This Month

Behind the Camera - San Francisco

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