When we put aside the obvious talent involved in making of this, Barbary Coast is just another movie which almost completely depends on Edward G. Robinson's screen persona, legendary even in that time when it was still fresh and rising. There were many filmmakers who counted on him being one of the rare constants in the history of motion pictures, but what's peculiar is how many of the weaker ones than the two he got here managed to get through with it. I mean, you'd think Ben Hecht (who wrote it together with Charles MacArthur) and Howard Hawks would have had more fun with him on board! Still, this is one of the rare instances where Hawks missed because he aimed too high. He was always one of the most careful ones in that respect, so the reasons for that probably lie on the side of his partner.
One can say that this was thematic exorcize for the westerns he made in every upcoming decade of his distinguished carrier. The setting is San Francisco of the nineteen century (during The Gold Rush) where Mary Rutlege (Miriam Hopkins) from the civilized New York settles to be married, following the previously existing arrangement. On arrival, she is shocked to find out her groom to be was shot dead by chief local gangster Louis Chamalis, a shock increased with the knowledge that all of his money was also confiscated by the man. Even there, we begin to suspect her motifs. Our doubts are confirmed when she accepts platonic relationship with him, for a chance to enjoy some of the luxury.
This is not a first collaboration between writer-director tandem. They did Scarface, the best of the early gangster pictures and Twentieth Century, which I thought was a little overrated, but still enjoyable on its own terms. Both of those pictures, even with the shortcomings of the later, always looked like they are coming out of the same mind. That synchronicity, or the lack of it, is the key reason Barbary Coast was the first of their collaboration which could be called a failure. When Hecht goes on one of his ramblings about the importance and lost honor of journalistic profession, Hawks looks interested. It brings us picture's best sequences, most of them involving the head of the printing paper Colonel Cobb, played by Frank Craven in a supporting performance of the film. But there are parts of this script Hawks doesn't seem to take seriously, and we can't be to harsh on him because of that.
Somewhere in the middle, we are presented with Jim Carmichael (Joel McCrea), an idealist who spent last 3 years alone in the wilderness, trying to use the best of The Gold Rush. As he becomes more and more of a conscious call for Mary, we can almost feel Hawks snoring in his chair. From than on, it is a situation of two pictures in one, battling for the domination. McCrea is perfectly fine in all of his misplacement, but that doesn't do the picture much good, and Hopkins is at her routinely convincing and uniquely sexy in calm moments, but is left entirely on her own in dramatic ones, coming out as a bad stage actress appearing on the screen.
The strongest feeling Barbary Coast leaves us with is lifelessness, a flaw even Hawks' biggest detractors can't find in his best work. He collaborated with Hecht again, most famously in His Girl Friday, when they recreated the early magic. This one remains for the fans only.