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.