“San Francisco” (1936) recreates the raucous turn-of-the-20th Century Barbary Coast before our eyes with affectionate detail, and then destroys it before our eyes with the sudden shock of an earthquake.
The film takes us back to the months preceding the April 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the attention to detail of that period is worth noting. The sets, the embellishments of architecture and set dressing, the costumes are all wonderfully evocative. The film was made 30 years after the quake. One wonders if a film made today about a period of time 30 years ago, of the late 1970s, could be done with such accuracy without the temptation of caricature or mocking parody.
The film uses to extraordinary lengths an army of extras efficiently and realistically placed and choreographed. One never gets the sense that these are cattle waiting for the director to yell, “Action!” but rather citizens going about the minutiae of everyday life, and we have stumbled upon their private world.
The film could almost be called a musical as well, because there are several pieces of music heard throughout the movie, many popular songs, and most notably operatic scenes from “Faust” and “La Traviata” and the fabulous title song, “San Francisco.” Introduced in this film, the song is now one of the two designated official songs of the City of San Francisco, and has to be one of the very best love songs to a city ever written.
Clark Gable, the owner of a seedy club and his boyhood pal, Father Tim, played by Spencer Tracy, star along with Jeannette MacDonald, a woman all alone in the big city trying to pursue a career as a singer. When Gable interviews her for his club, all he cares about are her legs, and we see right off that Gable is incorrigible, selfish, and irresistibly virile.
His habit of flaunting his new girlfriends in front of old ones and a cocky habit of referring to himself in the third person could make Gable’s character Blackie unlikable, except that he has his charming moments of redemption. He donates an organ to Fr. Tim’s mission. He releases Mary, played by Miss MacDonald, from her contract to him to realize her dream of performing opera at the Tivoli Opera House. We see the endearing change come over him as he watches her perform beautifully in a life she was meant to live.
This is short-lived, however, and the plot takes many twists in the triangle relationship of MacDonald, Gable, and Jack Burley, played by Jack Holt, who wants to marry her. There is another triangle between Gable, MacDonald and Mr. Tracy, when Father Tim, fearing for MacDonald’s happiness and for her soul with scoundrel like Gable, interferes. Miss MacDonald does not make it easy for watchdog Father Tim, as she is the one who proposes to Gable, who bemusedly, if not insultingly agrees to let her “harpoon” him.
On the side we have a political election, a contest between Gable and Holt for control of the Barbary, and Gable postpones the marriage because, as he tells his bride to be, he doesn’t want to look foolish before his tough friends. On a side note, we see a cameo by young Tommy Bupp, who we last saw in “Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts” ( see entry August 22nd) and also a small part by Ted Healy, former ringleader of The Three Stooges as Mat, one of Gable’s performers.
More tomorrow on “San Francisco.”
San Francisco [DVD](1936) DVD