In 1906, Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was working in a saloon in San Francisco with her father Jim, the owner, and her boyfriend Dan McAllister (James Murray), the piano player. Jenny and Dan are ready to get married, but Jim isn’t happy about it at all. As Jenny argues with her father over their decision, the big earthquake of 1906 strikes and both Jim and Dan are killed. Having no one else to turn to, Jenny makes friends with a Chinese woman named Amah. We soon find out the reason why Jenny and Dan were in a rush to get married: she was going to have a baby. Amah helps Jenny take care of her baby, also named Dan, but when Jenny has no money to buy food for Dan, she has to take drastic action. With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), she starts her own brothel. One night, Jenny and her girls are at a party and Steve and a man named Ed Harris are doing some gambling in another room. Steve catches Ed cheating and Jenny walks in just in time to see Steve shoot Ed. Jenny tries to cover for Ed, but she still gets arrested. When Steve gets her out of jail, she finds out that Dan will be taken away from her because of the whole mess. Rather than have Dan taken away, Steve arranges for Dan to be given up to a nice, respectable family.
Jenny never stops caring for Dan and watches him grow up from afar. She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about him and eventually he grows up to run for District Attorney (adult Dan played by Donald Cook). However, since Jenny is still running her brothel and has also taken up bootlegging, Dan’s opponent would act more in her best interest. But Jenny still wants to see Dan win and even orchestrates a scandal for his opponent so he’ll drop out of the race. Once Dan is officially District Attorney, his first order of business is to put Steve and Jenny out of business. Steve, desperate to stay out of jail, goes to tell Dan the truth about who his mother is. But not wanting to ruin Dan’s career, Jenny shoots Steve before he can tell Dan the truth. Jenny is put on trial and her own son sends her to death row.
Ruth Chatterton is another one of those great actresses from the pre-code era who is sadly underrated today. Even though Frisco Jenny is quite similar to Ruth’s earlier movie Madame X, which earned her an Oscar nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting movie. Ruth Chatterton once again brought her “A” game and made Jenny very likable and sympathetic, especially in her final scene where she agonizes over whether or not to finally tell Dan that she is his mother. Ruth got some good help from Louis Calhern, who did a good job of playing smarmy, and director William Wellman. The movie was entertaining, but as I said, the story’s been done before. But ultimately, it’s got some good performances and it’s only about 70 minutes long, so I’m willing to forgive the unoriginal story. I’ll gladly re-watch it just because I liked Ruth Chatterton in it so much.