Frisco Jenny (1932)

Technically this was part of what would be a ludicrously busy release schedule for Wellman in 1933, although it actually opened at the very end of the previous year. Unlike the last two films, it’s not so hard to see what’s “pre-Code” about this one; I imagine stories about women running organised vice wouldn’t really cut it with the Hays office a couple of years later. As our last film starred George Brent, this one stars Mrs George Brent, Ruth Chatterton who we last saw in Female; here she plays Jenny, left without parents or lover (I was pleased to see that tragic young man James Murray in this latter, sadly small role) following an outburst of special effects and ancient newsreel footage depicting the 1906 earthquake. She is left with child, however, and with the determination to survive and prosper, by hook or by crook (and, let’s face it, primarily by the latter). In the midst of all this there’s some staggeringly poor yellowface—Helen Jerome Eddy looks about as Chinese as I look like a Bengal tiger—which is distracting but Chatterton saves the day, playing the tough bird like she does in Female but in a much darker tale. If nothing else this film is more tonally certain and consistent than the last two, getting off to a suitable heavy start with the quake, progressing through Jenny’s rise and her separation from her little son, culminating in the bleak irony of the ending. The latter does, I suppose, amount to a “crime does not pay” situation which the Code might’ve approved of, but by putting us on Jenny’s side all the way through the film rather than someone who we’re glad to see getting their just desserts, Wellman really ramps up the bitterness of the whole enterprise. Makes me kind of wonder what Mizoguchi would’ve done with the material.

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