The brawling, colorful story of the Queen of Hearts and the Ace of Gamblers!
John Wayne! Do you really need to read any further? Either you love him or you…deserve to be hanged. This movie features John Wayne, that defender of truth, justice, and the American way…making a killing as a gambler in San Francisco? And romancing another man's fiancée? What the…
Facts of the Case
Our story takes place in 1906. (You may want to remember that date, it comes in handy later.) John Wayne stars as Duke Fergus (or Ferguson, either the audio or the lines get a bit murky at points in the film), a Montana rancher. (This is, of course, a big stretch for Wayne into groundbreaking new territory as an actor…) He makes his way to that wretched hive of scum and villainy known as San Francisco (*cough*—anyone remember that date?) to collect a $500 debt from Tito Morell (Joseph Schildkraut, The Diary of Anne Frank). Morell owns the biggest casino in the gambling district of town, known as the Barbary Coast.
Headlining at Morell's joint is song-and-dance gal Ann Tarry (Ann Dvorak), who goes by the stage name of "Flaxen." (Apparently, this was a lot more attractive-sounding nickname to potential audiences in 1906—note that date again—than it is today.) She's engaged (or at least under contract) to Morell, but our boy Duke falls for her hard and fast. She takes him on a whirlwind tour of the Barbary Coast, where she knows every dealer in every casino and exactly how to get all of the crooked games to pay off. Soon, Duke has amassed a huge bankroll.
Not knowing how to quit when he is ahead, Duke loses all the money at Morell's tables the very next night, and returns to Montana penniless. However, he soon decides that he has left his heart in San Francisco, and makes plans to return and conquer the gaming tables once and for all. He enlists his pal Wolf Wylie (William Frawley, I Love Lucy), a dealer in the local saloons, to teach him all he can learn about gambling. Wylie (not to be confused with the coyote of that name) accompanies Duke back to San Francisco where they amass a fortune and Duke pursues his new dream—building a casino of his very own, right across the street from Morell's place. (Location, location, location.) He steals Flaxen away and signs her to be the headliner in his new place, and settles down to live the life of a gambling magnate in one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities on the whole West Coast.
It looks like life is going to be good for Duke, so long as nothing earth-shaking happens to change his world. But, of course, it does. When the great San Francisco Earthquake hits (dagnabbit, I told you to pay attention to that date), his palace of sin is leveled, along with much of the rest of the city. Flaxen is injured, and might be permanently paralyzed. Duke and Morell get mixed up on opposite sides of the nasty post-earthquake politics of a city gone mad.
There's no use in hiding it: Flame of Barbary Coast fails the Siskel Test. For those of you who don't know, the late film critic Gene Siskel had a basic test that any movie had to pass. He felt that it should be at least as interesting as watching a documentary of the same actors having lunch. Many people saw the wisdom in this, and the Siskel Test, like the Mendoza Line, endures to this day as a sort of threshold benchmark. Suffice it to say that I'd rather watch the Duke eating with Ann Dvorak any day than watch this clunker.
Nothing about this movie works. The plot is dull and unrealistic, careening from a $500 debt over a horse to a gambling fortune to the earthquake like a drunk who can't walk a straight line to the men's room. The characters are one-dimensional. The writing and dialogue stink. Some of the acting is passable, such as the always enjoyable William Frawley, but that's about it. I don't mean to be harsh, but I can't decipher any reason this movie was made, and I certainly can't give you any reason to watch it.
The DVD from Artisan is every bit as good as this movie deserves, by which I mean it would make a great coaster. Well, maybe that's not entirely fair—there is a hole in the middle, after all, and that might let some drops of moisture onto your fine wood surfaces. Picture quality is about what one would expect from a 58-year-old low budget Republic Pictures flick. In some instances, details are surprisingly sharp and clear, and there is good black and white contrast. As the film wears on, however, one notices that the contrasts seem to have been artificially enhanced; the whites are just too brilliant, and the blacks are just too inky, and there's not really any middle ground to speak of. Dark areas overall are a mess, with no definition at all, just a sort of amorphous, inky blackness that the characters swim in. The source print does appear to be in remarkably good condition, but it shows its age in the form of some nicks and scratches.
The audio is not much better. The original audio has been replicated in a glorious Dolby Digital mono format, which carefully preserves all the hisses and clicks for posterity. There's enough snap, crackle, and pop here that you could just as well slice a banana over it and call it a hearty breakfast. I've seen Charlie Chaplin movies late at night on the movie channels that sound better than this. It bears pointing out that not all of this is Artisan's fault, but is instead a fact of dealing with source material of this vintage.
Extra features are limited to…well, nothing actually, which really isn't all that surprising. After all, let's face it: Flame of Barbary Coast just isn't the Duke's finest hour, and the less we do to remember it, the better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think I've already said my piece.
As a digression, I just have to say that I think the old Republic Pictures logo, with the eagle spreading its wings on top of a majestic mountain, is probably the coolest logo in film history, edging out other classic contenders like the RKO radio tower.
As a red-blooded American, can I really convict a John Wayne movie? You're darn right I can, Pilgrim! Guilty! The movie, the disc, Artisan, and heck, even the Duke himself all deserve to spend a few nights in the county jail for this one.
We stand adjourned.
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