Directed by Joseph Kane
Written by Borden Chase
What could be more perfect, or more quintessential, than John Wayne and poker? It seems like the Duke himself is/was the definition of manliness, for better or worse. We can relitigate what his persona signifies by today’s standards, but that’s another conversation for another time. But what I can say is that from a movie star perspective, Wayne was one of the best to ever do it. He has such a charisma and demand of the screen, that no viewer can take their eyes off of him whenever he appears in a scene. This is the type of personality and on-screen persona that attracted so many to the game of poker during the poker boom. We couldn’t take our eyes away from Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, etc. What could be more iconic and indicative of this than Sammy Farha with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth? They were larger than life personas with charisma to spare. Plus, the game in general has had such a macho association to it, being largely a male dominated game (I hope we get a chance during this marathon to touch on women in poker). So again, what could be more perfect than John Wayne and poker?
Fergus (John Wayne) is a seemingly simple Montana ranch hand, who happens to be visiting turn-of-the-century San Francisco in order to settle a debt. But when he runs into Flaxen (Ann Dvorak), who is the star attraction of the fanciest gambling hall in the San Fran red light district of Barbary Coast, he can’t imagine leaving without her, even as gambling hall head honcho and card sharp Tito (Joseph Schildkraut) is her current beau. Fighting for the heart of Flaxen, the two square off in a gambling bout, where Fergus is cheated. But his love unquenched, Fergus goes away to learn how to gamble, and comes back for both revenge and the love of Flaxen as the famed San Francisco earthquake looms.
As a film, Flame of Barbary Coast is just fine, not very strong, and probably one of the least of the films of John Wayne I’ve seen. The thing about Wayne is that even in a bad western, he elevates the material, making it an enjoyable watch in some respect. This film is similar in that it’s not the greatest, but Wayne is so fun to watch, even if not as magnetic as he is on horseback, toting a gun. What I struggled most about this film was the stakes. While there are some rather large stakes, monetarily and otherwise, I found the character motivations to be entirely too thin to get invested in the outcome of the story, in particular Fergus himself. Fergus is just a man from Montana, and that is just about the extent of our knowledge of him. Even when he loses everything and must return with his tail between his legs, all we get is a friendship with the man who teaches him how to gamble. As a result, while the rough-and-ready premise of the film is fun on the surface, it fails to go any deeper and make any lasting impression as a result. Also fairy perplexing that the casino owners, and specifically Tito, end up letting Fergus get away with everything he manages to do: make loads of money, “steal” Flaxen away from Tito, and start his own competing gambling hall. Another unique aspect of the film is the music, as the film actually features a number of extended musical numbers, so I guess this is also a musical? While those sequences are entertaining, they also seem somewhat out of place of the rest of the film. And the music score is also a little slapsticky and on-the-nose in its composition, which is really a turn off for a film that should be dramatic and serious. I’m not sure all things considered that the tone of the film is really captured very well, which contributes to the lack of success of the film.
I was also rather disappointed once again with how poker was portrayed in the film in general. Of course, this is always the risk I run picking movies I’ve never seen before, but the game is rarely featured. Of course, gambling in a larger sense is the theme of the film, so we get to see Fergus try his hand at craps, roulette, and a number of other casino games in addition to the no-limit stud poker game where Tito cleans him out, and eventually that he gets his first revenge on Tito when he returns. So the poker we do get to see is yet another representation of the game as crooked, and infested with cheats, as it is the only way to win. There is certainly no skill involved. Hopefully we will see the representation of the game start to turn around a little bit in the coming films. However, we do get treated to one of the most trademark features of gambling movies, and that is the “run it up” montage, where we get to see our main character go from game to game, casino to casino, and just keep winning, turning his $500 into thousands in the course of the night. I’m not sure whether this is the first of its kind, but it might be, and its certainly an early example of the now well-established trope.
I wonder whether Wayne himself was an avid poker player. I have heard stories of early Hollywood stars being big time poker players, but I do not know specifically about Wayne himself. As I discussed in my opening, I think the pair is perfectly suited to be together, but what a disappointment it would be to find out that Wayne did not play poker. I certainly haven’t been a John Wayne completist in terms of watching all of his films, but even in his westerns I can’t specifically recall his characters playing the game. Flame of the Barbary Coast does very little to remedy this seemingly glaring omission in his career arc. And the film itself is mostly a novelty item with very little to attract repeat viewings. I will say, the earthquake sequence near the end of the film is top notch, with thrilling editing and rather impressive special effects works, especially given the film is from 1945.
To reiterate, there is not very much poker featured in this film, but what is shown is the game of Five Card Stud, which has been featured already in this marathon. At risk of repeating myself, I won’t go over every detail again, but essentially, players are dealt one card down, and the other four face up for everyone to see, with betting in between each card, and the best five card hand winning. While we do not get a chance to watch the first game between Fergus and Tito, which essentially wipes out all of his winnings and more, sending him away from Barbary Coast back to Montana, we do get to see one partial hand in the follow-up revenge match, so that’s all we have to go on.
The game as mentioned is Five Card Stud, the stake is $10k each, which has ironically become the standard buy-in for contemporary prestigious poker tournaments, largely thanks to the precedent set by the inaugural World Series of Poker Main Event, the most famous tournament in the world. And while it has been 50 years since that first tournament, the buy-in has remained constant.
We pick up this hand on the river, or final card of the hand, so we don’t have a sense of how the action has gone, or how much money is in the pot. Tito is showing 444Q, for three of a kind. Fergus is showing K77K, for two pair. But of course the key to any five card stud hand is what each player holds in the hole. We do get a peak courtesy of a POV from Flaxen, who is watching the game. Duke holds the case (or final) 4 as his down card for KK774, or two pair as his final hand, not good enough to beat Tito’s three of kind.
Despite this, he responds to Tito betting with a call….and a raise! Kids, this is what is called a “string bet”, which means that after either declaring a call verbally, or putting calling chips on the table, you continue to then also raise. This type of bet is actually illegal in current card rooms and casinos, and for good reason. You see this type of bet a lot in the movies, as a sudden shock moment, “Oh my, he’s not just calling, but he’s raising!” But the reasoning behind this being illegal/frowned upon is it allows the bettor an opportunity to see how the opponent reacts to their initial call. You could easily announce call, then watch your opponent react before deciding whether you want to also raise or not. This added information is deemed to be not gained fairly and therefore illegal. But it is a nice dramatic way to show a raise in media.
This raise, which I suppose is justified because not only does Fergus know he is beat, meaning the only way he can win the pot is to bluff Tito off of it, but the 4 is also a “blocker” to Tito having an even better hand. While this is a small factor, it’s important to note that if Fergus has the other 4, there is no way that Tito can have it, which means the best hand he can have is a Full House, with 4s full of Qs, whereas Fergus can easily represent that, even if Tito has the full house, Fergus’ is better, with either 7s full of Ks or vice versa. However, when a string of raises ends in the hand being all-in and Fergus calling Tito’s final bet, we are left to wonder why, knowing that he is beat. However, at showdown we see that Fergus flips over a King, to show KKK77 for a Full House, while Tito is left with just the trip 4s.
So the question comes down to this: did Fergus cheat, or was he deceiving Flaxen? And I guess a follow on question is: is there a difference? I’d like to think that he managed to flash the four, in hopes that Flaxen was working with Tito trying to bust him, so the misinformation worked as misdirection and he legitimately had the King all along. The alternative is simply that he was cheating, but later on in his run we see him accuse a fellow player of cheating and not taking too kindly to it, so in my eyes, this accusation is an indication of innocence on Fergus’ part. However, is the deceit just as damning, or was he justified, knowing Tito cheated him the first time the pair played? I think it’s a very delicate question, which leaves the depiction of poker in this film somewhere in the gray area.
On one hand, it shows cheating, but also condemns it. On the other, depending how you interpret the above scene/hand, Flame of Barbary Coast makes a strong argument that poker is a game of skill. Fergus outplays Tito, largely by sitting down and studying, learning how to become better. If there is some truth to this, that if you spend time you can become better, then there is evidence that skill is involved, and an edge can be gained in the game. Given this perspective, and it’s the one I choose to subscribe to in this case, I think poker in movies takes a leap, albeit a muted one, leap forward with this film.