Friday, June 20, 2003


This pre-Code melodrama was apparently inspired by a classic weeper called Madame X which Ruth Chatterton had starred in during the silent era. Here, Chatterton plays Jenny Sandoval, a notorious madam in San Francisco. Her story starts in 1906 when she's a young woman helping her father run a rowdy saloon. She wants to marry a man (James Murray of the silent classic THE CROWD) of whom her father doesn't approve, but before the situation can be resolved, the famous earthquake hits, killing both men. It turns out that Jenny was pregnant by Murray; she has her child with the help of her faithful Chinese companion (Helen Jerome Eddy). As she makes a living for herself through shady activities, she gets involved in helping a big shot lawyer (Louis Calhern) cover up a murder; she winds up implicated, but nothing can be proven so the charges are dropped. Still, a child welfare group takes her baby away to be raised by a well-off family. Many years later, Jenny is living well as a high-class madam and has followed from afar the career of her son (Donald Cook) who is now district attorney. The melodramatic plot machinations kick into overdrive here; suffice to say that just as Chatterton decides to retire and go to Europe, Calhern threatens to expose her ties to her son. Right in front of her son, Chatterton kills Calhern before he can blurt out her secret. Of course, Cook winds up prosecuting his own mother. There is some interesting camerawork here and there, and the earthquake scenes are nicely handled. Chatteron and Calhern are good, and Cook bears enough of a resemblance to Murray that briefly I thought Murray was playing a dual role as father and son. Eddy doesn't come off all that well--the main way she is made to seem Chinese is to have thick and shiny black hair. It didn't seem to occur to anyone to have a Chinese actress play the part. The up-front depiction of prostitution is the film's primary pre-Code quality; the story ends (predictably) rather badly for Chatterton, so she winds up punished for her independence and her strength. Interesting, especially in its first half, but not exactly compelling.

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