San Francisco (1936). 115 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Clark Gable (as Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (as Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (as Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (as Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (as Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (as Mat), Shirley Ross (as Trixie), Edgar Kennedy (as sheriff), Al Shean (as professor), and William Ricciardi (as Signor Baldini). Songs by Walter Jurmann, Bronislaw Kaper, and Edward Ward.
San Francisco has the potential to be a good movie. It has great music, including the song “San Francisco,” which was composed especially for it; features Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy; makes use of contributions from directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim; and is set in one of the greatest cities in the world in the days before its most impressive catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake. Yet San Francisco’s story is both fairly conventional and a strange compilation of genres, with the plot beginning as a familiar story about show business and eventually segueing into disaster movie territory. Although its use of mixed modes results overall in an odd composition, still this movie—especially the earthquake sequence—remains an entertaining specimen of Golden Age historical drama, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its melodramatic nature.
The story is set in 1906 San Francisco and centers on two friends: Blackie Norton (played by Clark Gable) and Father Tim Mullen (played by Spencer Tracy). Blackie operates a saloon on the Barbary Coast called the Paradise, is running for the city Board of Supervisors, and shares his generous income with Father Mullen’s parish, but the two disagree over matters of faith. One day Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), a gifted operatic singer and preacher’s daughter, arrives at the Paradise looking for work. She is hired and becomes a sensation, and Blackie confesses his feelings for her, but she leaves him to work at the Tivoli Opera House, where she is encouraged professionally and romantically by Nob Hill society man Jack Burley. She makes her debut at the opera house but on opening night becomes engaged to Blackie and leaves the Tivoli. When Blackie puts her back to work at the Paradise, Father Mullen sees her revealing costume and persuades her to break off her engagement and return to the opera house and Burley.
Shortly thereafter, on April 18, 1906, Blackie’s saloon is raided by police and closed. That evening Mary and Burley attend the Chicken Ball, an annual talent competition, where Mary takes to the stage and in solidarity with Blackie sings one of her saloon numbers, “San Francisco.” She wins, offers to give the money to Blackie, and is rebuffed by him. He storms out, and moments later the great earthquake occurs. The city is destroyed, Burley is killed, and Blackie searches for days for Mary. Father Mullen leads him to a relief camp, where Blackie finds her singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Blackie falls to his knees and is embraced by Mary. As the crowd sings “The Battle of Hymn of the Republic,” we see a new San Francisco rising in the distance.
Like Titanic (1997), San Francisco offers a historical catastrophe in its final act preceded by a fictional love story in its earlier phases. In both movies, the love stories consist of soap opera-style relationships laced heavily with familiar conventions. In Titanic, there is predictable class struggle; in San Francisco, there is the old story about a preacher’s daughter from out of town entering a den of vice, and also the well-known show business story about a talented newcomer who just wants a break. Of course, San Francisco also offers us three titans of 1930s cinema—Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy. They are looking their best, and the actors’ magnetism is a good counter to the weaker and more predictable plot elements.
Structurally, San Francisco relies heavily on repetition to drive the plot and characterizations along. If you are going to enjoy this movie, you will have to go along with its constant back-and-forth activity. The story can best be summarized as a series of interactions in which a woman falls for a man, decides she hates him, finds she really loves him, rejects him yet again, and finally embraces him once more. I may have missed a few rejections and reconciliations there, but you get the point. Much of this on-again/off-again relationship involves Jeanette MacDonald moving physically from Clark Gable’s saloon to the city’s opera house and back to the saloon again.
In addition to the recurrence of plot points and physical locations, certain dramatic gestures come up again and again. San Francisco shows us many men fast-talking men punching each other in the jaw; I lost track of how many times a random gentleman takes a swing at or a hit from another man. Additionally, the vocabulary is repetitive: Gable is constantly referring to people as “mugs” as part of his saucy, club owner vernacular. The word’s frequent appearance underscores Blackie’s streetwise nature, which I suppose is necessary because we actually almost exclusively see him dressed up in a tuxedo, even during the movie’s final disaster sequence, when he roams the city in torn and tattered attire. Even the character of Blackie Norton is a softer, more likable version of Gable’s role as underworld king Blackie Gallagher in another W. S. Van Dyke movie from two years earlier, Manhattan Melodrama (1934).
Just as the movie develops its narrative and characterizations through repetition, it also asserts local flavor by peppering its dialogue with frequent allusions to the city in which it is set. This may be less forgivable, as it gives us the feeling that the movie does not think of us as natives or insiders. San Francisco is referred to by name constantly in the movie. The words “Golden Gate” and “Barbary Coast” come up often, in addition to constant references to street names. The movie is working hard to convince us of where it is taking place. Of course, this is in part because San Francisco was mostly filmed on sound stages nowhere near the city it depicts. And yet, despite the power of the studio to recreate reality for us, we see little of the actual city, its pre-earthquake landmarks and landscapes. We never see the bay or the coast.
But what we lack in terms of visuals we get in speeches eventually. We hear, for example, that this is a bad city, especially from Burley’s mother, a wealthy old dowager who shares the story of how she came to San Francisco with Mary, who she thinks will soon be her daughter-in-law. The city is full of diseased revelers, Mrs. Burley says, and every generation has its sexy, tempting Blackie Norton. She lays the framework for a moral reading of the city’s conflagration—which is interesting, because we never see anything seamier than ladies and gentlemen gambling without a permit in Blackie’s saloon.
We do see the earthquake in all its special effects-laden drama, and it is the earthquake that is the part most worth seeing. Indeed, it is rather as if the whole movie was constructed to justify its recreation of the great 1906 catastrophe. As buildings shake and fall apart, and as we see the ground split open and shift, audiences today might very well be reminded of a later disaster film like 1974’s Earthquake, starring Charlton Heston. Indeed, seeing a bloody Clark Gable stagger around after San Francisco’s earthquake in a torn tuxedo reminds me of Heston roaming around Los Angeles in that later movie. That is to say, the formulas for how we envision cataclysms have not changed much over time.
Something happens in this movie when the earthquake hits and Gable begins to wander around the city searching for MacDonald. The film slows down, and the compulsive, repetitive movement of its earlier parts is replaced by extended, open-air meandering punctuated by little vignettes: uncovering a dead body buried under a pile of bricks here, finding a live friend underneath a pile of wood there, a vision of a couple being reunited, another person searching for a loved one. People come and go in shock, stunned, terrified. This is the movie at its best. In this sequence, San Francisco does not shed its melodramatic tendencies, but it does show that it is capable of offering material with more of a direct and satisfying emotional impact.
As for MacDonald’s famed singing of “San Francisco,” you will have the opportunity to hear it many times over in this movie. We see her rehearse it, perform it at the saloon, and sing it again at the Chicken Ball. There she performs a jazzy version, whereas her other performances of the song are decidedly in the light opera realm. MacDonald’s career and “San Francisco” were intertwined ever afterwards, and it has become one of the city’s anthems:
San Francisco, open your Golden Gate—
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wandering one,
Saying I’ll wander no more.
Other places only make me love you best;
Tell me you’re the heart of all the golden West!
San Francisco, welcome me home again,
I’m coming home to go roaming no more.
On a final note, I have to admit that although I know MacDonald was a popular singer in 1930s film musicals, I myself am not yet accustomed to her operatic style, especially as applied to popular music. I noticed that many of her notes were very high and shrill. In one scene she sings with a coupé glass in hand, and I was half expecting it to break. When it did not, I was held in suspense, convinced that the movie was teasing me and that her singing would eventually relate to the film’s catastrophe. As the moment of the earthquake drew nearer and MacDonald was singing “San Francisco” on stage at the Chicken Ball, I came to believe that the famous event would strike when she hit the high note. It did not. Reader, if only I had been alive to suggest such a climactic moment to the filmmakers! What a groundbreaking claim the movie could have made: Jeanette MacDonald as the cause of the great earthquake of 1906!