comedy, but while Harlow's mere presence means that there are some comic moments, for the most part she's portrayed in more or less the same way as Stanwyck was in Baby Face .

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The thing about Frisco Jenny: She did commit a crime, but there were mitigating circumstances. Her fate was to some extent her within her control. She chose NOT to tell the true story. So unlike other films, where murder must be punished by society, Jenny ACCEPTED her sentence, though it was within her power to change it.

 

 

 

 

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The thing about Frisco Jenny: She did commit a crime, but there were mitigating circumstances. Her fate was to some extent her within her control. She chose NOT to tell the true story. So unlike other films, where murder must be punished by society, Jenny ACCEPTED her sentence, though it was within her power to change it.

 

That makes Frisco Jenny a variant of many endings of its time, but the bottom line is that along with 99% of the other endings of pre-code and post-code films, a woman who's lived a life of vice doesn't get to enjoy its benefits. This is why the absence of *any* sort of endgame punishment in Harlow's case truly sets Red-Headed Woman apart from just about every other "low life" movie of the time.

 

 

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But Andy, anyway you look at it, Jenny was a murderer! That's what she was being punished for, not for the rackets she was involved in. And still, she could have escaped the severity of her penalty but chose not to. A rare movie where a woman sleeping around for money gets away with it is Blonde Venus (1932). Dietrich sleeps with Cary Grant to get money to pay for her husband's (Herbert Marshall's) treatment. Marshall can't forgive her until the end of the film, and she is pursued throughout the film, but she is redeemed in the end.

 

But Dietrich's character didn't murder anyone!

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But Andy, anyway you look at it, Jenny was a murderer! That's what she was being punished for, not for the rackets she was involved in. And still, she could have escaped the severity of her penalty but chose not to.

 

And if she *had* chosen to spill the beans, and if she *had* then been able to escape from the gallows and live happily ever after off her various ill-gotten gains ( as Harlow did in Red-Headed Woman ), then you would've really had an ending that likely would have wound up on the cutting room floor. This is why IMO the issue of Jenny's free choice in the matter is interesting but not particularly germane to the larger issue of not letting crime pay. My only wonder is how Red-Headed Woman was successfully passed off as a comedy in order to avoid the fate of the cutting room. That movie was truly the exception that proved the rule.

 

But I'd love to see Blonde Venus . If only TCM would show it.

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