The Frisco Kid - 1935
The Frisco Kid - Released November 30, 1935 - Directed by Lloyd Bacon
James Cagney throws punches and concocts shady business ideas quickly in this 77 minute mini-epic of 18th century lawlessness in San Francisco. Most of the conflict is between the denizens of the area called the "Barbary Coast" and the regular citizens and leaders of the less corrupt areas of the city. The contest between the two groups is to determine how the rapidly growing city (a gold rush is going on at this time) will make its money and run its government.
Cagney (as Bat Morgan) is a sailor who gets mugged by a gang of local shanghai specialists who intend to sell him off to a merchant ship off the coast that is needing crew for a trip to China. Bat outsmarts them and ends up selling their leader to the merchant craft instead. Befriended by Solly, a Yiddish tailor (George E. Stone) who takes him in off the street after he gets beaten up badly, the two form an odd duo who take on corrupt San Francisco on its own terms, with the tailor (Solly) being a good influence trying to steer Bat toward the straight and narrow (Solly also provides some Yiddish proverbs along the way). Solly isn't very effective as Bat is determined to gain wealth and prestige whatever the cost, though by following his own code which relies more on organizing and controlling the criminal enterprises in the red light district instead of promulgating them.
Meanwhile, as Bat rises up through the ranks of Frisco's crookeddom, he is smitten with a proper lady (Margaret Lindsay) who is connected with the best families in the city and is dedicated to doing what is right via the newspaper she owns, just as her father was doing before being murdered for his outspoken opposition against local perfidity.
As Solly says:
"Don't forget, Bat, when you first came here you were just a plain sailor. Now you work in a dive on Pacific Street. And ...she's a real lady."
Not too long after saying this Solly takes a bullet when an assassination attempt is made on Bat by competing bad guys. Grief-stricken (and angry), Bat is then at the cemetery overseeing a monument stone being put up to his dead friend (with a very bold Mogen David right on the front) when he meets up with Jean Barrat (Lindsay) who is at her father's grave.
The pair build up a fledgling infatuation between them which has Bat occasionally doing secretive favors for his love ideal. But his good deeds aren't enough to stop the coming armed confrontation between San Francisco's corrupt powers and the citizen groups which form a vigilante army, complete with rifles and bayonets, determined to put an end to the lawlessness in their midst once and for all.
Bat runs out of time to make a choice between which side he is really on when Jean's crusading newspaper editor (Donald Wood) is murdered, and by this point she's not going to cut Bat anymore slack for his wishy-washy morality, and excoriates him in person and flatly states she now hates him, then dismisses him roundly with a promise to never see or speak to him again.
Bat returns to his crime kingdom with an insurmountable problem on his hands: how to limit the coming bloodshed and to finally live up to the standards he has been staring at from afar. He makes an attempt to send his fellow criminals out of town by warning them they'll all be killed or jailed by the avenging vigilante army, but it's too little and too late. When Bat gets rounded up with other Barbary Coast 'businessmen" and put to trial by a mob jury, he is sentenced to hanging. Will Jean Barrat step in to try and save her former lover and hated enemy?
Director Bacon keeps the story rolling at a breathless rate, and the tale covers a lot of ground with its limited run time. The story moves like a fever dream in which Bat Morgan yearns for riches and power and then starts attaining it by being a criminal Horatio Alger, but he has a nagging ethical issue because as much as he says the world is run by "kicks in the face" he is hamstrung by the fact that the only people he admires and loves are the humble and gentle tailor Solly and the prim and proper Jean Barrat. The script by Warren Duff and Seton Miller doesn't have much space to work out any of this realistically, and the movie and delivery of the main dilemmas are all rolled up in Cagney's energetic performance, which he ably provides.
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