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Blackie Norton is the rough-and-tumble owner of the Paradise, a sketchy saloon on San Francisco's Barbary Coast in 1906. Refined but down-on-her-luck Mary Blake dreams of an opera career, but is forced to take a job singing in Blackie's saloon to make ends meet. Wealthy aristocrat Jack Burley falls in love with Mary and wants to help her opera career. Blackie, however, is in love with Mary also and refuses to let her go. When Blackie begins to exploit Mary at the Paradise, his childhood friend Father Mullin encourages him to turn over a new leaf. The cynical Blackie, however, will have none of it, and his tumultuous relationship with Mary soon ends in separation. When the devastating San Francisco earthquake hits on April 18, 1906, the city is brought to its knees and Blackie finally finds himself on the path to redemption.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman
Screenplay: Anita Loos
Based on a story idea by Robert Hopkins
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie, Harry McAfee, Edwin B. Willis
Editing: Tom Held
Music: Herbert Stothart (Music Director), William von Wymetal (Operatic Sequences Staged By)
Costume Designer: Adrian, Western Costume Co.
Sound: Douglas Shearer
Special Effects: John Hoffman, James Basevi
Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Ted Healy (Mat), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Burley), Shirley Ross (Trixie), Margaret Irving (Della Bailey), Harold Huber (Babe), Edgar Kennedy (Sheriff), Al Shean (Professor), William Ricciardi (Signor Baldini), Kenneth Harlan (Chick), Roger Imhof (Alaska), Charles Judels (Tony), Russell Simpson (Red Kelly), Bert Roach (Freddie Duane), Warren B. Hymer (Hazeltine).
BW-116m. Closed Captioning.
Why SAN FRANCISCO is Essential
One of the most popular films of its day, San Francisco was one of MGM's crowning achievements and was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
San Francisco marked the first time that two of MGM's greatest stars, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, ever worked together in a film. Audiences liked the way they played off each other so well that MGM paired them together in two more blockbusters, Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940). San Francisco is also the film that helped establish Spencer Tracy as a major star and one of Hollywood's finest actors. Tracy had been under contract at 20th Century Fox before moving to MGM. However, Fox hadn't been able to tap into his full potential and Tracy's career never got off the ground there. Quickly after moving to Metro, Tracy starred in Fritz Lang's electrifying Fury (1936) and San Francisco was released right on its heels. Tracy's two dynamic and completely different performances in each film made audiences and critics stand up and take notice. According to MGM, Tracy's fan mail went from 300 to 3,000 letters a week following the release of San Francisco.
San Francisco was the film that proved Jeanette MacDonald could handle a serious dramatic role. The film was a pet project of the singing actress, who up till then was known primarily for her roles in light operettas such as The Merry Widow (1934) and Naughty Marietta (1935). It was also the film where she first introduced the rousing title song by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann with lyrics by Gus Kahn, which has since been adopted by the city as one of its enduring official anthems.
San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins were both native San Franciscans who remembered the city by the bay before it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1906. They both wanted the film to pay tribute to the city that they deeply loved. The film was also intended as a loving tribute to larger-than-life Barbary Coast figure Wilson Mizner, on whom Clark Gable's character Blackie Norton was based, as well as MGM producer Irving Thalberg who had recently passed away.
The film's true star is, of course, the earthquake. It is believed that an uncredited James Basevi, one of MGM's resident special effects artist, did the major work in engineering the massive sequence in San Francisco, even though another special effects expert named Arnold Gillespie is actually credited. The following year Basevi moved to Fox Studios, where he created the horrendous storm that marks the climax of director John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). In 1939, Basevi returned to his original craft of art direction, subsequently working for Ford's later productions, including My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and Three Godfathers (1948). Basevi won an Academy Award for the art direction of The Song of Bernadette in 1943.
by Andrea Passafiume & Scott McGee
San Francisco (1936)
Judy Garland performed a popular rendition of the song "San Francisco" in many of her live performances. She had a new introduction written for the song by Roger Edens, which referenced the film: "I never will forget Jeanette MacDonald / Just to think of her it gives my heart a pang / I never will forget how that brave Jeanette / Just stood there in the ruins and sang...and sang..."
According to The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco the city's famed Castro Theatre shows San Francisco on April 18th every year in commemoration of the 1906 earthquake and fire.
According to the book Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald, "Ten days after the lethal quake of October 17, 1989, World Series baseball fans, unconcerned by the lingering potential of aftershocks, packed into Candlestick Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. Following a solemn minute of homage to the dead, they proceeded to extol their city's gutsy vitality with a spirited chorus of 'San Francisco'."
In the film, Jeanette MacDonald introduced the title song "San Francisco" written by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann with lyrics by Gus Kahn which has since become a popular official anthem for the city.
by Andrea Passafiume
San Francisco (1936)
For Spencer Tracy, San Francisco followed right on the heels of his starring role in Fritz Lang's powerful Fury (1936). The roles he played in each film showcased his versatility, and audiences and critics stood up and took notice of his astonishing talent. After years of knocking around Hollywood without much success, Tracy had finally made a breakthrough with San Francisco and the film made him a bona fide star. According to Larry Swindell's 1969 book Spencer Tracy, after the release of the film, the number of Tracy's fan letters skyrocketed from 300 to 3,000 a week.
The rousing title song introduced in the film by Jeanette MacDonald became an instant classic recorded by numerous artists all over the world. The city of San Francisco adopted it as one of its official city songs in 1984, and it still instigates waves of affection from its native citizens to this day.
It was rumored that legendary epic director D.W. Griffith, W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke's mentor, directed one scene in San Francisco, though which one is still in debate. Some claim that Griffith directed the big earthquake sequence, while others claim that he supervised one of Jeanette MacDonald's operettas.
Director Woody Van Dyke reportedly used another of his friends from the old silent film days, Erich von Stroheim, to write additional dialogue for the San Francisco screenplay.
San Francisco marked the first time that actors Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy ever worked together. Audiences liked the way they played off each other so well that MGM paired them in two more blockbusters, Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940).
The shot during the earthquake sequence in which the street splits open was an astonishing visual effect in its day. It was achieved by people using cables to pull apart two hydraulic platforms with hoses underneath gushing water to simulate broken water mains.
San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins were both natives of San Francisco and wanted the film to pay tribute to the city that they loved.
One scene towards the end of San Francisco gave Clark Gable some trouble. It was the scene in which Blackie is so humbled after the earthquake that he falls to his knees and prays for Mary's safe return. Such a scene went against Gable's traditionally macho image, and he resisted doing it at first. Director Van Dyke finally came up with a solution: Gable would be shown from the back dropping to his knees-it was the only way Gable felt it would work for a tough character like Blackie.
There are two endings in existence for San Francisco. In the film's original theatrical release, the film ends with a montage of modern day (1936) San Francisco having been rebuilt that included a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction. For a 1948 re-release, however, the footage with the incomplete Bridge was removed.
One of the ballads that Jeanette MacDonald sings in San Francisco, "Would You?", was featured prominently in the 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain. In Singin' in the Rain it is the song that Debbie Reynolds' character has to dub for Lina Lamont when it turns out that Lina can't sing.
According to The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco some of the actual survivors of the real 1906 San Francisco earthquake became ill during the earthquake sequence when the film originally premiered and had to leave the theater.
by Andrea Passafiume
Famous Quotes from SAN FRANCISCO
"Well, sister, what's your racket?"
"I'm a singer."
"Let's see your legs."
"I said, I'm a singer."
"Alright, let's see your legs."
--Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) / Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald)
"Hey, I thought I told you not to wear that thing."
"Aw, gee, Honey, I think it's nice."
"Yeah? Well I think it makes you look cheap. Now don't wear it anymore. Blackie doesn't like it."
Blackie / Trixie (Shirley Ross)
"There's no law against an opera singer being slender, young and beautiful." Jack Burley (Jack Holt), referring to Mary.
"Well, we certainly don't do things halfway in San Francisco." Waiter at Chicken's Ball (William H. O'Brien)
"You're in probably the wickedest, most corrupt city, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end's going to be. But nothing can harm you if you don't allow it to because nothing in the world, no one in the world, is all bad." Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy) to Mary
"One never knows where one's going to find talent."
"No, no, one never does, does one?"
-Jack / Blackie
San Francisco (1936)
San Francisco began as an idea from MGM writer Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins. Hopkins, according to screenwriter Anita Loos in her 1977 memoir Cast of Thousands, "was listed on the payroll as a writer, but it's doubtful that Hoppy ever put pen to paper. Irving [Thalberg] had hired him as a roving gagman, to wander from set to set, ad-libbing jokes wherever a scene might tend to bog down...Hoppy served as Court Jester to Irving and was the pet of the entire studio." Hoppy also had a knack for coming up with story ideas.
One real-life character that had always intrigued Hoppy was Wilson Mizner, a colorful entrepreneur who had been one of the kings of the Barbary Coast in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. As Anita Loos described Mizner in her 1974 memoir Kiss Hollywood Good-By, "James Barrie has written that charm is the bloom on a woman; if she has it she doesn't need anything more. In the same manner, bravado can be the bloom on a man. He doesn't need anything more. Well-back in the Gay Nineties Wilson Mizner was at the beginning of a career of superb bravado." Hoppy, a San Francisco native like Loos, had always admired Mizner. "Hoppy and I had been children there at a period when Wilson Mizner had held forth," said Loos. "I had been unaware of his existence, but Hoppy had been more fortunate, he had been a messenger boy on the Barbary Coast where Wilson had run a gambling casino. Hoppy had never ceased to look on Wilson Mizner as an idol."
One day Hoppy came to Loos with the idea of writing a story centering on a character based on Wilson Mizner. Loos took the idea to MGM producer Irving Thalberg. "Knowing Irving's admiration for Mizner," said Loos, "I took occasion one day to tell him Hoppy's idea. Hearing it for the first time in straightforward English, Irving was astonished. 'Do you mean our Hoppy conjured up that good a yarn?' he asked. I assured him that he did. 'All right,' said Irving. 'Go ahead and write it.'"
From Hoppy's initial idea, Anita Loos fleshed out the screenplay that became San Francisco. "Hoppy and I wrote that movie," said Loos, "to the glory of Wilson Mizner and the Frisco all three of us knew when we were kids. We called our picture San Francisco and named the Mizner character 'Blackie Norton.'...Its plot was unadulterated soap opera, told in an underworld setting, and it became one of MGM's most durable hits."
Just before Loos and Hoppy finished the screenplay, however, tragedy struck. Irving Thalberg, beloved MGM producer known for his dedication to excellence in motion pictures, died. Thalberg's health had always been precarious, but his death at the age of 37 from pneumonia still sent shockwaves of grief throughout the Hollywood community. "With Irving gone," said Loos, "San Francisco became the most important issue in the lives of both Hoppy and me. Wilson Mizner had died in 1933 and our movie would be the means of waving both him and Irving a last good-by."
With Thalberg no longer around to helm San Francisco, the project was given to someone else. "...without Irving's help, we realized our movie faced grave danger," said Loos. "Who among that group of hobbledehoy MGM producers could understand the subtleties of a man like Wilson Mizner who was as lovable as he was monstrous? L.B. [Mayer] assigned our production to Irving's greatest disciple, Bernard Hyman. But poor Bernie was a victim of that special Hollywood naivet that's incapable of recognizing bad taste, most of all, his own. We were worried."
Bernard Hyman's first order of business on San Francisco was to secure W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke to direct. Van Dyke, nicknamed "One-Take Woody" due to his brisk shooting style, was a solid director known for hit films such as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Thin Man (1934) and Rose-Marie (1936).
The San Francisco project soon came to the attention of singing star Jeanette MacDonald. MacDonald had only been at MGM a short time, but she had made a big splash with a quick succession of box office hits such as The Merry Widow (1934), Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose-Marie (1936). Her appearance in these light operettas had made her a instant favorite with audiences.
MacDonald, however, was not content to be simply a singing star in frothy operettas. She was eager to have more control over her career and find a role for herself that would prove she could handle dramatic acting as well. When she found out about the role of Mary Blake in San Francisco, she knew it would be perfect for her. She was soon assigned to star in the film, and studio head L.B. Mayer made sure that the script was tailored to MacDonald's particular talents. Several musical sequences were added and two original songs "San Francisco" and "Would You" were written for MacDonald to sing in the film.
For her leading man, Jeanette MacDonald was adamant that it should be the king of MGM, Clark Gable. "The role," she wrote in a letter to MGM's General Manager Felix Feist, "demands a fine, virile actor, otherwise the whole story goes to pot." Gable, however, was not interested. He had heard rumors that MacDonald could be a prima donna on set, and he detested being around actresses that were pampered and spoiled. "Hell, when she starts to sing nobody gets a chance," Gable reportedly told MGM executive Eddie Mannix at the time. "I'm not going to be a stooge for her while she sings in a big, beautiful close-up and the camera shoots the back of my neck!"
When Gable initially refused to be a part of San Francisco the studio tried to persuade MacDonald to consider William Powell or Robert Young in the role of Blackie Norton. MacDonald, however, remained determined. It had to be Clark Gable. When MacDonald heard that Gable's packed schedule wouldn't allow him to make San Francisco even if he wanted to, she took matters into her own hands, lobbying MGM studio brass to help her convince Gable to take the part. "The entire outlook was so perfect," she wrote in a letter to Felix Feist, "the whole setup so 100% box-office, with a brand new team from the public's viewpoint, also Metro's, that I am heartbroken and at the same time furious that such an opportunity is going to be missed...Isn't there anything the Sales Department can do in having one of Gable's other assignments postponed so that this picture can be made as great as it should be with him in it?...Shouldn't it be intriguing for the public to see me with him instead of a musical comedy man like Chevalier or Novarro?...And shouldn't it be intriguing by the same token for the public to see Gable with me instead of again with Crawford or Harlow?" Seeing San Francisco's potential, MGM agreed to try and help MacDonald get her man.
Meanwhile, Woody Van Dyke had to cast the key supporting role of Father Tim Mullin. Spencer Tracy had just recently joined the MGM family after spending five years making lackluster films for RKO and other studios. No one had yet figured out how to utilize Tracy's unique acting talents, but MGM hoped to change that. The studio had just starred Tracy in Fritz Lang's electrifying drama Fury (1936) which hadn't yet been released, and director Van Dyke was eager to cast him in the role of Father Mullin in San Francisco. It was a supporting role, and Tracy wasn't sure he wanted to take it. However, Van Dyke convinced him that Father Mullin was key to the success of the picture. "...there's one important thing [San Francisco] has to have...and that's humanity," Van Dyke told Tracy. "Father [Mullin] has to supply it, and so help me, Spencer, you're the only actor I know who can bring humanity into a part. I don't know where you got it, but you have it." According to the 1987 book Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson, Tracy was conflicted. "I had a tough time deciding whether or not to get myself out of the part," said Tracy. "I thought of how my father wanted me to be a priest, and I wondered if it would be sacrilegious for me to play a priest. All of my Catholic training and background rolled around in my head, but then I figured Dad would have liked it, and I threw myself into the role."
In order to help convince Clark Gable to co-star with her in San Francisco Jeanette MacDonald took a drastic measure. She put her next MGM project Maytime on hold and took an indefinite leave of absence from the studio without pay in order to wait for Gable's schedule to be free. By making this move, she hoped to prove her commitment to the film and to Gable. MacDonald's gesture did impress Gable, and the thought of working with Spencer Tracy enticed him, but still he continued to resist. Eventually, L.B. Mayer pressured Gable by threatening him with suspension if he did not make the film. Finally, begrudgingly, Gable relented and agreed to play Blackie Norton.
Before cameras could roll on San Francisco, there was one more hurdle for the film to jump, which came from the Production Code office. The office vehemently objected to a scene in the screenplay in which Blackie punches his childhood friend, Father Mullin, in the jaw. "The administrator for the censor board, Joe Breen, sent for Hoppy and me," said Anita Loos, "and said grimly, 'Look here, folks. Gable is such an idol that the public may take his side when he knocks out a priest and cheer for the triumph of evil.' Hoppy's indignation made him more than usually incoherent, while I argued that our hero was to be regenerated in the long run; that the more wicked he was, the greater glory to the powers of good that would finally bring him to his knees. 'But his regeneration takes place in the last scene,' Breen protested. 'In the meantime a priest has been humiliated in a way that will bring the whole Catholic Church down on us.' Hoppy and I loved that sequence; to cut it out would emasculate the entire picture. But what could save it, now that Irving was no longer there to back us up?"
"The next day Hoppy and I were pacing the Alley as was our custom," continued Loos, "this time cursing the idiotic shortsightedness of censors, when Hoppy suddenly thought of consulting the priest of the small Catholic chapel across the boulevard from the studio. Father Benedict was very movie-wise. He was often sent for to expertise on religious scenes; his confessional was frequently visited by show-biz sinners; all of which made him tremendously understanding and sympathetic to movies. Father Ben heard our problem and racked his brains. Then presently his face lit up. 'I've thought of something that may save your precious scene,' he said. Following Father Ben's suggestion, we went to work immediately and sketched out the scene. Next day we took it to Joe Breen. Hops proceeded to defend our script as if he were Shakespeare fighting to keep the soliloquy from being tossed out of Hamlet. Our new scene took place in a gymnasium where we showed that our priest could easily outbox, outslug, and outsmart Blackie. So when the two men faced their moment of truth, Tim would purposely allow Blackie to knock him out; thus 'presenting the other cheek' and making our priest the hero of the encounter. I knew our solution was weak, but Hoppy's fast talk finally won out. San Francisco was granted the go-ahead."
With a first-rate screenplay and an A-list cast of Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy assembled, San Francisco was shaping up to be something very special for MGM. In addition, word was out that the film's recreation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake would be a spectacular special effects sequence unparalleled in movie history.
by Andrea Passafiume
San Francisco (1936)
Production began on San Francisco in February of 1936. The entire shoot would take place on MGM soundstages and backlot. With its moving drama, top movie stars of the day and state of the art special effects, San Francisco promised to be something special.
Clark Gable may have finally agreed to star opposite Jeanette MacDonald in the film, but that didn't mean he had to like her. Gable was cordial to MacDonald, but could never warm up to her when the cameras stopped rolling. Assistant Director Joseph Newman explained their inability to click as simply a "mismatch in routine." According to Edward Baron Turk's 1998 book Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald, "Gable liked to start shooting at nine sharp; MacDonald needed an extra hour before feeling ready; and when Van Dyke granted her that hour, Gable stewed with resentment."
As much as she had lobbied for Clark Gable to be her co-star, MacDonald couldn't have been more underwhelmed by his behavior on the set. "Gable is a mess!" she wrote in a letter to her manager Bob Ritchie after the first week of shooting. "I've never been more disappointed in anyone in my life. It seems (according to Mayer) he's terribly jealous of me and acts very sulky if I get more attention on the set than he...I like [Spencer] Tracy very much. There's as much difference between the two as day from nite (sic). Gable acts as tho' he were really too bored to play the scenes with me. Typical ham."
One episode in particular involving Gable left a less than favorable impression on MacDonald. Before filming their first love scene together, Gable reportedly filled up on a big spaghetti lunch. When the time came for him to kiss her, his breath was so bad from garlic that MacDonald nearly fainted.
Clark Gable did, however, get along with Spencer Tracy. They were close in age, both liked to tie one on, and the two managed to forge a friendship. Both possessed qualities that the other admired. Gable deeply respected Tracy's acting ability, and Tracy couldn't help but be envious of Gable's heartthrob status as a leading man.
While San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins considered W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke a director of considerable talent, they became worried shortly after filming had begun. Van Dyke, said Loos, was "an oaf when it came to the subtleties of the San Francisco tenderloin. We were horrified watching Woody direct a scene where Blackie reproves an underworld sweetheart for wearing a gaudy necklace and, indicating it, said, 'Blackie told you not to wear that. It looks cheap.' Those words should have been tossed off gently and with a smile, as Wilson Mizner would have done. But Van Dyke caused our hero to jerk the necklace off the girl's throat with a brutality that cut into her skin and to bark out the dialogue in the manner of a hooligan. Not all of Gable's native charm could overcome the loutish behavior in which Van Dyke was directing him. We proceeded to [producer] Bernie [Hyman's] office to demand a retake. Bernie was surprised. 'Why I thought the way Woody directed that scene was swell!' For over an hour Hoppy and I conjured up the spirit of Irving [Thalberg], explaining that one crass move on the part of our hero would cause the entire movie to flounder beyond recall. Bernie, bless his simple heart, finally got our viewpoint. He ordered the sequence reshot with Hoppy on the set to guide Van Dyke. Pacing the Alley the next day I said to Hoppy, 'When Irving died, he'd taken the studio to the top of a toboggan run. From now on there's only one direction MGM can go.' 'Babe, you just said a mouthful!' Hoppy declared, thus repeating a phrase that he himself might have added to the English language."
The recreation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire was a crucial element of the film. It was to be a 20 minute sequence of spectacular special effects that looked as realistic as any newsreel footage. As author Warren G. Harris explained in his 2002 book Clark Gable: A Biography, "Special effects wizards A. Arnold Gillespie and James Basevi showed the earth opening up and streets collapsing, which they achieved with hydraulic platforms pulled apart by cables, with hoses underneath gushing water to simulate broken mains. Sound engineer Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma) devised a way of literally shaking theater audiences by using nothing more than the simple monophonic amplification systems that were standard in those days." It was a sequence unparalleled in movie history at the time and sure to amaze audiences - if they didn't run screaming out of the theaters first.
All in all San Francisco took 52 days to shoot at the cost of 1.3 million dollars - an expensive film for its day. It opened in the summer of 1936 to excellent reviews and was an instant box office smash. Of the spectacular earthquake sequence the New York Times said, "It is a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions." Variety said, "An earthquake, noisy and terrifying and so realistic that the customers will be dodging the falling buildings and mentally hurdling the crevices that yawn in the studio streets, is San Francisco's forte."
San Francisco stood as a major achievement in storytelling for MGM as well as its state of the art special effects which set the standard for all films that followed. Actress Jeanette MacDonald, who had championed the project from the beginning, proved she could handle a dramatic role while writers Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins proudly paid tribute to deceased friends Wilson Mizner and Irving Thalberg as well as their beloved native city by the bay.
San Francisco touched a chord with audiences, which is why it remains a vital and relevant classic more than 70 years after its initial release. The film is much more than a melodrama with a spectacular earthquake at its center. San Francisco is an inspiring story of one man's spiritual transformation and the triumph of a city and its people that have been brought to their knees by disaster. "While the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican Parties were wringing their hands over the country's economic plight," said writer Edward Baron Turk, "San Francisco offered Depression-weary Americans a portrait of people rescued from calamity through faith in God and their own resourcefulness."
by Andrea Passafiume
San Francisco (1936)
Director Woodbridge Strong (W.S.) Van Dyke II's most ambitious film, San Francisco rocked everyone's local bijou and bank accounts when it premiered in 1936. It hit theater epicenters shortly after the death of MGM producer extraordinaire, Irving Thalberg, who was its behind-the-scenes benefactor. The film was a qualifying success with audiences and with the Academy Awards. The film earned several Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and others. Spencer Tracy was nominated Best Actor, his first of nine Oscar nominations, still quite a record among male performers. (Beat that, Tom Hanks!) The epic won for Best Sound. The film's startling earthquake sequence surely would have garnered an Oscar for Best Special Effects, if only such a category existed at the time. The Best Special Effects category was created in 1939.
San Francisco may have won for its sound recording, but its ties to the silent era were particularly significant. W.S. Van Dyke had been an assistant to silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, and openly admitted that he learned everything he knew about filmmaking from the master. It was rumored that Griffith directed a scene for San Francisco, but which scene is in dispute to this day. One report had him directing one of Jeanette MacDonald's operetta scenes, while another had him responsible for some mob scenes at a nightclub. Some claimed it was the incredible 20-minute earthquake climax. Griffith's own experience directing grandiose scenes in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) gives this theory some merit. Griffith was not the only silent film figure to benefit from Van Dyke's affection and loyalty to the silent period. Long forgotten silent film performers who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression were give!n small, bit parts in the picture: Early slapstick comedienne Flora Finch; one-time Vitagraph star Naomi Childer; Rudolph Valentino's first wife, Jean Acker (a star in her own right during the silent days); and King Baggott and Rhea Mitchell, whom Van Dyke had directed in The Hawk's Lair (1918). Van Dyke even used silent film director Erich von Stroheim to write additional dialogue for the Anita Loos/Robert Hopkins script.
And speaking of Anita Loos, San Francisco was really her and fellow writer Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins's picture in spirit. The two long-time friends and co-workers were both from San Francisco and were only too eager to write about their native city. The script was actually based on a story by Hopkins, a writer best known for his witty dialogue and almost exclusively used by the studios as a "gag" writer. This was a good living for a talented writer, one who would be called in to supply a much-needed bit of humor in a quip for a specific character type.
Meanwhile, Loos was well known in Hollywood for her scripts that were frothy and full of puns and gags, after several decades in the film biz that started, ironically enough, with D.W. Griffith. Loos worked mostly at MGM as a scenarist, script doctor, title writer, and dialogist. Her best written characters were those like herself: worldly, cynical, sharp-tongued. And more often than not, she created characters based on people she knew personally. In fact, the character of Blackie Norton, played by Clark Gable, is based on Wilson Mizner, a real-life adventurer that both writers actually knew in old San Francisco. Mizner, a dapper man-about-town in every outward appearance, was a rascal who led a notoriously scandalous life in San Francisco, New York, and Hollywood. Having met in 1927, Mizner became a close friend to Loos, so close that Loos thereafter insisted their relationship would have been closer if she were not already married. Mizner died in 1933, leaving Loos and Hopkins an opportunity to pay homage to him in San Francisco three years later.
The film's true star is, of course, the earthquake. It is believed that an uncredited James Basevi, one of MGM's resident special effects artist, did the major work in engineering the massive sequence in San Francisco, even though another special effects expert named Arnold Gillespie is actually credited. The following year Basevi moved to Fox Studios, where he created the horrendous storm that marks the climax of director John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). In 1939, Basevi returned to his original craft of art direction, subsequently working for Ford's later productions, including My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and Three Godfathers (1949). Basevi won an Academy Award for the art direction of The Song of Bernadette in 1943.
Producer: John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: Anita Loos, Robert Hopkins (story)
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: Tom Held
Original Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Maisie Burley)
BW-116m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee
San Francisco (1936)
AWARDS AND HONORS
San Francisco received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Assistant Director, Best Original Story, Best Director and Best Actor for Spencer Tracy. It won for Best Sound.
THE CRITIC'S CORNER SAN FRANCISCO
"With those earthquake scenes, with Miss MacDonald's golden voice and beauty, with the dimpled Mr. Gable in a he-man role, and with Mr. Tracy quietly humorous, quietly powerful as the understanding priest, San Francisco does not have to worry much about length or anything else."
The New York Sun
"It is a cunningly screened pattern of cinematic hokum. While the narrative is not to be recommended for its dramatic or emotional integrity, W.S. Van Dyke has shot the works in his direction and the performers have given the material the over-emphasis necessary to make it a showy entertainment. Mr. Gable, as Blackie, is the most successful member of the company...Spencer Tracy is not so fortunate in the part of the Holy Father, but the role is not one that lends itself to the actor's particular talents...As for Jeanette MacDonald, she is almost entirely nonplused by proceedings. When she is chanting ragtime ditties in a Barbary Coast cabaret she is engaging and believable, but there is not much to be said for her rendition of operatic fragments when she has been taken up by the dudes, and she scarcely ever achieves any power in her straight acting."
The New York Herald Tribune
"An earthquake, noisy and terrifying and so realistic that the customers will be dodging the falling buildings and mentally hurdling the crevices that yawn in the studio streets, is San Francisco's forte. That sequence, quite lengthy, alone is enough, but the picture has other assets and exhibitors can depend on it to do about everything but chop the tickets...For Gable and Miss MacDonald the leading roles were tailor-made. Virile gents are Gable's specialty, and in this assignment, besides the opportunity to act generally hard-boiled until seeing the light at the finish, he's given the chance to kayo three different guys. Miss MacDonald not only has a desirable part from a romantic standpoint, but enjoys so many singing chances that the picture nearly classes as a musical...Spencer Tracy plays the priest, and it's the most difficult role in the picture. It was a daring piece of writing to begin with and only the most expert and understanding handling could have kept it within the proper bounds."
"Out of the gusty, brawling, catastrophic history of the Barbary Coast early in the century, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has fashioned a prodigally generous and completely satisfying photoplay...During its two-hour course...it manages to encompass most of the virtues of the operatic film, the romantic, the biographical, the dramatic and the documentary. Astonishingly, it serves all of them abundantly well, truly meriting commendation as a near-perfect illustration of the cinema's inherent and acquired ability to absorb and digest other art forms and convert them into its own sinews...San Francisco's earthquake comes. It is a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions; a monstrous, hideous, thrilling debacle with great fissures opening in the earth, buildings crumbling, men and women apparently being buried beneath showers of stone and plaster, gargoyles lurching from rooftops, watermains bursting, live wires flaring, flame, panic and terror. Out of it, inevitably, comes the regeneration of Blackie Norton, the happy ending of the love story and a new San Francisco...For so impressive and thoroughly entertaining a picture, only a round robin of appreciation would do justice to the many who shared in its making. Miss MacDonald's voice seemed more melodious than ever...Mr. Tracy...is heading surely toward an award for the finest performance of the year...And, finally, Anita Loos' screenplay is well-knit and tautly written."
The New York Times
"San Francisco...offers cineaddicts views of two unusual phenomena: the San Francisco earthquake...and Jeanette MacDonald acting with her teeth. Of the two, the latter is the more appalling. The earthquake, however, has more noteworthy sound effects. In addition to glimpses of tables falling, walls caving, bricks pouring, houses toppling, streets gaping and a city burning, it includes enough squeaking, howling, booming and crashing to shake the rafters of the sturdiest cinemansion. An earthquake in the real Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer manner, it lasts for 20 minutes on the screen and in all respects except casualties no doubt betters its original of 30 years ago."
- Time Magazine
"MGM's old war-horse just about scrapes by on starpower - Gable's cynical saloon keeper, MacDonald's showgirl, and Tracy's Irish priest battle for each other's souls - until San Francisco gets clobbered by the earthquake of 1906. Then it's another matter entirely, for this is one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema, rivalling the chariot race in both Ben-Hurs as well as the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. It's a symphony of editing and special effects that more than makes up for the first 90 minutes or so."
- The TimeOut Film Guide
"Top-grade entertainment with extremely lavish production. Jeanette overdoes it a bit as the belle of San Francisco, but the music, Tracy's performance, and earthquake climax are still fine."
- Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume