MacDonald spends much of the movie torn between a choice of Gable or Holt, and it is Burley’s Irish mother, played by the delightful character actress Jessie Ralph who gives us a history, a background for this fascinating San Francisco of theirs, describing how she came to this place in 1851, sailing around the Horn, and who once loved a blackguard like Blackie but gave him up for a respectable marriage to a respectable man. She looks out from the magnificent windows of her colossal Nob Hill mansion and proclaims of her city, “Deep down underneath all our evil and sin we’ve got right here in San Francisco the finest set of human beings that was ever rounded up in one spot.”
But, she admonishes, “We can’t go on like this, sinful and blasphemous with no fear of God in our hearts.” She could be warning her of Blackie, but it is a portent of things to come, as if the coming earthquake might be divine retribution on a careless humanity. Up until this moment, it’s easy to forget that this is a movie about an earthquake because the buildup of human drama to it is so well done.
At the pivotal “Chicken’s Ball” where MacDonald is escorted by Burley, Della, one of Blackie’s many former girlfriends, played by Margaret Irving, tosses a five-dollar piece to Burley and delivers one of my favorite lines, “There’s a five spot, Brother. I’m buying back me introduction to you.”
With Blackie facing jail because of Burley, MacDonald wins the prize for Blackie with a spirited rendition of “San Francisco” vamping it coquettishly in a splendid rendition, making us believe San Francisco is indeed, the “heart of the golden west.”
Then the earthquake. Oh, yes, there was going to be an earthquake in this movie, too. The initial tremor lasts only a couple of minutes, but seems much longer, and the rest of the movie deals with vivid scenes of destruction and aftershocks, fire and terror, and the inevitable slow, dazed march of refugees out of the city.
The special effects of the film are quite good, but what is really excellent about the film is that the chaos is made more human than in what usually occurs in modern films. With our superior technology and computer graphics, we tend to lean more heavily on the razzle-dazzle and pay short shrift to the human emotion.
A dust-covered woman sits in shock at the only standing table in a room full of debris. A hand protrudes, searching, from a pile of rubble, then stiffens and falls limp. People try to help each other, others run away. There are happy reunions, and final partings. The city of which they were so proud and sang an anthem about moments before becomes their trap and tries to kill them.
Gable spends the rest of the movie in a panic trying to find MacDonald. An affecting scene occurs when he must tell old Mrs. Burley that her son has been found dead, and he can only hug her, and behind them, her magnificent Nob Hill mansion is dynamited to create a firebreak.
Eventually Gable locates Father Tim, who leads him to MacDonald at a makeshift tent city, singing “Nearer My God, To Thee” at the death of a child. Blackie has found Mary and then he finds God, and drops to his knees to give thanks.
There is a triumphant note at the end when the fire is out and all march up the hill to observe their city in ruins, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and pledging to rebuild. It’s easy to look upon the faces of the younger extras, knowing that rebuilding to the young is an easy thing. It is far more affecting to see hope in the eyes of the elderly actors. Having to begin over and over again is the toughest thing we have to do. People who have lived a long life know that. People who’ve suffered earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes know that all too well.