Frisco Jenny (1933): Pre-Code Melodrama of a Madam Played by Oscar Nominee Ruth Chatterton

Strong acting by Ruth Chatterton in the titular role and sharp direction by William Wellman elevate Frisco Jenny, a Pre-Code melodrama about a young woman, who becomes pregnant out of the wedlock.

In 1906 San Francisco, Frisco Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton), a denizen of the notorious Tenderloin district, wants to marry piano player Dan McAllister (James Murray), but her saloonkeeper father Jim (Robert Emmett O’Connor) is against it.  After an earthquake, which kills both men, Jenny gives birth to a son, whom she names Dan.

With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), who also came from poor background, she sets herself up in the vice trade as a successful madam. Jenny has one loyal friend, the Chinese Amah (Helen Jerome Eddy), who helps her take care of the baby.

At a party, Steve catches gambler Ed Harris (J. Carrol Naish) cheating in a back room. In the ensuing struggle, Steve kills him, with Jenny the only eyewitness. As the pair is unable to dispose of the body before it’s found, they are questioned by the police, but neither is charged. The scandal forces Jenny to give up her baby to a respectable couple in order to keep the child from being taken away.

Three years later, she tries to take her son back, but the boy clings to the only mother he can remember, so she leaves him there.  The boy attends Stanford University, where he becomes a football star and graduates with honors. Rising quickly, he becomes a lawyer and then assistant district attorney, while Jenny lovingly and adoringly follows his success; she clips every newspaper article about him. Meanwhile, she takes over the vice and bootlegging in the city.

When Dan runs for district attorney, his opponent is Tom Ford (Edwin Maxwell), who does Jenny’s bidding. Against her best interests, she frames Ford so that Dan can win.

When Steve tries to bribe Dan to free some of his men, he is arrested by him. Out on bail, Steve asks Jenny to blackmail Dan into dropping the charges, but she refuses to jeopardize her son’s future. When Steve threatens to reveal that Jenny is Dan’s real mother, she shoots and kills him in cold blood at Dan’s office.

Arrested, she is prosecuted by Dan, who claims “this woman has no redeeming features in her life or character.” Stubbornly refusing to defend herself, Jenny is condemned to death by hanging. Amah pleads with her to tell Dan the truth: “You gave him life and he gave you death.” But when Dan comes to see her, and find out “the vital information” that Steve began to murmur on his death, Jenny remains proudly silent—the ultimate self-sacrificing mother.



Ruth Chatterton as Frisco Jenny Sandoval

Louis Calhern as Steve Dutton

Helen Jerome Eddy as Amah

Donald Cook as Dan Reynolds

James Murray as Dan McAllister

Hallam Cooley as Willie Gleason

Pat O’Malley as Policeman Pat O’Hoolihan

Harold Huber as George Weaver

Robert Emmett O’Connor as Jim Sandoval

Willard Robertson as Police Captain Tom



Running time: 70 minutes.