MGM’s glamour factory hit heights of grandeur with this nostalgic disaster spectacle, which retains its power even as its pious sentimentality runs amuck. We don’t believe the characters but we believe the STARS: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy succeed with sheer personality. Best of all are the sensational special effects featuring the highly cinematic earthquake montage by Slavko Vorkapich and John Hoffman.
Warner Archive Collection
1936 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 115 min. / Street Date February 16, 2021 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt, Jessie Ralph, Ted Healy, Shirley Ross, Edgar Kennedy, Warren Hymer, Gertrude Astor, Vince Barnett, Tom Dugan, D.W. Griffith, James Murray, Robert J. Wilke.
Montages: Slavko Vorkapich, John Hoffman
Special Effects: James Basevi, Russell A. Cully, A. Arnold Gillespie, Loyal Griggs
Film Editor: Tom Held
Songs: Bronislau Kaper & Walter Jurmann (music), Gus Kahn (lyrics), Nacio Herb Brown
Written by Anita Loos from a story by Robert Hopkins
Produced by John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
A big hit and a nominee for Best Picture, San Francisco displays both the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in the Golden Era. As a star vehicle for Clark Gable it can’t be bettered; Anita Loos’ convoluted story gives his Blackie Norton a spiritual redemption via a spectacular natural disaster. Barbary Coast singer Jeanette McDonald isn’t the specific disaster we’re thinking of, but she has an equal effect on his destiny.
The movie also features one of film theoretician Slavko Vorkapich’s most famous montage sequences, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The well-heeled Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) is the proud owner of the Paradise, a wide-open show club on the anything-goes Barbary Coast. Contradicting his bad-sheep reputation, Blackie secretly siphons money to the charitable work of his old pal Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), who preaches that the Coast is in need of cleaning up. Blackie wants a real fire department and building codes, and endangers his business to run for public office. Singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) dazzles Blackie with her voice and her looks. But she doesn’t fall for his fast moves, which initiates a rivalry between Blackie and Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a wealthy opposing politician from Nob Hill. Mary’s voice obviously belongs in the opera but Blackie wants to control her life on and off the stage. Also keeping Mary at arm’s length is Blackie’s rejection of God and religion. The situation is at a standstill until the fateful great earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906.
San Francisco may be a ‘disaster’ film but it doesn’t fit the pattern popularized by the likes of later Irwin Allen shows like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno: it’s not a stack of soap opera sub-plots for an ensemble cast. Most of the story is a musical romance in a period setting. For many viewers the last-act arrival of the historic quake comes as a big surprise.
The movie is an ode to the City by the Bay — note that the title isn’t ‘Earthquake.’ In one scene a Paradise patron is given the Bum’s Rush just because he says he’s from Los Angeles, a gag that Eddie Muller would surely appreciate. The show did so well, Fox copied its formula for its disaster-related period epic In Old Chicago (1937).
The unapologetically sentimental San Francisco represents the studio system at the top of its form. The star-driven conflicts are pitched at top dramatic volume, to match the awesome violence of the disaster. It’s all confection and artifice yet the committed performances make it work. This is quality corny-sweet old movie nostalgia. It’s easy to become misty-eyed at the conclusion.
MGM tailored most of Clark Gable’s roles to his star personality, and his Blackie Norton is no stretch. The dapper rake is charismatic and attractive even when behaving like a skunk. Even though he’s the prince of the corrupt Barbary Coast, Blackie is an ‘innocent’ cad; when Mary rejects his crude advances his shock is sincere. He’s also more civic-minded than the hoity-toity swells on Nob Hill. He values his best pal Father Mullin, yet insists that the Church is a racket for ‘suckers.’ The script has Blackie grossly overstate his rejection of ‘phony religious garbage,’ thereby insuring that his third-act repentance is a show-stopper. The moral is that only God can give us a moral compass.
It’s also easy to peg Blackie Norton as an idealized version of a studio mogul. The plot hangs on his frustrated negotiations to keep and control a ‘star,’ even though he’s stifling her future in a higher class of entertainment. Blackie displays Mary in a risqué stage costume as if trying to rid her of her high-toned notions. Blackie takes part in a fancy-dress gala at which the various clubs choose a winner for the most talented entertainers — sort of Barbary Coast version of the Oscars. No doubt Louis B. Mayer loved the story pitch for this show — the hero who gets the girl is a show-biz vulgarian, and fancy singing takes the place of sex scenes. The Production Code wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ll bet that Mayer also physically identified with Clark Gable — he fancied himself as the lover of his female stars as well as their boss. He doted on the classy singers in the fancy costume operettas that were MGM’s notion of higher artistic values.
Although made the butt of jokes for her operetta movies, Jeanette MacDonald was always quite good. She wasn’t always cast as virginal — in her pre-Code Lubitsch and Mamoulian musicals her pure-hearted thrushes show a passionate side, an in her MGM’s pre-Code The Cat and The Fiddle she lives with a lover out of wedlock. In this movie her Mary Blake won’t be corrupted — she won’t jazz up her singing style until Blackie is in trouble, and then her voice inspires the unwashed rabble with worthy social ideals. Mary’s singing bridges the gap between Nob Hill, the Paradise and a church choir. It’s MGM’s idea of perfect social harmony. The common ‘little people’ don’t need to resent the rich: Mrs. Burley (Jessie Ralph) proves to Mary that rich people are just like us, only with a lot of money!
This was Spencer Tracy’s third MGM picture since leaving Fox, and he earned an Oscar nomination for his relatively brief performance. It consists mostly of posing with kind eyes and noble understanding. Tracy gravitated toward dead-cinch sentimental roles more often than demanding ones, and his tough-guy priests are fanciful theatrical fakes. His Father Flanagan in Boys Town comes across as a less of a charity saint than a manipulating arm-twister. San Francisco’s Father Mullin seems overly preoccupied with Blackie’s spiritual destiny, and is also a devious meddler. Mullin first pushes Mary at Blackie. Then he tries to pull them apart, forbidding this and that … apparently nothing’s allowed to happen without his approval. Mullin gets so heated up about all the sinning that’s going down, we’d almost believe that he prayed for the earthquake to teach the Barbary Coast and Blackie a lesson. When Blackie throws a punch at him, Father Mullins is given a saintly martyr’s close-up.
Everybody has a personal connection to God in this ‘show biz’ glamorization of faith. Mary’s voice magically makes Mullin’s mass more spiritual. The dramatic high point is Blackie Norton’s big conversion scene. There’s nothing wrong with that, as surviving a disaster no doubt moves many to pray — but the movie confects to have Blackie humble himself within eyesight of Mary. His contrition leads directly to a romantic reunion… with a song, of course. The heightened sanctimony must have inspired some emotional story confabs in Louis B. Mayer’s office: “Have Jeanette singing with the survivors, clutching orphaned children! Let her song bless the injured being carried into the surgeon’s tent!” Mary’s voice is equated with spiritual bliss: she hits notes perfectly because her soul is pure.
By 1935 all of the big studios had big effects departments with specialized staff and equipment. MGM backs its star performers with vast sets and large-scale physical effects, but clever opticals add much of the spectacle. The pre-quake city is created with paintings but also beautifully crafted large-scale miniatures, such as the Burley’s Nob Hill mansion. Primitive traveling matte work combines crowds with miniatures and puts patrons into the balconies of a painted opera house interior. The show begins with an impressive fire scene, but the extended earthquake sequence is one of the best of its kind. Full-scale crumbling ‘shaker’ sets are augmented with ‘breakdown’ miniatures, rear projection and matte paintings.
The overall design is by Slavko Vorkapich, a specialist in semi-abstract montages, with the editor John Hoffman utilizing cutting techniques usually seen in Avant-garde films. Many of the destruction and jeopardy effects are editing illusions that suggest jarring violence despite showing little actual trauma. When shots of falling bricks and masonry are juxtaposed with faces looking up in terror, pure visual association causes us to imagine people and horses being buried or crushed. One simple camera tilt-up imparts the sensation that a statue is tipping over, onto our heads. Impressionistic blur-cuts of falling stones and dust put us into the action. The brilliant filmmaking imparts the feeling of wholesale chaos and desperate panic.
This was Vorkapich’s breakout job for MGM. Only montage editor John Hoffman received screen credit, an oversight that was immediately corrected for MGM’s next montage-heavy spectacular The Good Earth. The two collaborated numerous times. Vorkapich was on the faculty of USC for years; he later toured with a lecture + film excerpt series, enthusiastically teaching the difference between mere moving pictures and his theory of real cinema. He brought his program to UCLA just a few years before he died, and filled Melnitz Hall for five or six nights. A startling sample of Vorkapich’s more abstract work is the ‘Furies’ prologue for Crime Without Passion (1934), which is available uncut on the 2005 DVD compilation Unseen Cinema.
Director W.S Van Dyke paces the quake’s aftermath with great finesse. Blackie Norton wanders in a daze, overwhelmed by the scale of death and suffering; as strangers are reunited with their loved ones he realizes how desperate he is to find Mary. We’re well prepared for his religious conversion. Of course, Father Mullin’s halo shines brighter than ever. The fine direction and Clark Gable’s performance prevent the show from becoming mawkish or cloying. Frankly, I think Gable merited the nomination, not Spencer Tracy.
MGM’s screenplay also pitches San Francisco as uplifting social propaganda, MGM- style. The finale celebrates the national spirit, which rebuilt the city and can conquer the Depression. Music and prayer erase all social and economic divides — it’s forgotten that rich Jack Burley was using his influence to put Blackie Norton out of business. When the call goes out that the fires are extinguished, the editing mimics examples seen in Soviet films and leftist American work, like King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread. This montage was likely Hoffman & Vorkapich’s work as well. A mass of beaming faces advances downhill — men, women, European and Asian immigrants — in a glorious parade of humanity. “We’ll build a NEW San Francisco!” someone shouts, as if the cement mixers and lumber were already on their way. You can bet that the reality of reconstruction in San Francisco wasn’t quite the collectivist effort championed here. As in any disaster, the uprooted common citizens probably had little say in what the new city would be like.
San Francisco has a fine supporting cast. Harold Huber is Blackie’s thoughtful second-in-command. Comic Ted Healy appears as an entertainer, without his Three Stooges. He’d be dead one year later, but only after making eight more movies. Jessie Ralph’s rich widow entreats Mary to wed the dull Jack Holt, and bring fresh blood to her proud family. Shirley Ross has the thankless role of Gable’s previous squeeze, but would find immortality two years later singing Thanks for the Memories with Bob Hope in The Big Broadcast of 1938. The famous D.W. Griffith did some second-unit directing and appears in one scene as an orchestra conductor. The picture won an Oscar for best sound, and was nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Tracy), Director, and Writing. Assistant Directors were also being awarded in 1936, and San Francisco’s Joseph M. Newman received a nomination. We know him as the director of 711 Ocean Drive, Abandoned and This Island Earth.
William Wellman’s 1932 Frisco Jenny staged a brief but terrific earthquake sequence. San Franciso would later suffer radioactive annihilation in On the Beach and an assault by a giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea. A monster quake and a giant tsunami struck in Dwayne Johnson’s 2015 San Andreas, with an orgy of CGI effects. At a loss to invent a single original idea or moment, the screenplay actually has a survivor shout, “We’ll build a NEW San Francisco!”
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of San Francisco is a beauty. The image betters by far Warners’ (2006) DVD — no more image damage, smoother transitions, and a clarity that rewards close examination. Around 1936 or ’37 new and improved film stocks yielded sharper prints with finer grain, making opticals and other effects look much better. Jeanette MacDonald’s songs are crystal clear and the rumble-rama Oscar-winning sound mix for the earthquake scene holds up well. Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann’s title song is repeated perhaps once too often but it’s so good that we’re surprised it wasn’t adopted by the city. The other music is from Gounod’s Faust, along with various period-appropriate tunes. Ms. MacDonald sings here almost as often as she does in her operettas. Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed’s song ‘Would You?’ was written for this movie but is of course better remembered from its re-use in Singin’ in the Rain.
The extras duplicate the selection offered on the earlier DVD, starting with the original trailer. Susan F. Walker’s 1996 Clark Gable docu Tall, Dark and Handsome, hosted by Liam Neeson, is a good introduction to The King of Hollywood. Featurettes include two Fitzpatrick Traveltalks and a color cartoon called Bottles. They do not appear to be remastered in HD.
The feature presentation is now restored with the original extended ending montage celebrating San Francisco of 1936, an entirely rebuilt city. Perhaps the sequence was dropped for reissue prints, to eliminate a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge still under construction. The alternate ending sequence now added as an extra is the short two-shot dissolve to the ‘present day’ San Francisco sprung from the ashes of the old.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: TCM Documentary Clark Gable: Tall, Dark & Handsome; Fitzpatrick TravelTalks shorts Cavalcade of San Francisco and Night Descends on Treasure Island (SD); Cartoon Bottles (SD?), Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2021
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson