Acteurism: Joel McCrea in "Barbary Coast"

Our coverage of the Museum of Modern Art’s series dedicated American actor Joel McCrea continues with Howard Hawks's neutered period piece.
Z. W. Lewis

In 1935 director Howard Hawks had a reputation for directing fast action films that were shot like screwball comedies. Before the Hays code, he directed Paul Muni as an Al Capone persona for the “most violent picture” of the time, Scarface (1932). Films about violent sports and vehicles and the men in control of them also got the Hawks treatment with The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Crowd Roars (1932), and The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933). The tagline for that last one’s poster reads: “GIRLS! THERE’S A NEW PASSION IN YOUR LIFE!” Hawks’ strengths lie in that spectacle of unfettered action for the boys, star power for the girls. His marketing image had stepped out of genre pictures before with more straightforward dramas Tiger Shark (1932)and Today We Live (1933). In Twentieth Century (1934), Hawks even ventured into full screwball territory (I’d wager that the Code taking away his violent sensibilities may have something to do with this, but considering he’d master this genre with time, I have no complaints). Though Hawks’ virile personality could shine through his assigned scripts, 1935’s Barbary Coast is Miriam Hopkins’s vehicle. She gets the most screentime, the most dynamic character, and the most close-ups. By stepping into Hawks’ world, she’d firmly plant herself in the world of men, what they want, and what they’ll do to get it.

Yet, Barbary Coast is wholly neutered. After many script revisions, the story of greedy men coming to San Francisco for gold, booze, prostitutes, lawlessness, and other vices takes a backseat to a Hays-approved love story between Hopkins and an unbelievably pure Joel McCrea. What could have been an interesting auto-critique of the director’s prolonged interest in gangster malaise by way of telling a story from Hopkins’s perspective had turned into a morality play with Hopkins stuck between two pillars of masculine power.

During the height of the Gold Rush, Mary Rutledge (Hopkins) travels from her proper New York lifestyle to San Francisco in order to marry a Mr. Morgan. Morgan’s reputation in the town comes from his mining success and subsequent riches, but his questionable death has shifted his fortune to the hands of Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson), the owner of San Francisco’s biggest vice den and, by extension, the city itself. Hopkins laments her lost fortune but also immediately recognizes that her greedy intentions were no better than the drunk, racist forty-niners before her. She integrates herself into the ecosystem of the gold hunters, becoming a rare attraction for Robinson’s roulette wheel (and the property of Robinson himself) for a cut of his riches. The entire city comes out to see the “New York white woman—whiter than a hen’s egg!” and she begins to morph into exactly that expectation.

The narrative follows the extent of Robinson’s power as he commands those who cross him to be executed by his right-hand strongman Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) and for any reports of his misdeeds by the local newspaper to be silenced. To help establish this image of power, nearly every other male figure plays that of the toothless, lost sin-seeker, speaking in a contraction-heavy, slang-laden dialect while Robinson enunciates in his own brand of Chicago-mob-boss aristocracy. He moves slowly, lets others take care of his business, and carries a big stick (usually for pointing). When in public, he dresses himself next to Hopkins as if royalty, even outdoing the mayor. It’s the sort of external class markers that always accompany the evil capitalist, but Robinson seems keen on devolving into Paul Muni’s Scarface (or his own Rico from Little Caesar) when he’s called to be insulted or show cracks in his prim and proper mask. Frank Craven’s Colonel Cobb, the town newspaperman, stands opposite as the true gentleman, though his demeanor can quickly be beat into submission by Knuckles. For the first forty minutes, Robinson’s Chamalis runs rampant as a small man making himself big through his money.

Then, with the film almost halfway over, Joel McCrea finally shows up. If Robinson represents the evils of early San Francisco gentrification, McCrea stands as its genteel counterpoint. As Hopkins comes to resent Robinson’s jealous deeds, she distances herself from his estate by riding her horse in the countryside. When a heavy rain falls, she seeks refuge in McCrea’s humble cabin. McCrea lights up at her sight, that flabbergasted grin that doubles as an opportunity to sport pearly whites for the camera showing through yet again. His first line: “I’d almost forgotten how beautiful a woman is.” His delivery, now being dependent on filling the role of a common man in a foreign land, comes with a forced inflection of the locals, though not nearly as exaggerated. In fact, he sounds just like boy scout Joel McCrea with a sprinkling of rustic phrases like “gabbin’ my silly head off.” Again, he’s the straight man: not a cartoon like the rest of the forty-niners, not a beacon of mobster personality like Robinson, and certainly not full of emotional welling like Hopkins as she gets closer to him. The real difference between this performance and the others inthis series lies in his sexual behavior. He has none. He’s as neutered as the film itself.

He gabs his silly head off: “I’m full of the most idiotic respect for beauty and grace and gentility.” It’s a quick line used to distance McCrea from what could only be savage behavior (in the Production Code’s eyes at least) before a lady. He’s romantically involved, sure, but more for fulfilling his poet’s heart than any sort of carnal ambition. There’s no bare-chested heroism nor any real bravery in his character at all. Though he’s supposedly the force for good in this cartoon set-up, his ambitions (to effectively own Hopkins) are selfish. He’s not even willing to fight for it – instead, his plan is to simply run away. McCrea owns about twenty minutes total of screentime in Barbary Coast, but most of it includes his poetic blatherings, his straight man game (wholly dependent on others acting out), and his leery pupils usually latched to an implied offscreen Hopkins. He’s a moral counterpoint to Robinson by simply not being evil and a narrative device to steer Hopkins out of the sin den—not much else.

This neutered approach does allow McCrea to explore darker territory. Since he can’t make sexual advances but still yearns for ownership over Hopkins, he experiences a helpless jealousy by seeing his doe-eyed mystery woman working the roulette wheel. Driven by his postlapsarian knowledge, McCrea begins a caustic shame game at the wheel, revealing a performance far away from his usual boy scout routine. He hunches over, corrupting his schoolboy posture and breathing a trainwreck of offensive remarks so forceful you can nearly see the alcohol vapors near his mouth. Here, he’s free to stop responding to other actors and give a substantial range to his persona. He still delivers most of his lines in a mid-range flatness; but his lack of eye contact, his slouchy swagger, and the confidence behind his venom leaves a portrait of selfishness that could only be extracted from a repressed boy scout.

This scene of McCrea going beyond his boy scout streak to display a relatable weakness shows even more holes in his claim of effortlessness. Like The Most Dangerous Game, Barbary Coast does not allow a showcase of McCrea’s talent, but leave it to Howard Hawks to find an avenue to pick apart studio-mandated morality.


Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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