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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