Originally released 26 Jun 1936
Written by Anita Loos, from a story by Robert Hopkins
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy
My rating: ★★★ stars
Epic story of romance set against the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In today’s parlance, San Francisco would be a blockbuster. It was a big movie, with Clark Gable, the biggest star in Hollywood, big special effects, big box office, and a big earthquake. The 20-minute earthquake sequence at the end is easily the highlight of the film. It’s so spectacular that it tends to blot out the memory of the previous hour and a half.
The story is pretty standard classic Hollywood issue. A cynical, seen-it-all rogue is redeemed by the love of a good woman. Here, nightclub owner Blackie Norton (Gable—who also played a character named Blackie in Manhattan Melodrama) falls for a singer in his club, prim and proper wannabe opera singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). Throughout the film, Blackie has his old childhood chum, Fr. Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), nagging him about being a better person.
The most maddening part of this story is the religious component. Why can’t Hollywood leave atheists alone? Too many movies, including this one, show happy atheists being badgered by well-meaning, overbearing Christians until they’re brainwashed into belief. And the films act like this is a good thing! At least, San Francisco doesn’t go for the tired and offensive trope of making Blackie an atheist because he suffered some trauma in his past and is bitter and mad at God—that’s not atheism. Blackie is simply a rational human being who gets harassed out of his perfectly rational belief by his best friend and girlfriend.
At least the film doesn’t go too far and suggest that the earthquake is God’s way of cleansing the city of evil, even if it does explicitly state that the city was the wickedest in the country in 1906. Implying that the earthquake was God’s punishment for sin certainly would have been disrespectful to the survivors of the quake, many of whom would have still been alive thirty years later when the film was released. At the time, the disaster was relatively recent history, which many viewers, those middle-aged and up, would have remembered.
However, the film is clearly a period piece. Much had changed between 1906 and 1936 in terms of style, behavior, and culture—a seemingly more radical shift than between 1986 and now. It’s the kind of big 1930s historical epic that would reach its apotheosis in Gone with the Wind three years later. San Francisco suffers from being shot in black and white—splashy movies like it need color—but three-strip Technicolor features hadn’t even been around a year when it was filming.
The last act wipes the film’s deficiencies out of the mind of the viewers. In terms of effects, San Francisco was height of technological achievement in 1936. Eighty years later, the effects still look pretty good. Much of the sequence is created through camera angles and creative editing. The practical effects include the use of specially-built sets and miniatures. All of these techniques hold up. However, the process shots, where one image is overlaid onto another, look obvious to modern viewers. But the film benefits over many of today’s films by having practical effects instead of computer-generated ones. The problem with CGI is that none of the objects look like they have weight—because, of course, they were all created in a computer. Practical effects show objects really falling. Even if those objects are in miniature, they look like they have weight, which is vital when the movie is about the world falling down.
In terms of craftsmanship, the film is first rate. The performances, particularly Gable’s, are excellent. Strangely, however, Gable was overlooked by the Academy, which, instead, nominated Spencer Tracy in the leading actor category, for what was obviously a supporting role. This was the first year which included the supporting acting categories, so, perhaps, the Academy members hadn’t figured out how those categories worked yet. Nonetheless, Gable is much more powerful and present than Tracy. Sure, he was playing a variation of the Clark Gable role, but he did that very well. Tracy (in his first nominated role) lost this year to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur but would win the two following years for Captains Courageous and Boys Town.
The movie, while not really a musical, has two standout songs (both performed by MacDonald), the title number, written by Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann, and Gus Kahn, and “Would You?” by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The latter was used in Singin’ in the Rain, which gathered together numerous Brown-Freed collaborations for its soundtrack.
San Francisco was nominated for six Oscars total but won only for Best Sound Recording. It lost Best Picture to The Great Ziegfeld. However, it topped that film to become the highest-grossing picture of the year. The term “blockbuster” originated during WW2, indicating a powerful bomb that could demolish whole blocks of buildings. It would soon come to refer to anything big and exciting, as San Francisco was. But, the term applies beyond the figurative meaning, as the film does depict entire blocks being destroyed. And, really, that’s what people remember about it.