San Francisco (1936)

chaplin01008To really appreciate and experience San Francisco you must see the film in it’s original form on a large screen with an audience. I’ve done so more than once and every single time it’s an emotional experience, however, even on your home television San Francisco packs an emotional wallop.

I’m a Californian, one of those rare creatures born and raised in the Bay Area. I experienced the Loma Prieta earthquake and I have vicarious memories of my great grandma living through the 1906 earthquake when she was only a year old. She always claimed to remember the whole thing as just a baby. It’s in my blood–I freely admit that I’m one of those Californians that normally can’t help ridicule people who fear earthquakes more than hurricanes or tornados, however, San Francisco always reminds me that the big one is always just an hour and 55 minutes closer by the end of the film.

chaplin00889The film starts off on New Years of 1906 with trained opera singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) looking for work after her residence was caught on fire. She bungles her way into the Paradise, a nightspot on the Barbary Coast owned by self-proclaimed heathen Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) who wasn’t accustomed to girls whose fathers were preachers. Behind Blackie is childhood friend Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) who attempts to guide Mary through the seemingly ill-fated romance.

This was Jeanette MacDonald’s pet project. She pushed for the film to be made. Gable wanted no part of it–in so much as he didn’t want to be overshadowed by a singer. He felt all there was for him to do was look on and watch. The script was beefed up a bit with more Blackie scenes and he relented and took the film.

Although Clark Gable does a lot of fast talking before the earthquake, the last twenty minutes of film are almost completely void of dialogue. It’s a amazing to watch Gable walk through the ruins, you can actually see when he realizes that he doesn’t know where Mary is and the intense panic that radiates his profile. In a sense, the last stretch of the film affords Gable the opportunity to try on the pathos of the silent area. His performance is rarely over-stated in the film and probably overlooked.

chaplin01033Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the quake and the fire that followed, looking at pictures and as I just viewed the film again it seems the research department really did their job by matching some of the scenes quite precisely to the photographs. Copious attention to detail was paid to the film, it makes the action sequences even more believable. If there had been a category for special effects at the Academy Awards, San Francisco would have won without question, although the film did pick up an Oscar for Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Director, Best Assistant Director, and Best Original Story.

Though typical of the era, it is a little grating that Blackie Norton had to find redemption through a Christian God. Blackie had almost all the great markings of a good heathen, Father Mullin says of Blackie, “But he has a could, he’s always had every since he was a kid. He never lied, he never cheated, and I’m sure he never took an underhanded advantage of anyone.” There’s nothing wrong with that. He only jumps off course because of his inexperience with a woman like Mary.

The focus on religion can be disconcerting depending on where you fall on faith and prayer. Especially when it’s reinforced by Mary Blake’s potential mother-in-law, Mrs. Burley who says that San Francisco “can’t go on like this–sinful and blasphemous, with no fear for God in our hearts.”  It’s a little over the top to go that far, especially for today’s viewers now given the current cultural climate of San Francisco.

chaplin00951Despite the morality tale undertone of the film, the richness of the cinematography, special effects, the lovely bits of “Faust” and “La Traviata” handled so beautifully by Jeanette MacDonald along with “San Francisco” itself, now the official theme song of San Francisco. MacDonald’s ‘hot’ rendition of “San Francisco” never fails to entertain.

The big screen experience brings audiences together. A movie can be a hit or a miss depending on the audience reaction and this one always hits hard. Both times I viewed San Francisco at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house–except mine, I am sad to say–I was just so taken aback that the film hit a cord with everyone. Every age, every race, men and women alike. Yes, part of it is living in the area the great quake of 1906 hit, another is that pathos–watching desolate Blackie Norton trying to find Mary Blake. There are few communal experiences that we get these days. Home video doesn’t always present a film as it should be seen.

Little Nellie Kelly (1940)

nellie00741From the strains of “The Irish Washwoman” in the opening credits, to the final bars of “It’s A Great Day for the Irish”–I’ve always been oddly drawn to Little Nellie Kelly. Perhaps it’s because I’m about a quarter Irish and I’ve a bit of the blarney myself, but this film has always held a special place on my list of favorite films.

Little Nellie Kelly is often overlooked simply because it’s barely in circulation. Turner Classic Movies plays itonce or twice a year and it’s been out of print for a number of years. It’s a shame, because although it doesn’t have the polish of the Mickey-Judy vehicles and The Wizard of Oz which have ensemble casts, it does have grand character actors and a lot more story line than the other roles she was given. Nellie also allows Garland to play a character who may not be as worldly-wise as Patsy Barton or Betsy Booth, but the emotional range she contends in the dual role is a bit more substantial.


Looking back at Garland’s career as a whole, one would probably not consider the film of any note except for her first and last death scene, however, it was a substantial film for Garland at the time. MGM placed a lot of responsibility on Garland to carry the plot–the dual roles of mother and daughter. It was the first film where Garland had solo billing under the title (there wouldn’t be another until For Me and My Gal two years later where she had above title billing). There was a lot riding on the success of the film.

The love of Ireland is the setting and backdrop of the beginning of the film. Nellie (Judy Garland) falls for Jerry Kelly (George Murphy), a man of ambition and hope who wants to leave Ireland to make a better life in America. Torn between her father and the man she loves, Nellie must make the decision to marry Jerry or stay in Ireland with her shiftless father (Charles Winniger). So starts the pull between the two men, as all of them immigrate to America to find a better life.

nellie00856Garland carried the film beautifully and kept the cast and crew amazed and amused. In his autobiography, George Murphy described the set during the death scene of Nellie Kelly, Sr. saying there wasn’t a dry eye in the sound stage.

Despitethe film’s darker elements, like the death scene, the tone of the rest of the film is consistently joyful. Garland sings “A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow” as a ballad with the joyfulness and maturity of a woman many times Garland’s years. Though it’s legendary that Garland was the ‘little girl with the big voice’ from her early years, the reprise of the song allows for a grand contrast and marked swing into the youthful, contemporary version Garland sings as little Nellie Kelly. The scene is touching–she takes the scarf her mother once wore, slips onto the piano bench beside George Murphy and takes the song up in tempo when she notices how far off and lonely he appears. Garland singlehandedly changes the tone of the film within a few frames. The song was so beloved by fans, that it was one of the few film songs Judy Garland consistently kept in her concert programs.

The original George M. Cohan play took place entirely in New York. Instead of a love triangle between family and young Irish callers, the play had Nellie torn between a millionaire and a boy from her home in the Bronx. Throw in a stolen necklace and you have a completely different entity. Like many successors of Broadway shows, the film was of little resemblance to the play. The Broadway show introduced “Nellie Kelly, I Love You,” the sole song that survived in the film.

Little Nellie Kelly keeps in line with director Norman Taurog’s other juvenile films, specifically the early films of Deanna Durbin. In the same year, Taurog directed Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney and Broadway Melody of 1940 which co-starred George Murphy as well.

nellie00252One of the historical highlights of the film is the rare appearance of the Pledge of Allegiance without “under God.” We also get a glimpse into a Naturalization ceremony. And–we get to see Garland sing “Singin’ in the Rain” long before Gene Kelly did–made a bit iconic by the introduction to That’s Entertainment.

Sweet, goofy, heart-wrenching–Little Nellie Kelly may be overlooked, but it has all the qualities and the richness of Irish Americans. It also more than manages to overflow with the patriotism of George M. Cohan. It’s a happy journey that I can’t help but take over and over again.