director William A. Wellman
Frisco Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, among the remnants of the Barbary Coast. She’s a young girl in love (and “in the family way”) when the 1906 earthquake hits and devastates the city and more specifically, Jenny herself. Poverty and begging alongside the slum preachers isn’t feeding her baby, so Jenny turns to the oldest profession and her own self-reliance.
William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny is pre-code Hollywood telling stories that would soon be deemed to salacious or racy to be frankly depicted in the years to follow. Jenny creates an empire, initially through managing other prostitutes, but then other madams as well. Her sly and not altogether on the level attorney Steve Dutton gets her out of many a jam, but also sets her up to lose her child into a wealthy foster family, setting the stage for later tragedy.
The character of Jenny is self-reliant and self-made, despite the limitations available to her and her reality of her times. The film’s empathy lies with her. And it’s interesting to see how empty the promises of the preacher, and later the grandstanding and self-righteous district attorney, typical emblems of societal correctness, echo hollowly.