Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 September 2016

American Fascism and the Mid-1930s

So I watched this Howard Hawks movie called Barbary Coast this morning. It is from 1935 and starred the great Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins was a big star by 1935 and was nominated as Best Actress in that year for a different film, an adaptation of Thackeray's Vanity Fair called Becky Sharp.

In any case, Barbary Coast is about a young woman who comes to San Francisco during the gold rush and finds her fiancé murdered when she gets off of the boat. But because the only reason she's come to California is for gold, she very quickly hooks herself up with her fiancé's murderer, the man who stole her man's gold in the first place. This evil gangster is Edward G. Robinson, of course, and he swaggers around town taking lives and insulting women and doing his best to make everyone simultaneously uncomfortable and obedient. (He is also earringed, pomaded, and given an Italian surname so that we clearly read him as a foreigner.)

Miriam Hopkins accidentally falls in love with a naive forty-niner played by Joel McCrea who quotes Shelley to her and talks about riding ponies in Grammercy Park.

Robinson is angry, of course, and tries to have him killed, but by this time the town has rebelled. Furious with the giant thumb under which the townsfolk have been living, they lynch one of Robinson's henchmen (Brian Donlevy) and then come after Robinson himself, rifles cocked at the ready. I am sure you can guess who wins out in the end. This is old-school melodrama, and everything works out as you'd expect.

This being Howard Hawks, this is very well made old-school melodrama, and the photography in particular is gorgeous. But what has sort of stuck in craw after having seen Barbary Coast is this group of townsfolk who wind up killing Donlevy (who is, after all, a murderer). They call themselves vigilantes, and a little note on this word will, perhaps, make sense of my discomfort. Vigilante comes from the Spanish, which makes perfect sense for a movie set in the 1840s in California, but the real rise in the use of this word in Anglophone literature happens at precisely the time when Barbary Coast is released – in 1935. Run your cursor over the graph below and you'll see what I mean.

It was the lawlessness with which law and order was restored to San Francisco in the film that bothered me so much. The men with the rifles were doing the right thing, of course. They were getting revenge for their murdered friends, and they were punishing a man who was hubristically killing anyone he pleased, and they were putting power back in the hands of the people, wresting it from a lawless, greedy gangster who had only his own interests at heart. But... if the film's title is supposed to be a reference to lawless barbarianism and the rule of the gun, I don't think this group of vigilantes restores law and order in any appreciable way. Rather, they simply underline the rule of the gun and maintain the lawlessness of the land, merely transferring the power of the gun to the "good guys" and wresting that power from the "gangster".

Ms. Hopkins Making the Most of It
What troubled me was that Barbary Coast seemed designed to incite this kind of violence, to ask USAmericans to take justice into their own hands. After all, if the law won't do it, who will? Why, we vigilantes, that's who! This wouldn't be so scary if this weren't 1935, a year not so far removed from the 1931-1932 trials of the Scottsboro defendants. 1935 – a year in which 2 white men and 18 black men were lynched (the last double-digit year for lynchings in the U.S.) and a year in which anticommunism had become rampant, as the the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities met in the House of Representatives under the leadership of John William McCormack and Samuel Dickstein. This decade would see a few men in the U.S. government all but completely shut down the progressive movement that comprised the Old Left.

Robinson Looks Up at the Lynched Donlevy
These vigilantes aren't a lynch-mob; far from it. They're a group of men who have a legitimate grievance, who feel slighted by the men in charge, who feel marginalized by a ruling class who are telling them what to do and stealing their money. And so they get a bunch of guns and they go kill a man. They do this dispassionately and deliberately, and they do it without any ethical quandary. Barbary Coast, too, attaches no ethical dilemma to the lynching of Donlevy. It is simply justice.

I would like to return briefly to the title. Barbary Coast is not a phrase historically used to describe California or San Francisco. The phrase was generally used in reference to the Amazighen or Berber people from the north coast of Africa – modern Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. (The Romans used the term barbar to describe foreigners, whose language all sounded like "bar-bar" to them.) And if Barbary Coast's lynching on the west coast of North America in the 1840s seems far removed from ancient North Africa, perhaps the unmentioned but – it seems to me – clearly disavowed possibility of lynching in the African Diaspora of the American South in the 1930s allows for the title's evocation of Africa to make a bit more sense. In a land of barbarians (Barbary was best known for its pirates and its slave-traders), in a land where the government cannot be counted on to mete out justice, red-blooded Americans (Barbary Coast seemed to me to say) need to take the law into their own hands: the precise opposite, in other words, of law and order.