Pre-code films, movies made before the production code was enforced, are among the favorite screenings of attendees of the Picture Show each year. These films often include elements of sex, drug use, and law breaking, which are familiar to modern audiences and make these ideal forays into the world of black and white. Those with misconceptions about what "old movies" are like are often shocked and delighted by what they see in the movies their grandparents or great-grandparents grew up watching. Join us as we explore a few titles from this time.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Jenny is the innocent daughter of a rough saloon owner in San Francisco. She is in love with the piano player, but her father won’t let them marry, in spite of Jenny’s pregnancy. All of their plans are dashed when the earthquake leaves Jenny broke and unwed, struggling to survive when she brings her son into the world. She can’t afford to stay on the virtuous path so she becomes a high-end call girl, planning parties for wealthy and powerful men in the city.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: You can tell early on in this film that Jenny is different from those that she surrounds herself with by her kindness toward the minister that had camped out inside her father’s saloon. The early scenes in this film are a real hoot as the women working in the bar switch from man to man, fleecing them for their money by offering them (fake) keys to their bedrooms.
SG: William Wellman directs this film, and his talent shows in its polish and creative shots. The movie opens with the camera entering the scene through the swinging saloon doors.
RB: Wellman is known for directing a host of pre-code films including personal favorites like Safe In Hell and Night Nurse. As noted before, the innuendo flies high thanks to the deft script by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. The film moves at a breakneck pace as we see Jenny’s transition to high-class madam, accomplice in murder, and ultimately her inevitable retribution for her sins.
SG: Jenny’s son is played by several actors throughout the film, but the one that stands out to me is little Buster Phelps, the most cloyingly cute boy in Hollywood history who could whine and pout better than anyone. Pre-code fans will most likely remember him as the curly haired blonde starving boy in Three on a Match. Depending on your glucose tolerance, Phelps will either make you want to snuggle him tightly or punch him in the face.
RB: Phelps had an extensive career throughout the 30’s, although most of his roles were uncredited. He was only 56 when he died in 1983, which does make me wonder how his life wound up after his career in film. The internet turned up very little information. Anyone out there know more?
SG: Curly-haired James Murray plays the love interest. Most viewers will recognize him from his heartbreaking performance in The Crowd, though that might be the only film that comes to mind. This talented man was ravaged by alcohol and jumped off a pier at age 35.
RB: Murray had been in and out of legal issues due to his alcoholism (he served six months in jail for appearing drunk in court on a previous drunk driving charge). He was sober in 1932 when he signed a seven year contract with First National (of which this film was a part of), but his sobriety was short lived. By 1934 he was homeless and panhandling to support his habit. King Vidor wanted to use him in Our Daily Bread and found Murray begging for spare change. If Murray agreed to clean up and reign in his addiction, Vidor was willing to cast him in the film. Sadly, the offer was refused. He did appear in a few uncredited roles as extras until his untimely death.
SG: Louis Calhern plays the suave well-connected corrupt politician who leads to Jenny's downfall. He remained a familiar face in films until his death of a heart attack in 1956. It is interesting to see this character actor in an early romantic role.
There are lots of great auxillary actors of note, but the title tells us who the star of the show is. Ruth Chatterton impressed contemporary audiences with her powerful performance. Shirley McLean of Brooklyn wrote to Picture Play magazine, “She hasn’t had much chance lately to use her great talent, but in Frisco Jenny she has a fine opportunity, and does she grab it! The stirring ending of that picture is something to marvel at and Miss Chatterton’s is superb in its heartbreaking sincerity.”
Photoplay said, “Only the triteness of the story keeps this picture from being great. Ruth Chatterton is at her best… direction is excellent.”
Hazel Neff of Zanesville, Ohio said, “I owe one of the greatest, if not the greatest, star in Hollywood an apology. Because I saw Ruth Chatterton in one of her first talkies, which was a very poor story, I vowed I would never see another Chatterton film. Now is my face red? Through no fault of mine I went to see Frisco Jenny. Now I realize that I have been missing the best Hollywood has to offer.”
“Hurray for First National and Warner Brothers for giving us a good Chatterton picture. This star was almost dead here, but Frisco Jenny will put her back where she left off with Madame X… I paid for the last Chatterton picture without claying it, because it was worthless, on account of no story, but give this girl something to work on, and you will get a good picture,” said S.H. Rich of the Rich Theatre in Montpelier, Idaho.
RB: The Newark Advocate of Newark, Ohio felt that the problem was not Chatterton’s performance, but the character of Jenny herself. “It offers nothing new, and there is nothing in the character of Frisco Jenny to establish sympathy for her. She is not good, never tries to be better, and her love for her son is established only through the fact that she glories in his success”. I disagree with this reviewer known only as HTK. Jenny’s character to me was very sympathetic as she tried her best to care for her son and while sometimes misguided, stay loyal to her friends. The first two thirds of the film are great, but I didn’t really want to see Jenny get the ultimate retribution that she was saddled with. A hesitant three stars.
SG: I enjoyed watching this movie, and there is a lot of talent involved, but the ending left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. I wouldn't call this a shining example of the pre-code era either, though it has obvious scandalous elements like pregnancy out of wedlock, prostitution and political corruption. The movies people most often cite to represent this time period aren't as emotionally heavy as this one. Still, it is a stylish and involving movie with great performances all around. Three stars.