Anyone who has ever been to San Francisco, especially between the upper ends of Hyde Street and Market Street nearest the Bay, has probably seen (or at least walked over) the bronze compasses that commemorate the Barbary Coast Trail. The Barbary Coast was the stuff of legend in the nineteenth and early twentieth century with its lower-brow assortment of bars, nightclubs, hotspots, and more than a few places of ill-repute. It was not uncommon for sailors to go on benders there (or even just get clubbed by waitresses who wanted their money) and wake up somewhere they didn’t recognize. Let’s put it this way: The term, “shanghai” was invented in San Francisco. After the 1906 earthquake, though, the Barbary Coast was smartened up considerably, so that some folks nicknamed part of it “Terrific Street,” but it was still a rather racy place to be. It was this era of the Barbary Coast that was immortalized, albeit romanticized, in the 1943 film, Hello, Frisco Hello.
(A little side note: There’s a long-standing debate as to whether it’s proper to call San Francisco “Frisco.” When I lived in the East Bay, I didn’t hear anyone refer to San Francisco that way, not even once, but that was almost thirty years ago. I’m sure Louis A. Hirsch, the writer of the title song of Hello, Frisco Hello only shortened the name for rhythmic purposes, but maybe it was a sly little jab at the City By the Bay from the New York writer. In any case, Mayor Angelo Rossi was irritated enough that 20th Century Fox agreed to change the title card to Hello, San Francisco Hello when the film was shown in its namesake city. End of little side note.)
The film opens with a long tracking shot of Pacific Street. We see a barbershop quartet, women playing trumpets, raucous singalongs, a woman singing in a birdcage, and a trio of women singing “Hello! Ma Baby,” and flinging their skirts around. The camera finally settles on Sharkey’s, a honky-tonk where Johnny Cornell (John Payne), Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), Beulah Clancy (June Havoc), and Dan Daley (Jack Oakie) are working as a song-and-dance team, and their problem is, believe it or not, that they’re too good. Sharkey, their boss, is mad because his customers are watching the show and not buying drinks, and he fires them.
Our group wanders forlornly down Pacific Street, wondering what they should do next. Beulah and Dan are all for going back to their old jobs. Trudy makes the case for staying together because Johnny’s showbiz sense is so keen that it’s just a matter of time before they make it.
As if to illustrate the point, Johnny soon spots a Salvation Army-type band playing on the street and entreating passersby to turn to God. Johnny asks the leader how things are going, and the gentleman tells him that heaven will provide. Johnny then and there decides to provide himself and his friends, only there’s a wee gimmick: The group sets themselves up on the street in front of various venues in the Barbary Coast area, playing shows for free, with all the money given going to the mission. When the proprietors complain about their customers being drawn away, Johnny persuades them to pay his troupe to move on. In this way, the group pulls in so much money that not only does the mission benefit, but Johnny is able to open his own Barbary establishment, the Grizzly Bear, with Trudy, Beulah, and Dan performing. Then he opens another venue, and another, and another, until finally he’s the biggest name in San Francisco.
Naturally, the Nob Hill crowd can’t restrain their curiosity, and it’s only a matter of time before some of them come calling. Namely, socialite Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) and her entourage of male friends. Johnny wants to play to the upper crust, so he sends them a bottle of wine with his compliments. Bernice is flattered, or so she seems, and she invites Johnny and his friends to a party she’s giving at her house. Bernice is a perfect cat, but Johnny’s too busy social-climbing to see it. He wants the Nob Hill lifestyle so badly that when Bernice’s income source goes bust, he buys many of her things at auction, and later he buys her house.
He’s also too busy to see how Trudy, who has fought for him and stood up for him, is in love with him, or how hurt she is when he enters into a marriage of convenience with Bernice. It’s not until Trudy goes to London to sing and Bernice shows her true colors that Johnny begins to get a clue. Johnny isn’t explicitly unkind to Trudy–he’s glad for her success, and he enjoys being around her, but his cluelessness and then his pride get in the way. It’s like that line from “Big Yellow Taxi”: “You don’t know what ya got till it’s gone.” In the end, everyone has to find their way back to where they belong, and whether or not they’ll do it is the big question. The answer isn’t exactly a shock, but it’s pleasant enough to get there.
Meanwhile, there’s a big candy box of fun to be had. 20th Century Fox didn’t really go in for the integrated musical structure the way other studios like M-G-M did, but stuck to the older backstage story format. The plot is mostly light as a feather, and there’s no bursting into song to establish mood or develop character; there always has to be a stage or a dance floor under the actors’ feet before they can sing. Alice Faye does the star turn numbers, June Havoc and Jack Oakie put forth the comedy, John Payne gets by with a shove, and the end result is charming.
Hello, Frisco Hello was the Sunday School version of the Barbary Coast. The real place, even after the Red Light Abatement Act of 1914, was not exactly respectable, and showing that part of its history would have never flown with the Hayes Office. The film was also a remake of the 1936 movie, King of Burlesque, which starred Alice Faye and Jack Oakie in the same parts, and in the seven years between the two pictures, a lot of changes took place. Set on Broadway instead of Pacific Street, Burlesque was a grittier film. John Payne’s character was meaner, and Alice Faye’s persona was more overtly sexy.
In 1943, audiences were getting their fill of grit from the war news, and the pleasant, graceful confection that was Hello, Frisco Hello was no doubt a welcome sight. Alice Faye had grown into an elegant, classy movie star, as opposed to the platinum blonde Jean Harlow clone she had been in the previous decade. While the movie featured mostly songs from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, Hello gave Faye her signature song, “You’ll Never Know,” which won an Oscar, and was used by 20th Century Fox as much as possible in later wartime films. It’s since been covered by Vera Lynn, Rosemary Clooney, and Frank Sinatra, among at least a dozen others, but it’s hard to forget Alice Faye singing it.
While 20th Century Fox didn’t make musicals with the same panache as, again, M-G-M, Hello, Frisco Hello is diverting, colorful, and lighthearted. It’s an enjoyable picture of a time that’s gone by, and sports a lot of classic pieces from the Great American Songbook as well as newer standards.
Coming up next month, we’ll have a new “Page To Screen” installment, plus four more blogathons:
For those who want to get in on these, here are the relevant links:
- Champagne For Lunch
- Pure Entertainment Preservation Society
- In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
- The Wonderful World of Cinema
There will also be a touch of horror in a few of October’s posts, but I’m not going to give anything away. Gotta love that element of surprise. Thanks for reading, and see you next week! 😉
This film is available on Amazon.