San Francisco (dir. W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)


When I go to the cinema to see the latest blockbusters, I’m almost always underwhelmed by those big-budget fiascos, whether it’s the new Cinderella or the much loved superhero mash-up The Avengers. People I know seem to think I just irrationally dislike new movies, but that is hardly the case. Were I alive in 1936 and had just left some grand movie palace featuring that year’s top-grossing hit, San Francisco, I would have left just as unaffected and unimpressed. San Francisco is so concerned with being a BIG picture, cramming in as many genres as possible: romance, disaster, religious conversion, and quasi-musical– it would not be a problem if the film was any good at doing all competently at least, which it isn’t. About the only portion of the movie worth the admission is the actual earthquake at the climax, but we’ll get to that later.

Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is a clergyman’s daughter out looking for a job. She gets a gig singing at the seedy saloon The Paradise, owned by the charismatic but corrupt “Blackie” Norton (Clark Gable), though her classically trained voice seems a strange fit for the more ragtime based numbers. Still, Blackie recognizes her promise as well as her beauty. At first put off by his staunch atheism and frank sexual advances, Mary’s feelings toward Blackie soften when she speaks with his friend, Father Mullen (Spencer Tracy), who insists there’s a chance for redemption in his amoral pal yet– he did donate an expensive organ to Mullen’s church after all.

All our principal characters in one frame.

All our principal characters in one frame: Blackie Norton the saloon owner, his romantic rival Jack Burley, the kindly Father Mullen, and the angelic soprano Mary Blake.

A rival for Mary’s affections soon makes his way onto the scene: Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a Nob Hill impresario who thinks Mary is being wasted on the seedy nightclub scene. He gives her a chance to star as Maguerite in a production of Faust and she accepts, leaving Blackie behind. Initially planning to use her contract with him against her, Blackie is unable to stop her electric opera debut and when he goes backstage after the show, she is unable to quench her feelings for him. Despite a proposal of marriage from the more acceptable Burley, Mary asks Blackie to marry her and he accepts– with one condition, of course: that she return to The Paradise. Leaving the chance of a prestigious opera career behind, Mary agrees to let Blackie make her “the queen of the Barbary Coast.” Of course, Father Mullen is disgusted by Blackie’s threatening Mary’s moral purity with revealing costumes and the immoral nightclub life, and attempts to stop the show before Blackie punches him in the mouth. Horrified by her fiancee’s violent reaction and the potential corruption of her soul, Mary leaves with Father Mullen and accepts Burley’s proposal after speaking with his mother (Jessie Ralph). This stirs a change in Blackie, whose own feelings of love are brought to the surface once the 1906 earthquake nearly separates him from Mary forever.

A dull romance

An amoral saloon owner and a clergyman’s daughter– what could possibly go wrong?

Though a great deal of San Francisco‘s fame lies on its climactic earthquake sequence, the central focus is the love story between the virtuous Mary and not so virtuous Blackie, and boy does that drag the movie down. To start, MacDonald and Gable share no chemistry, which I feel would be the case even if they were given interesting characters to work with. Mary is as blandly pious and sweet as Dolores Costello was as the heroine in the earlier old Hollywood 1906 San Fran earthquake blockbuster, Old San Francisco from 1927. It’s hard to buy her burgeoning love for Blackie, when all her does is paw at her when he isn’t belittling her for her faith. But apparently he bought a church an organ, so he’s a keeper. Blackie emerges as the most interesting character in the movie, but even he would be nothing without Gable to liven him up a bit and even then, Gable is so obviously disinterested in this role that he can’t save it from collapsing in on itself, much like the buildings at the end of the picture. As for Spencer Tracy, well, he’s playing the moral voice of the film and has about as much character as everyone else, so no, there’s precious little to say about his performance. Jack Holt, even less so.

Then there’s MacDonald’s musical numbers, which send the film careening to a halt every time they pop up. I understand MacDonald is a singer and so is her character; her performing is a major part of the story. But do we have to stop everything else for ten minutes of singing? It’s not like this is even a musical in the traditional sense, where the songs spring up within the world of the picture and help the audience understand character motivation or move the plot along. This is just filler and when a movie with no interesting characters or story clocks in at two hours, the last thing it needs is filler. As for MacDonald’s voice, you’ll either love or hate it. I’m personally not the biggest fan of her soprano voice nor do I think her style gels with some of the ragtime numbers she performs, but that’s a case where one’s mileage may vary.

How you'll feel by the time you finish watching this film

How you’ll feel by the time you finish watching this film…

Luckily, the final segment of the film is fantastic. The earthquake sequence is a special effects marvel paired with fantastic editing and a sense of purpose. Gable’s best moments in the film happen here, where he desperately searches for Mary amongst the ruins and the dying of the city. It’s about the only genuinely emotional sequence. Of course, if there’s one flaw with the ending of the film, it’s that Blackie’s character development is too schmaltzy and does not ring true, but at this point, I’m just grateful that SOMETHING interesting is happening.

San Francisco is a textbook example of the old rule that commercial success does not always mean that the product is much good from an entertainment perspective. Occasionally true, sure, but most of the time, not really. It does make you wonder how the beloved blockbusters of the modern era will stack up eighty years from now though…

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