In her early films at Warner Bros, Bette Davis is like a dynamo or a ball of fire, bursting across the screen: Fog Over Frisco, Petrified Forrest, It’s Love I’m After, Marked Woman. I wonder if it’s because she had so much pent up energy owing to the lack of meaty roles to sink her teeth into. Or perhaps it’s her youthful ambition and drive coming through. Whatever it is, she positively crackles in the early and mid-thirties.
One such film is Fog Over Frisco, a zippy crime drama (and I do mean zippy; it’s only 68 minutes long), where Bette Davis plays a beautiful socialite, blithely mixed up with gangsters and illicit affairs. She lasts about twenty-five minutes, but she’s the one who makes the story go.
Arlene Bradford (Bette Davis) is a notorious party girl who has just become engaged to Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot) and has supposedly calmed down from her wayward days. Her step-father, Mr. Bradford, (Arthur Byron), doesn’t believe it, while Arlene’s step-sister, Val (Margaret Lindsay) sticks up for her. But Arlene has not reformed and is working with the criminal Jake Bellos (Irving Pichel), who steals bank securities and passes them to Arlene to dispose of. She gives them to Spencer, who works at her step-father’s bank, and he gives her cash and then bit by bit disposes of them. He’s not happy about it, but Arlene has him wound around her finger.
But when her mysterious lover comes into the picture, she returns her engagement ring to Spencer, gives the gangsters the heave-ho and plans to run off with the man she really loves…except he doesn’t love her anymore and wants his love letters back. Meanwhile, to add to the list of future suspects, Mr. Bradford has discovered what Spencer has been doing for Arlene and blames her for the whole mess and the scandal that could envelope the bank, saying she ought to be shot. On cue, Arlene goes missing, but the only person who initially seems interested in looking for her is Val, until she gets abducted. There is also an assortment of newspapermen, policemen and one very nosy butler (suspiciously knowledgeable about things) and bank executives (including Douglass Dumbrille) who end up circling the case. All in 68 minutes! It’s a fun ride.
Everyone has an angle in this film, except loyal Val. Policemen (led Alan Hale) are interested in the missing securities and the gang responsible for stealing them. The gangsters, of course, have their own angle; the mystery lover has his. The newspapermen (led by Hugh Herbert and William Demarest) are out only for a good story. Even Val’s would-be boyfriend, Tony Sterling (Donald Woods), puts a good scoop over helping Val, which leads to Val getting abducted. The bank executives are mostly worried about the potential scandal for the bank and even Mr. Bradford, who ends up being right about Arlene, is not hugely sympathetic. As the daughter of the woman who ran out on him, it’s clear that he considers Arlene to be just like her mother (though he may have a point) and not really his own daughter. Only Val remains truly sympathetic and loyal.
Margaret Lindsay made at least four films with Bette Davis: Jezebel, Bordertown, Dangerous, and Fog Over Frisco (there might be more I’m unaware of). She clearly doesn’t have the zip and sparkle that Bette Davis brings to the screen, but it’s always a pleasure to see her in a film, especially in this one, where she is the only one with purely good motivations.
My one criticism is that the film ends too quickly. Everything is wound up at a breathless pace, which is perhaps understandable given the pace of the film, but it still could have used a few extra minutes to let us – and the characters – absorb everything.
Fog Over Frisco came just before Of Human Bondage and Bette Davis supposedly accepted the role of Arlene to show Jack Warner she was “a team player” to convince him to lend her to RKO so she could play Mildred. Fog Over Frisco is also the first film where she worked with Tony Gaudio as cinematographer and she always had happy memories of making this film, even if she does get killed off before the movie is half over. But she appears to be relishing the role of an amoral socialite who gets a thrill from fooling the police and getting her own way. When she visits Spencer and shows him the securities in her purse and his response is “Not again!” there’s a gleam in her eye and you know there’s going to be trouble.