San Francisco (1936)

I had always thought of 1936’s San Francisco as the ultimate early studio disaster movie I hadn’t seen yet, with then-groundbreaking effects dominating the film. Actually, the amount of film covering the devastating 1906 earthquake is relatively small, but the effects are so good and so shocking within the context of the film that the impact of them far outweighs their time on the screen.

For most of its 115 minutes, San Francisco is a generally unbelievable struggle of good vs. evil, classical music vs. modern music, and love vs. exploitation. It stars Clark Gable well on his way to becoming the “King of Hollywood,” soprano Jeanette MacDonald at her height of popularity, and Spencer Tracy right before his back-to-back Oscars for his films in 1937 and ’38. In fact, this film gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor (Paul Muni won that year for The Story of Louis Pasteur), though the case can be made that he should have been nominated in the new Best Supporting Actor category. But his effect on the film is strong. He’s playing a priest and long-time friend of Gable’s Blackie Norton; Tracy supplies a firm strong sense of morality throughout when others are either wavering ethically or simply choosing to be the bad guys (e.g., Norton), and his presence is onscreen even when he isn’t.

MacDonald’s Mary Blake is a classically trained singer trying to make it on the Barbary Coast in 1906. She secures a gig with Blackie Norton (Gable) at his house of gambling and drinking, the ironically named Paradise. There is a back-and-forth with Blake singing Norton’s kind of dance hall music, and a wealthy socialite and an opera empresario drawing her back to classical roots. Mary and Blackie inexplicably fall in love, and Mary later just as inexplicably falls for the wealthy socialite. Most of this is sheer hooey, as is the idea of MacDonald singing in a modern-day saloon.

This all leaves plenty of opportunity, however, for a half-dozen performances of “The Theme from San Francisco” (a.k.a., simply “San Francisco”) an earworm before there were earworms. The song is sung with every possible musical approach, including the rousing crowd anthem version with MacDonald going to town with an operatic descant that creates an aural combination that perhaps ought not to be. (The cynic in me wonders if the combination of the crowd performance of the title song combined with the aria-like descant is what actually caused the earthquake, which happens right after.)

The song gets in your head quickly and was so familiar to me that I has assumed that it had been written about the city before this film. But no, it was written for the film, and has become one of two of the city’s great anthems—the other being “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. I also assumed that such a popular and singable song might have won Best Song at the Oscars, yet it wasn’t even nominated. That’s understandable, however, when you learn that three of the nominees included “The Way You Look Tonight” (Swing Time), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance), and “Pennies from Heaven” from the film of the same name. (“The Way You Look Tonight” was the winner.)

Note on MacDonald: She isn’t my favorite movie soprano. She has the rather “hooty” sound of some classically trained sopranos that covers the sound they’re producing and makes the words take a back seat. (In contrast, my wife has the same vocal range as MacDonald, but has a clear, almost “pop” sound, even on her high notes; that’s a sound I’ve come to prefer.) MacDonald sounds like she had come to film from opera, but the opposite trajectory was true. After her film career, she seriously pursued, with some success, a genuine operatic career. MacDonald does better with another song composed for the film. It’s “Would You?”, which musical lovers will remember from 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. I had thought that Singin’ had tried to stick to the numbers written around the time of the earliest talkies, with “Beautiful Girl” from a few years later being the exception. Seems that “Would You?” Is indeed the biggest outlier.

In terms of acting, Tracy is the standout, and it’s not hard to see why he snagged a nomination. But the film really belongs to the two leads. MacDonald was a bit out of her element; she was better in smarter, sharper roles, like those with Maurice Chevalier. She’s not lost here, and she gives it her all, but her character is slightly unrealistic, and she is asking the viewer to believe things most simply won’t if they gave it any thought. Having just seen Gable (and Crawford) in Dancing Lady (, where I was pleasantly surprised by Gable’s range and depth, I was disappointed to see a more two-dimensional performance here. It’s a meaty role, but not as fleshed out as it could have been.

Note on Gable: It’s understood that many, many films are going to do their best to highlight the physical attributes of their stars, and certainly in the studio era, those stars were mostly female (see the poster above for the film’s attempt to do that with MacDonald). I grew up learning that Gable was “what women wanted, and men wanted to be.” But I hadn’t realized how often Gable was presented physically. In Dancing Lady, there is a gratuitous scene in a gym that shows off his muscles. In San Francisco, he’s put in a boxing ring with little more than a Speedo. There is a small attempt to connect those scenes to their films’ plots, but the goal of the scenes is obvious.

Part of the problem between Gable and MacDonald is that the leads have no real chemistry (see Dancing Lady again for an example of chemistry). Their characters would likely never have fallen for each other; only as cinematic stars and leads is this possible. Not outwardly visible is another possible reason: these two actors didn’t like each other, and had no relationship when the cameras stopped. Gable apparently did some rather immature things to signal his dislike, such as eating garlic before love scenes. You can’t see the mutual aversion on the screen, and it’s to the two actors’ credit. But there is no real connection.

The earthquake scene is justifiably famous, and should have garnered some kind of award. For the time, it was certainly state-of-the-art, and even today it can be jarring. Having recently seen a documentary on the earthquake and its attendant fires, I realized that the film nails the key components of the quake, and gives the viewer a surprisingly accurate experience. You can see it here:

Once the earthquake sequence is done, the film goes from heavy melodrama to positively surreal. Gable/Norton looks for (and of course eventually finds) Mary/MacDonald, a man conveniently dies, and when Norton finds Mary, the film gets downright strange. The situation he finds her in is rather unusual to modern eyes and ears, and then the film ends with what is supposed to be a stirring expression of hope by, apparently, all the survivors. It’s probably important to remember that this film came only 30 years after the earthquake, and there were likely millions of viewers who remembered it, and thousands who experienced it. San Francisco had rebuilt itself in those 30 years, and the film (spoiler alert) ends with a modern (i.e., 1936) image.

An M-G-M production, the film has the requisite gloss of the studio, as well as the stars acting like stars as much if not more than their characters. Part of me would have loved to see what Warner Brothers might have done to it—adding an edge and getting down and gritty in a more realistic way. But clearly any film attempting to convince us that Gable and MacDonald are a believable pair is clearly going to try and distract us with energy (check), a believable supporting performance (check), and a plot that leads to a well-done demonstration of state-of-the-art special effects (double check). The film is a strange amalgamation of high- and low-brow, and pretty much everything aside from the earthquake sequence can’t be taken seriously. The parts never really gel, but as an example of M-G-M at its height, and a platform for two major stars who would never get together in or out of a movie, it’s fascinating.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 48+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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