Saturday, September 13, 2014

Frisco Jenny

One of the movies that aired last week in TCM's Friday pre-Code marathon was Frisco Jenny. It's on again overnight tonight at 12:15 AM, or late this evening for those of you in more westerly time zones.

Ruth Chatterton plays Jenny, and we first see her in a sequence captioned, "San Francisco, 1906". So already we know there's going to be an earthquake coming up in the movie and that it's going to be an important plot point. In the case of Jenny, that involves her boyfriend. She's working as a madam at one of the night spots on the Barbary Coast, providing escorts for functions that want to consider themselves high-class, and she's in love with the pianist. In fact, she's planning to get married to the guy, until that earthquake comes, which kills him. That's sad, but more tragic is that the two had already been having sex, as we find that Jenny is with child.

So she does what any self respecting woman would do, which is to have the child, a son named Daniel, and take care of it, with the help of a Chinese nurse named Amah (played in yellowface by Helen Jerome Eddy). Jenny continues her vice work, but serious problems arise when there's a shooting at one of the parties: her business partner Steve (Louis Calhern) shoots the other guy in a struggle, leading Jenny to have to dispose of the gun herself. There are legal questions to be answered, and a woman with a legal cloud over her head is considered by the nanny-staters to be an unfit mother. Why Amah couldn't be the guardian is never really discussed, although I suspect it's just the view of the times that nobody would have thought of sticking a white child with an Asian parent -- it's not as if Amah would provide a father for the child. So the kid gets put with a wealthy family in Oakland. When the time comes for Jenny to reclaim the child after the legal case has been resolved, the kid only knows his foster parents as parents, and doesn't recognize Jenny at all. So she makes the difficult decision to leave the child with them.

Jenny follows Daniel's progress vicariously through newspaper clips, as he grows up, becomes a college football star, goes to law school, and then becomes an assistant DA all by the improbably young age of 26 (the movie ends with an event in early 1933; you do the math). Jenny, meanwhile, never lets on to anybody, not even Daniel, that she's his mother, remaining in the vice business with Steve instead. However, she's planning to retire once she gets her son elected DA, since Daniel (James Murray) is planning to be tough on crime. In fact, Daniel finally catches Steve trying to give him a bribe, complete with witnesses. Steve is done for, except that he has one more ace up his sleeve: he knows that the notorious Frisco Jenny is actually the biological mother of the DA, and is willing to reveal that shameful secret as if it would cause a problem for the DA. So Jenny shoots Steve in the doorway of the DA's office before Steve can tell Dan about it.

There's something about Frisco Jenny that doesn't ring quite true. Perhaps it's the plot that really strains credulity at times, or perhaps it's just that we're looking back 80 years with the values of today and finding things that make little sense. There's nothing bad about the movie; it's just nothing that ever rises to greatness. If you haven't seen Frisco Jenny before, give it a watch. But if I were looking to recommend pre-Codes to people who haven't seen any of them before, there are quite a few I'd recommend before this one.

Frisco Jenny was released to DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 3. I think it's out of print now, though, since it's not available at the TCM Shop.

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