San Francisco: Shaking Up Sin City

SHE FELL IN LOVE… WITH THE TOUGHEST GUY ON THE TOUGHEST STREET IN THE WORLD!

The most popular film of 1936 is set in 1906, but originally had in its finale a view of San Francisco’s modern cityscape complete with the not-yet fully constructed Golden Gate Bridge (which opened in 1937). When the movie was re-released in 1948, some people found the footage dated and altered it. If you come across a copy of this film today, you’re likely to see the latter version featuring only a view of the business district. It’s a shame… but the movie as a whole is such a love letter to the city that it survives even without an image of its most iconic work of art.

In early 1906, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) arrives in San Francisco looking for a job. A classically-trained singer from a Colorado small town, Mary is wide-eyed and thankfully accepts an offer from Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a seasoned nightclub owner and gambler. Blackie finds Mary’s innocence amusing and ultimately irresistible, but is rebuked by his old childhood buddy Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy). As kids, they were inseparable but went different ways later in life; Mullin is now a Catholic priest who has taken it upon himself to act as an angel on Blackie’s shoulder. Mullin knows that there is kindness and decency somewhere deep inside his friend, and now he’s telling him that the best for Mary would be if Blackie left her alone. But the gambler doesn’t want to heed the priest’s advice – especially not since Mary is also pursued by a rival, Jack Burley (Jack Holt), who wants to turn her into an opera star… and make her his wife.

One hell of a showstopper
This is indeed melodrama, but of excellent quality. We never really doubt which man Mary ends up choosing, so there’s no real tension, but director W.S. Van Dyke knows how to stage a spectacle and along with screenwriter Anita Loos he creates a turn-of-the-century image of San Francisco as a wild city where anything can happen and the conflicts between elitist Nob Hill scions like Burley and rougher pioneers of Blackie’s ilk turn ugly in every way. Burley is not made to look like a complete villain, but there’s no doubt where the filmmakers’ allegiances lie. As long as Blackie’s godlessness is finally eradicated and he shows some real love for Mary, his status as a hero is secured; along the way, there are several instances where his concern for the simple folk is on display. Gable is perfect in that role, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a scoundrel who’s handsome and charming, but also gets away with a few naughty things here and there. Tracy is solid as the priest, a symbolic role he would do even better in Boys Town (1938). As for MacDonald, this film (and Rose-Marie the same year) was her definite breakthrough. Her character is unnecessarily weak, but gains strength as she jumps back and forth between the two men who treat her like a commodity; by the time she performs the title tune (which immediately sticks to the brain like glue), she’s won us over because that is one hell of a showstopper. When the earthquake finally hits, the special effects make a mess; this is rightfully a famous sequence with destruction on an impressive scale, especially for its time.

The sappiness in the end allegedly made Gable roll his eyes as he forced himself through the scenes. But those emotions are nevertheless true to the themes of the film and certainly no betrayal to his character, considering Tracy’s influence and the impact of the horrific quake. Then again, had this been made in 2012 we might have been less inclined to forgive the notion of a God punishing and saving a “sin city” like San Francisco. 

San Francisco 1936-U.S. 115 min. B/W. Produced by John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke II. Screenplay: Anita Loos. Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh. Editing: Tom Held. Song: “San Francisco” (Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann, Gus Kahn). Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Tim Mullin), Jack Holt, Jessie Ralph, Ted Healy. 

Oscar: Best Sound Recording. 

IMDb

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