Plot: Jenny (Ruth Chatterton) is a young woman who works in her father’s saloon, a locale home to prostitution, booze, and sometimes violence. In other words, not the place you’d expect to find a good hearted teenage girl, but Jenny is kind even to the local pastor who tries to preach to the customers and workers. When she engages in an affair with the joint’s piano player, she winds up pregnant and her father is irate, but before he can unleash his full wrath, nature strikes. An earthquake topples the saloon to rubble and her father is killed in the disaster, not to mention the piano player and now she finds herself alone and with child. She is determined to make a life for herself and her child, but how far will she go to make a better life possible and will things work out as well as she imagines?
Entertainment Value: Ruth Chatterton as a good girl who decides to embrace the darker side of life, including prostitution, corruption, and even murder? That should be enough to sell most movie buffs on Frisco Jenny, but hearing about Chatterton as the head of a crime syndicate is just a taste, as seeing her turn, ascend the criminal world, and confront her past is even better. The narrative is familiar, the whole good girl gone bad routine, but it works well here thanks to Chatterton and some wild twists thrown in, especially the scale of the bad girl transition. Jenny doesn’t just sleep around or get into a little trouble, she makes a choice to break bad and then she runs with it, until she is up toward the top of the ladder. The addition of a child also helps the movie stand out from other, similar productions, not to mention how the child is woven into the narrative to effective ends. I do wish the finale had a bolder, more unpredictable approach, one that better suited the rest of the movie. But otherwise, Frisco Jenny is well crafted, quite memorable serving of pre-code cinema.
I really like the narrative in this one, but the real draw is Ruth Chatterton and she raises the entertainment value by an immense level. The role is a great fit for her and she makes the most of it, putting her charm and charisma to good use throughout. I love the scene where she works hard to cover up a murder, as she is so expressive and brings a great sense of dark humor to the sequence. The movie greatly benefits from her presence and I don’t think many actresses could fill the role in quite the same way, with such a unique, bad ass brand of charisma. The rest of the cast is solid, but no one can keep pace with Chatterton, which is no surprise. You’ll also find Donald Cook, Louis Calhern, Harold Huber, and Helen Jerome Eddy on the lineup here. William Wellman directs and with a 70 minute run time, heavy exposition is minimal and the pace is brisk, so minimal filler in this one. If you’re a fan of old school Hollywood or just want to see Chatterton burn up the screen, give Frisco Jenny a look.