To 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.
The 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.
Over 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.
Despite 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.