One hundred eleven years ago today, on April 18 at 5:12 a.m., a violent earthquake shook San Francisco.
This was 30 years before the Richter scale was developed to measure an earthquake’s magnitude, and nearly 70 years before the system we use today, the Moment Magnitude scale. The scale ranks an earthquake on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the most catastrophic. Each step accounts for 32x increase of energy expended.
The 1906 earthquake is estimated to have been a 7.8. For comparison, an average tornado is around 4.8, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was about 6.2, and a Mt. St. Helen’s eruption is about 7.6.
When you consider the damage done by the earthquake (and most disasters), it is really incredible to think about how quickly they happen. In 1906, the timeline was very short:
5:13 a.m. The main shock occurred, and it lasted 42 seconds.
And it was over by 5:14 a.m. But several separate forces – the damage from the earthquake, the aftershocks, and the gas lines that provided energy to the city – collided with one another and a fire ignited. The city burned for three days.
But San Francisco was destined to be more than a sepia-toned memory. The people refused to let the city lay in ruins, or to scatter and rebuild elsewhere. San Francisco defiantly built itself back up, grander and more flamboyant than before. The fingerprints of the old earthquake are faded but visible, a reminder of San Francisco’s great courage and resilience.
Finding a copy of Frisco Jenny (1932) is not the easiest thing to do. This pre-code flick isn’t on Netflix or iTunes, and you probably can’t find a copy at Best Buy. However, it is well worth the effort of ordering a copy.
The term “pre-code” refers to a narrow window of time in Hollywood history, starting in 1929 with the advent of talkies, and lasting until 1934, when the Hays code went into effect. The Hays code ushered in strict censorship regulations to govern the language, characters, clothing, and plots that appeared on screen.
The first half of Frisco Jenny is set in 1906 San Francisco, beginning the night of the earthquake. We’re introduced to the title character of Jenny Sandoval, played by Ruth Chatterton, and her surly father at the family’s bar. Jenny is a familiar 1930’s style heroine: sweet enough to stay at arm’s length from the conniving prostitutes preying on drunken sailors and elderly businessmen, but street smart enough to keep the family business running smoothly.
After the earthquake, Jenny struggles to survive and finally turns to what she knows – exploiting the city’s appetite for sin and vice. At a painful turning point in her life, Jenny is forced to give her son up for adoption because of her infamous reputation. Expelled from his life, she watches anonymously from afar.
Donald Cook plays Dan Reynolds, Jenny’s grown son. The only other movie I’ve seen him in is Baby Face (1933), and in both films he plays an insufferably moral character. Fortunately, he’s handsome enough to make up for it!
Now that I think of it, the plots of Baby Face and Frisco Jenny are nearly identical. Good girl endures crisis and turns to the bad, but at her core, she retains her goodness. And they each face a second crisis which forces them to choose between their inner and outer worlds. Both Jenny and Baby Face have a loyal sidekick who is an ethnic minority (Amah and Chico, respectively). And they both feature a certain insufferable and handsome star, Mr. Donald Cook.
She and her sometime-partner Steve Dutton, who is a real pain in the neck, seem to profit off of every enterprise they touch. Jenny is all business but when she is alone she longs for her lost son and puts together a scrapbook of his activities.
Over time, she compensates for the absence of happiness in her life by becoming San Francisco’s most infamous (and well-dressed) underworld figure. Of course, Steve comes through and messes everything up for her, triggering a series of events that culminates with Jenny’s son putting his mother on trial for her crimes.
The one aspect of the movie that would never fly today is the character of Amah, who Jenny describes as “my only friend”. Amah’s character is Chinese, but she is played by a white woman, Helen Jerome Eddy. A white actor wearing makeup to appear Asian was a practice in early Hollywood called yellowface and, similar to appearing in blackface, this was typically done as a crudely humorous stereotype.
Despite the makeup, Amah’s depiction doesn’t meet the standard definition because her character is not limited to manifesting stereotypes. She does quote “the Sage” a few times in a kitschy way but overall, her character is unique and three dimensional.