Flame of Barbary Coast (1945): Joseph Kane’s Oscar-Nominated Adventure, Starring John Wayne as Montana Cowboy in San Francisco

Before becoming a major star, John Wayne had appeared in many B-productions, such as Flame of Barbary Coast, a San-Francisco set tale, directed by Joseph Kane.

Flame of Barbary Coast
Flame of Barbary Coast FilmPoster.jpeg

Film poster

Wayne plays Duke Fergus (“Duke” was the actor’s nickname), a honest man competing with gambler Boss Tito Morell (played by Joseph Schildkraut, Oscar winner for “The Life of Emile Zola”) over the love of Ann “Flaxen” Tarry (Anne Dvorak).


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The setting, San Francisco circa 1906, contains the obligatory earthquake sequence, but there is no comparison with the far more impressive one in MGM’s picture of that title.

Wayne plays Duke Fergus, a Montana cowboy who arrives in the big city of San Francisco and what it has to offer to a country boy, including gambling and roulettes tables. He is helped by Flaxen Terry (Ann Dvorak), a singer who knows how the gambles wheels turn.

Terry is the fiancée of Tito Morell, the black sheep of the Nob Hill aristocracy, owner of a casino called El Dorado, and king of the notorious Barbary Coast. Tito becomes jealous of Duke and he cheats him out of winning, sending him back to the Montana ranges.

But Duke can’t forget Terry and so he returns to the Barbary Coast, asking the professional gambler Wolf Wylie (William Frawley) to teach him the tricks of the trade.

No longer the naïve cowboy, the Duke begins a winning streak that leads to setting up a rival gambling called the Silver Dollar, and persuading Terry to sing there.

Just like Jeanette MacDonald in “San Francisco,” whose singing coincided with the disaster, Terry sings, and at the end of her song, the tremors begins. The devastating earthquake destroys the Silver Dollar, and injures Terry. Helping her to recover, the Duke asks Terry to come with him to the wilderness of Montana.

“Flame of the Barbary Coast” was meant to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Republic studio, whose biggest star was John Wayne, going back to its beginnings, in 1935.

The action sequences were good, courtesy of Yakima Canutt.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

Tale begins when Duke, a naive Montana cowboy, arrives in the big city of San Francisco and visits the notorious Barbary Coast. Fergus becomes smitten with the lovely star of the fanciest gambling hall, “Flaxen” Tarry, the “Flame of the Barbary Coast”.  Talked into gambling against the owner (and Flaxen’s lover), card shark Tito Morell, Duke gets cheated and loses all his money.

Aiming to win Flaxen’s affections, he decides to take action and claim the place over. Duke asks friend Wolf Wylie to teach him everything about gambling, including how to spot cheating. When Duke’s ready, he sells all he owns and returns to the city to challenge Morell’s rule of the Barbary Coast.  Going from casino to casino, he challenges each resident poker champion to heads-up game.

Fergus then builds opulent new gambling that caters to the upper class.  He tries to persuade Flaxen to work for him, but she initially rejects the idea.  But when Morell offends her, she decides to accept Duke’s offer.

On opening night, Morell challenges Fergus and win back Flaxen, but then the great earthquake hits, leaving Duke’s and Morell’s businesses destroyed, and Flaxen injured. The town rebuilds and Duke helps Flaxen to recover.

When both Duke and Morell run for mayor, the former catches Morell’s men trying to rig the election. Taking the populist road, Duke asks the people to decide in favor of returning to Montana to marry Flaxen while Morell keeps his business and influence.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Sound: Daniel J. Bloomberg
Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Dale Butts and Morton Scott

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Sound Oscar was Stephen Dunn for Leo McCarey’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s, and the Scoring Award to Miklos Rozsa for Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated thriller “Spellbound.”


If you want to know more about John Wayne’s Career and life, please read:


John Wayne as Duke Fergus
Ann Dvorak as Ann “Flaxen” Tarry
Joseph Schildkraut as Boss Tito Morell
William Frawley as Wolf Wylie
Virginia Grey as Rita Dane
Russell Hicks as Cyrus Danver
Jack Norton as Byline Conners
Paul Fix as Calico Jim
Manart Kippen as Dr. Gorman
Eve Lynne as Martha
Marc Lawrence as Joe Disko
Butterfly McQueen as Beulah
Rex Lease as Collingswood
Hank Bell as Hank
Al Murphy as Horseshoe Brown


Directed by Joseph Kane
Written by Prescott Chaplin
Screenplay by Borden Chase
Music by R. Dale Butts; Morton Scott and Mort Glickman (uncredited)

Cinematography Robert De Grasse
Edited by Richard L. Van Enger

Production and distribution: Republic Pictures

Release date: May 28, 1945

Running time: 91 minutes