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Following the opening credits, a written prologue reads: "San Francisco-guardian of the Golden Gate stands today as a queen among sea-ports-industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was-splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent-that perished suddenly with a cry still heard in the hearts of those who knew her, at exactly Five-Thirty A. M. April 18, 1906," the actual time and date of the quake. Although onscreen credits list actor Bert Roach's character name as "Freddie Duane," within the film, a billboard spells the first name "Freddy." According to information contained in the story file for the film in the M-G-M collection at the University of Southern California Cinema-Television Library, Herman J. Mankiewicz submitted the first script based on Robert Hopton's original story on January 18, 1935. That script was very different from the produced film. The first Anita Loos script, submitted on April 23, 1935, was somewhat closer in content to the produced film, but still different. Several other drafts submitted by Loos over the course of the few months evolved into the produced film.
A April 25, 1936 memo in the story file indicates that at one time an epilogue was planned for inclusion in the film in which an older "Blackie" and "Mary," accompanied by their children, are seen in contemporary San Francisco. The memo also indicates that a "modern day" setting was being considered for the beginning of the film as well, thus placing the main story entirely in flashback. John Hoffman, credited onscreen with "Montage effects," worked as the second unit director for the opening "New Year's Eve" sequence that appears in the film, and was assigned to direct the modern epilogue, which apparently was not filmed. Information in the file confirms that James Basevi, at that time the head of M-G-M's special effects department, was responsible for the creation and direction of the "Earthquake" montage. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item on September 28, 1936, Basevi left M-G-M, along with his first assistant, Robert Layton, to work for United Artists, following completion of his work on The Good Earth. His next production was Samuel Goldwyn's The Hurricane.
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Bruce Cabot was at one time tested for the lead, although screenwriter Loos said that she wrote it with Clark Gable in mind. Another news item notes that Mickey Rooney was supposed to play a role in the film, but he did not appear in the completed film. Another cast sheet includes Moyer Bupp, Henry Hanna, Jasper Sock, Marilyn Harris, Elaine Von and Helen Westcott in the cast as "boys" and "girls," but their participation in the released film has not been confirmed. According to a February 17, 1936 Hollywood Reporter production chart, Nat Pendleton and Duncan Renaldo were initially in the cast, but they were not in the released film. News items during production noted that former M-G-M "prop man" Dave Marks was to appear in the picture, as were former silent film stars Al Shean, Mary MacLaren, Jean Acker, Harry Myers, Myrtle Stedman and Rosemary Theby; however, only Shean's appearance in the released film has been confirmed. Actor Jack Holt was loaned to M-G-M from Universal for the picture. According to the film's pressbook, D. W. Griffith, for whom San Francisco director W. S. Van Dyke had been an assistant on The Birth of a Nation, visited the set on the final day of shooting and was coerced into directing the orchestra during the "San Francisco" number sung by Jeanette MacDonald just prior to the earthquake sequence. The presskit also related that actor Walter Huston, an old friend of Van Dyke's, sang bass as a member of the chorus backing up MacDonald in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" number. The role played by MacDonald's character in the San Francisco Opera House was "Marguerite" in Faust by Charles-Franois Gounod.
The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to M-G-M's The Great Ziegfeld. Other nominations included Best Director for Van Dyke, who lost to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Best Actor for Spencer Tracy, who lost to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur and Best Original Story for Hopkins, who lost to Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney for The Story of Louis Pasteur. The picture was named one of the Top Ten films of the year by Film Daily Year Book and was one of the top box office hits of the year. A news item in Daily Variety noted that Warren Shannon, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, had requested that M-G-M change the name of the picture or else remove the earthquake scenes which he deemed "libelous to the city." The title song has remained popular since the film's release. According to news items, it was adopted as the city of San Francisco's official song by Mayor Angelo J. Rossi in June 1936, and by the University of San Francisco in October 1936. In 1984, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Quentin Kopp proposed re-adopting it as the official song, replacing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," which had been adopted in 1969, but then mayor Dianne Feinstein opposed the idea and the change was not made. M-G-M re-issued the picture in 1948. Many films and television plays have used San Francisco at the time of the earthquake for a setting. Another film made during the 1930s in which the quake was featured prominently was the 1938 Warner Bros. film The Sisters (see below), directed by Anatole Litvak, and starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.