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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Alongside "Gone With The Wind" MGM's SAN FRANCISCO (1936) is without
doubt the finest romantic drama to emanate from Hollywood in the
thirties. A movie that had everything going for it - a splendid story
and script, a superb star in Clark Gable, a beautiful actress with an
arresting singing voice in Jeanette MacDonald, wonderful songs and an
earthquake sequence that will not only knock your socks off but can
stand up proudly beside anything that computer graphics can conjure up
today. The picture also was the most sensational profit making movie of
1936 speeding past "The Great Ziegfeld" from the same year. Produced
for the studio by John Emerson and Bernard Hyman it was directed with
great punch and attention to detail by W.S.Van Duke. The Perfectly
handled screenplay was written by Anita Loos from a story by Robert
Hopkins and the crisp monochrome cinematography was by Oliver T. Marsh.
It is 1905 in San Fransico and Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) runs "The Paradise" a not too respectable night club on the rowdy Barbary Coast. A girl Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) arrives in the city from the country looking for a job singing. She approaches Norton who interviews her and is very taken by both her beauty and her prowess as a singer. He hires her and in the following weeks they fall in love but Blackie comes up against some competition from Jack Burly (Jack Holt) the wealthy owner of the Tivoli opera house. Burly falls for Mary too and wants to buy out her contract from Norton to have her sing in the opera. But Norton refuses and is not for turning. However after an altercation with Blackie she walks out on him and goes to the Tivoli where she becomes a singing sensation. Still in love with Blackie she however sees no future with him and just as she becomes engaged to Burly a tremendous earthquake wreaks havoc on the great city. The picture ends with the death of thousands of citizens including Jack Burly and an injured Blackie searching through every bit of rubble for Mary before eventually finding her alive and well and leading the survivors singing the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee" in a makeshift camp outside the destroyed city.
Performances are top notch throughout the movie. Gable is terrific as the flamboyant Blackie Norton. His role looking every bit like a dry run for his Rhett Butler three years later. Excellent too is the inviting and quite lovely Jeanette MacDonald. The vivacious lady is simply electric! She just lights up the screen and delights us with her mellifluous singing voice in renditions of arias from Gounod's FAUST, Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, Nacio Herb Brown's lovely WOULD YOU and the rousing title song SAN FRANCISCO written by Polish composer Bronislau Kaper who was just starting out on his illustrious film music career at MGM. The song would become a hit and remains to this day the city's favoured anthem. Of course the real star of the picture is the special effects with the climactic earthquake sequence. Designed and implemented by Russian montage expert Slavko Vorkapach it remains an amazing achievement for thirties cinema which can still manage to excite and frighten today with just as much impact as anything in modern film.
It is almost inconceivable that a seventy five year old movie can remain such a firm favourite which it steadfastly has maintained over the years. The film was nominated for four Acadamy Awards (winning one for sound recording), has a beautiful screenplay, is wonderfully directed and besides the lovely songs from the attractive Miss MacDonald contains some moments of real charm especially the scenes with the two principles. SAN FRANCISCO is a great and fascinating film from vintage Hollywood and looks like it will continue to be one of the most fondly remembered movies of all time.
This movie has it all: good history, great acting, superb special effects, a
Stellar cast (Gable, Tracy, and McDonald, all top stars at the time), and a
great story line. You get so wrapped up in the lives of these people that
you even forget that there's an earthquake a' comin', until it HITS, and
right in the middle of the human drama... Remember the first time you saw
it? The timing was SO good that I'm sure most audience members felt the
same confusion and sense of impending doom that the characters on-screen
were experiencing at the same time. It's a real jaw-dropper...
In addition, there's a string of occurrences in this film which often go overlooked by all of the above: the INCREDIBLE singing of Jeanette McDonald, which punctuates the film at several key moments. When she sings, on demand, "Love Me and the World is Mine", the audience, just like Blackie Norton, can't help but be stunned by her voice, seeing that this woman has a set of PIPES! Whether it's opera, hymns, or the title song, her singing is the thread that ties all the parts of this film together, and, considering sound recording in 1936, it's stunning. Next time you visit this film, make a note to yourself: focus on her singing. She had an amazing talent that no one in film has matched, before or since. Her singing alone makes this film worth the price of admission.
So, rent the film and enjoy one of the greats... can't wait until it comes out on DVD.
SAN FRANCISCO (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936), directed by W.S. Van Dyke,
is a predecessor of all those disaster movies Hollywood made famous in
the 1970s, but in spite of many, including EARTHQUAKE (1974), nothing
comes close to this production, a well written script (by Anita Loos),
fine character development and superb cast headed by Clark Gable,
Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. However, it's not the
first major motion picture to feature earthquake sequence on film. One
would have to go back to the silent Warner Brothers production of OLD
SAN FRANCISCO (1927) starring Dolores Costello. SAN FRANCISCO is not a
remake, simply a story of fictional characters pitted against an actual
occurrence set at the turn of the century.
The story begins in San Francisco after New Year's Day, 1906, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), an ambitious singer whose specialty is opera, has just lost her apartment due to a fire, and comes to the Barbary Coast looking for work. She obtains a job singing at the Paradise, a café managed by Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a ruthless proprietor who oversees that his guests get whatever they need: dinner, drinks, entertainment and gambling. Mary later becomes acquainted with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie's best friend since boyhood, and finds comfort in him that she doesn't find in Blackie. In time she learns to love and accept Blackie for what he is, an anti-religious man with a rough exterior who is known, only to Father Tim, for doing good deeds in secret. Problems arise when the aristocratic Jack Burley (Jack Holt), hears Mary sing and arranges an audition, leading to success at the Tivoli Opera House. Blackie decides to run for city council and tries to abolish the Barbary Coast's fire-trap buildings. Since Jack happens to be a major Coast landlord, and very much in love with Mary, he and Blackie soon become rivals. This is soon followed by an on-again, off-again relationship with Mary, Blackie and Jack, before the rumbling and tumbling climax of the San Francisco earthquake on the early morning of April 18th, 1906.
In spite of some faults in SAN FRANCISCO, the movie itself is groundbreaking entertainment, and a big boost for its major lead actors and anyone else responsible for it's production. While Gable and MacDonald dominate the story in its tight 116 minutes, it's Spencer Tracy, in a minor but important supporting role, who was honored an Academy Award as Best Actor. This seems odd considering Tracy not being in every scene. There are times he's just there watching and smiling (such as in the opera segments), and other times he comes off with some good sentimental dialog, then disappears during long stretches before reappearing again. His performance doesn't go without merit, in fact, it never does, but a performance such as this is worthy of a supporting actor category. Gable is also excellent. He succeeds in making his unpleasant character likable. This could very well had been a nomination for Gable, however, he received none. There's good male bonding chemistry between Gable and Tracy, good enough to pair them again in TEST PILOT (1938) and BOOM TOWN (1940). One of their most notable scenes in SAN FRANCISCO occurs when Gable as Blackie has a heated argument and socking Tim a priest. This then controversial segment was kept in the final print by adding a boxing scene earlier in the story as Father Tim and Blackie boxing in the gym together with Tim giving his best pal the final punch. On the plus side are the costume designs and authentic hair styles that capture the era the movie is set. The true highlight, however, happens to be the 20 minute earthquake sequence that's so realistic that it's hard to believe it wasn't done by modern-day computer technology.
While SAN FRANCISCO is virtually a drama, songs and opera segments are plenty, consisting of "Old Acquaintance," "Happy New Year," "Hot Town in the Old Town Tonight," "Love Me and the World is Mine," "San Francisco," "A Heart That's Free," "Hosannah," "San Francisco" (reprise); "Would You?" "The Philippine Dance," "San Francisco," "Nearer as God to Thee" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." MacDonald's opera performance includes segments of "Air Des Bijoux," CARRE from "Faust," "Marguerita" and "Sempre Libera" (by Guiseppi Verdi from LA TRAVIATA). The new songs of "San Francisco" and "Would You?" were written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The supporting players consist of Jessie Ralph (Maizie Burley, Jack's mother; Shirley Ross (Trixie); Margaret Irving (Della Bailey); with Ted Healy, Harold Huber, William Riccardi, Edgar Kennedy and Warren Hymer.
One final note: For years when "San Francisco" was presented on local television annually on April 18th, the day of the 1906 earthquake, the conclusion consisted of the city's destruction super-imposed by the rebuilt city from different angles and the landmark of the Golden Gate Bridge. By 1982, television prints, future home video copies and presentations on Turner Classic Movies consisted of a slightly different conclusion lifted from the 1948 reissue showing the destroyed city super-imposed by new buildings and nothing else. The original finish was finally restored as part of the "alternate ending" when transferred to DVD, making this the one most highly recommended as the movie itself. (****)
SAN FRANCISCO is a major Hollywood production from the 1930's, From the
Boldness of the opening credits, along with a rousing rendition of the tune
by the same name, the viewer suspects that they are going to witness a
special movie event.
The plot is a rather forthright formula story of a tug-of-war romance between bad boy Clark Gable (Blackie Nortion, saloon owner) and mama's boy Jack Holt (Jack Burley, scion of a well-to -do family) for the affections of singer Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake, beautiful, virginal). It's also a story of good vs. evil, the good portrayed by Spencer Tracy as a Catholic Priest.
But it's the hard-hitting script and it's crisp dialogue, the recreation of a turn-of-the-Century San Francisco, the great acting, the music, and the fabulous Earthquake sequences that make this show the classic that it is.
SAN FRANCISCO is a tale of contrasts. On one hand the Barbary Coast with it's bars and bordellos, yet on the other hand we have a city of the fine arts, opera, and the Nob Hill elite. We have the rich, the spendthrifts, and also the poor who seek shelter in the Mission Houses.
The acting of Clark Gable cannot go unmentioned. His Blackie Norton is the most mockingly amoral character, proud of his lack of religious faith..... relying only on himself. Yet as Father Mullin (Tracy) says at one point in the movie, "Do you know who gave the chapel that organ we've been dedicating tonight? The most scoffing, unbelieving, and godless soul in all San Francisco, ..Blackie Norton. Cost him over $4,000......Don't tell him I told you. Blackie's like that, ashamed of his good deeds as most men are ashamed of their bad."
The famous 1906 Earthquake is a real show-stopper. Entire sets were hoisted on hydraulic lifts and rockers, and literally shaken down. VERY REALISTIC. I would have reservations about showing this picture to kids under 10 years of age. They may develop a neurotic fear of earthquakes following this one.
Enjoy and re-enjoy.
MGM's blockbuster was conceived originally as a vehicle for Jeanette
MacDonald to co-star with some non-singing players while her normal
screen partner Nelson Eddy was on a concert tour. Mr. Eddy always
considered his screen roles secondary to his concert singing which was
the reverse of how Jeanette felt.
According to a recent book about both Eddy and MacDonald, Clark Gable had been gotten out of romantic dalliance with some hush money MGM paid some woman off with. He didn't really want to do the film, but Louis B. Mayer kind of hammerlocked him into it. MacDonald however chose Spencer Tracy for the part of Father Tim Mullin, Gable's best friend and conscience of the movie.
Nevertheless the part of Blackie Norton, impresario of the Barbary Coast in 1906 San Francisco fits Gable perfectly. The man takes his pleasures where he finds them, but has a concern for the folks in his area who are getting the raw end of things from the upper crust on Nob Hill as personified by Gable's rival Jack Holt.
Gable and Holt are rivals for Jeanette MacDonald as well. She's fresh from the country, a parson's daughter with a great set of soprano pipes. Both like what they see, but Holt appreciates her voice quite a bit more than Gable at first.
Besides Ms. MacDonald, Gable and Holt have their differences over some of the rottenly constructed houses on the Barbary Coast and Gable wants a lot of new construction there. Of course the Earthquake of April 18, 1906 settles the whole issue of urban renewal.
If the special effects Oscar was around at that time, San Francisco would have won it for sure. Even over 60 years after the film came out and with the more modern techniques of special effects available, the sight of the earthquake is still visually stunning.
Gable and MacDonald did not get along on the set, Gable was more used to down to earth leading ladies like Crawford and Harlow. MacDonald and Tracy got along just fine. Her intercession with Louis B. Mayer changed the course of Tracy's career forever. Previous to San Francisco, Tracy played a whole slew of roughneck heroes in B films at Fox and his first few at MGM were in the same mold. As Father Tim Mullin, Tracy became the wise father figure (no pun intended) that the public came to know so well. He received his first Academy Award nomination for this part.
Jeanette has some operatic selections and three hymns to sing during the film, The Holy City, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Nearer My God to Thee. She also got two original songs, Would You and the title tune of the film.
The song San Francisco was adopted by the city fathers of San Francisco as the city's official song. That is until Tony Bennett lost his heart there. Controversy still rages on the bay as to which should be the official song of San Francisco.
San Francisco made a whole lot of money for Leo the Lion that year. It in fact inspired Darryl F. Zanuck to burn down Chicago the following year so he could get in on that disaster epic box office.
San Francisco still holds up well today, the action, the music, and Spencer Tracy's groundbreaking performance. Something for everyone.
GREAT story, wonderful characters, excellent acting, beautiful
cinematography and complex, realistic sets! Makes me nostalgic for these
old, well-rounded, meaningful movies. Gable's character, "Blackie" is a
marvelous example of the dual human nature that has hidden gold inside -
people are not always as they seem. Life is a constant struggle that keeps
everyone developing and brings out the true heart - for better or worse.
Beyond the basic plot, the film shows the potential devastation of earthquakes [historic retelling of the 1906 SF quake] and the ability of human beings to band together, overcome petty grudges and social class barriers and rejoice in life, transcending the mundane concerns. Incredible spiritual awakening in several characters, too. What was important before the tragedy became silly and forgotten in the wake of the rubble and death - back to basics. Can't say enough about the story, depiction of history and the outstanding cinematic artistry.
San Francisco hundred years ago must have been an attractive place to be before the earthquake. The director W.S. Van Dyke made other disaster-movies for Hollywood but this must be his best. The special quality of this movie is that the effects of the earthquake are secondary to the story-telling of Robert E. Hopkins and the script by Anita Loos. Everybody is moved by the quarrel opposing Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) and Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) for the singer of the opera Mary Blake (a magnificent Jeanette MacDonald). Jack Burley (Jack Holt) is impressive as he ought to be. The nightclub "Paradise" is realistic as it was at that time without exaggerating. This is a movie about morals: how you can remain decent in a decadent environment.
San Francisco, like so many other films from this era, just reminds me again how movies today have lost the art of the build-up. They just hit you over the head with mind-numbing action from frame one. Hollywood(and audiences of today) would do well to watch classics like "San Francisco", where story takes precedence over special effects and when the effects do come, they are in service to the story. And they mean so much more and have so much more impact when held back until the last possible moment. Why can't we allow ourselves to be immersed in the story? Or are we just too impatient for it now?
Oh, yes "San Francisco" was a masterpiece movie when it was made in 1936 - the special effects designed and brilliantly brought to the screen by MGM were astounding, and this film was a giant hit. Having seen it many times over, I am still enthralled by the Earthquake scenes, and it was great to see Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable working so well together - somehow this was one of Gable's best two roles of his career as Blackie. Jeanette MacDonald was somewhat miscast in some ways, but her singing of "Nearer My God to Thee" was inspirational - it was a pity it was so short. The supporting cast was excellent while the spirit of the city of San Francisco was well captured by the direction of W.S. van Dyke. Jack Holt and Jessie Ralph, a couple of old stagers, did well - but the star of the show was the Earthquake.
"San Francisco" is a very good classic picture. It's in many ways kind of
similar to "In Old Chicago", which came out a year after this film. Both
films have love stories, both have beautiful sets, and both climax with a
disaster that really did take place in their respective cities. "San
Francisco" takes place in the mid-1900s. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are
two of the thousands of people living in the city that was tragically rocked
by the massive earthquake of 1906. Like "In Old Chicago", the disaster
recreation here is impressive. The film tends to drag a little from
time-to-time, but that's only a minor quarrel to an otherwise classy movie.
All-in-all, I was pretty entertained by "San Francisco".
*** (out of four)
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