SAN FRANCISCO (MGM 1936) Warner Archive
MGM publicity of its day declared W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) the picture Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, teamed for the first – and only – time, were ‘born to fall in love’. I have often wondered about that; Gable’s rugged manliness pitted against the studio’s ensconced ‘iron butterfly’; MacDonald just a little too refined to give off smoldering sparks of sensuality to match or even triumph over her charismatic co-star's earthy animal magnetism. San Francisco is a resplendently superfluous bit of nonsense, masterfully sold as the epitome of chic good taste. Anita Loos’ screenplay moves like gangbusters through a fanciful yarn about a rough n’ tumble saloon keeper, Blackie Norton (Gable) falling madly for this regal chanteuse, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who dreams of becoming a great opera star. He recognizes her class, but only insofar as it will lend an air of authenticity to his saloon, and, saves her from starvation, only to be repaid with a conflicted romance repeatedly stalled by Mary’s ambitions to rise above his station in life.
Above all else, San Francisco is a celebration of that lusty bygone mecca of pre-modern infamy where anything could be bought or sold; the hypothetical 'sin capital' leveled to the ground by a devastating earthquake in 1906. Loos incorporates the quake as the divining moment in Blackie and Mary’s relationship; the feuding duo reconciled by the consciousness each almost came to losing the other. Mary and Blackie’s resolution gets smoothed over by a third cog in this spinning wheel; Spencer Tracy’s Catholic priest, Father Mullin. In years yet to follow, Tracy would be called upon again and again to play benevolent clergy, despising every moment of it. But in San Francisco, he is a sublime deus ex machina for these bitterly star-crossed lovers; so obviously right for one another if only she would let her tiara slip just a little and he could descend from his ego-driven soapbox to admit man does not live by ‘bread’ alone.
San Francisco is typical of the film fare Gable’s career, as the undisputed king of Hollywood, was built upon, shot quick and dirty by director, W.S. Van Dyke, whose guerrilla-style film-making – bringing his movies in on time and well under budget - was much in demand at MGM – particularly on L.B. Mayer’s watch after the Thalberg era had ended in 1936. Thalberg truly believed in Metro’s motto – ars gratia artis (or ‘art for art’s sake); that it mattered not how much a picture cost to produce so long as every last penny showed up on the screen. The profits would follow their ‘high quality’ output. Mayer, however, preferred to keep tighter reins on his budgets. Ultimately, San Francisco emerges as a clash between these two mindsets, begun under Thalberg’s auspices before his untimely death and thereafter begrudgingly afforded every luxury the studio had at its disposal by Mayer. Mayer could afford to be philanthropic where Gable was concerned. His numero uno male star had an unimpeachable track record for bringing in big box office.
Gable’s raw intensity as a 'guy's guy' never fails to impress. He remains an extraordinary figure from the golden age of Hollywood, unique in the uninhibited robustness of his physicality, the sheer breadth of his machismo (ostensibly, he never took his stature as a He-man seriously, thus making it even more deliciously appealing), as well as his sadly underrated acting chops to carry off this uber ‘superman’ persona, merely as par for the course and an extension of his own genuine self. In reality, Mr. Gable was a far more congenial and sociable fellow; relatively shy and much more interested in chumming with the boys than playing the field with the ladies. While on screen he always managed to convey something of the untamed and unattainable; a stud that every woman swooned over. But in private Gable had married young, and, to a much older woman who helped mold and shape his early career. On the sly, he sired a child with actress, Loretta Young before beginning a closeted affair with madcap comedian, Carole Lombard, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Gable during the shooting of Gone with The Wind (1939).
In retrospect, San Francisco does not appear at all the kind of picture Jeanette MacDonald would have preferred to add to her list of achievements. MacDonald, so nicknamed ‘the iron butterfly’ because of her impenetrable resolve to do things ‘her way’ (almost as readily to lead her into temperamental conflicts with Mayer), had nevertheless reigned supreme in Mayer’s mid-decade resurrection of the musical operetta; having already come from a tenure as Paramount’s exotic bird of paradise, cast mostly in director, Ernest Lubtisch’s saucy European-themed musical mis-adventures. Metro attempted to maintain this inspiration of European sophistication, casting MacDonald opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow (1933). But by mid-decade, Mayer had tapped MacDonald’s potential as half of a formidable operatic team; the other, belonging to the studio’s resident male baritone, Nelson Eddy (unflatteringly nicknamed, ‘the singing capon’ because he generally lacked sex appeal). Indeed, without MacDonald, Eddy is often a queerly emasculated figure on the screen. Yet, with her, he acquires an unusual and highly appealing sense of place – if not in the same league as Gable – then certainly capable of holding his own, particularly in their melodic duets.
The bulwark between Gable’s earthy magnetism and MacDonald’s ‘to the manor born’ gentility is Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin. In life, Tracy’s demeanor – particularly in the thirties – could hardly be considered saintly. A conflicted, oft’ self-pitying and tortured artist, he drank to excess, and chose an enduring love affair with Katherine Hepburn over marital fidelity (as a devout Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife). Nevertheless, ‘on screen’ Tracy remains the soul of rectitude. I suppose this is why they call it acting. And Tracy, for all his humanly flaws, remains another of the finest actors ever to appear in American movies. His initial screen test had not ingratiated him to Mayer who promptly told Thalberg, “We don’t need another galoot. We already got Wallace Beery!” Indeed, Tracy’s foray into movies illustrates the awkwardness Mayer initially had in discovering the actor’s niche. But Tracy’s placement in the cinema firmament is unique in that he lacks the physical appeal as a leading man and yet still managed to become one almost by default, owing to his on-screen chemistry with Hepburn in a series of popular ‘man vs. woman’ dramadies produced between 1940-1960. In between these lighter moments, Tracy also proved he could handle intense drama and stand alone as ‘the star’ of almost any genre. In San Francisco, Tracy is a figure of unruffled fortitude and compassion – a buffer for the romantic sparing between the obdurate Blackie and self-sacrificing Mary. She eventually forsakes her aspirations for high culture to perform the gregarious title song at Blackie’s saloon; bringing down the house – literally – with a little help from Mother Nature.
Plot wise: San Francisco opens on New Year’s Eve, circa 1906. Loos’ screenplay concerns starving operatic singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) who auditions for scamp nightclub owner, Blackie Norton (Gable). Although Blackie embarrasses Mary by asking to see her legs, he quietly softens when she acquiesces out of sheer desperation to land the job. Blackie hires Mary after she passes out at his feet…literally, if only from hunger. However, when socialites, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Maestro Baldini (William Ricciardi) hear Mary sing, they offer her a contract at the local opera house. Alas, Mary is bitterly forced to decline. Her contract with Blackie stipulates an exclusive ‘two year’ run. Burley offers to buy up the contract. Blackie can name his price. But Blackie desires to turn Mary into a ‘dolly’ – chiefly against her will, and moreover, because he is in love with her. Mary goes along with Blackie’s ideas because she has already fallen for him. But Father Mullin recognizes a brewing toxicity in their relationship. He suggests Blackie loosen the yoke on their professional arrangement so Mary can pursue her dreams of becoming an opera star. At first, Blackie resists. But when the strain of their relationship overwhelms Mary, Blackie allows her a brief respite from his ironclad contract.
Mary sings at Father Mullin’s mission church and later, under Burley’s guidance, she makes her operatic debut. In the balconies, Blackie quietly observes as Mary becomes an overnight sensation before his very eyes. Two things now become immediately apparent to Blackie: first, Mary has left his tutelage behind. She has outgrown him and can manage a career better than anything he could offer her. Second: Mary must make a decision where her future will reside – as Blackie’s romantic life partner, abiding by his rules, and held by rights under a slavish contract made to his saloon, or with Jack Burley – a man she does not love, but is willing to pursue in order to advance her legitimate career. When Blackie reminds Mary, he has not terminated her contract, merely suspended its terms temporarily, she storms off. A short while later Mary elects to return to Blackie’s saloon. After all, had he not ‘discovered’ her, there would have been no Jack Burley – not even the chance to succeed as she has since. Blackie is proud and boastful. He wants no part of her charity.
But Mary takes to the stage in a bawdy showgirl’s costume to belt out ‘San Francisco’ – Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann and Gus Kahn’s rambunctious anthem to the city by the bay. The packed audience, including Burley, is stirred to hysteria over Mary’s rousing rendition. But only seconds later the earth beneath the city begins to tremble uncontrollably. In the resultant chaos, the patrons panic and are trampled underfoot as an epic quake strikes, literally ripping apart the city and leveling its buildings to rubble. Douglas Shearer actually won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, largely for this sequence. Indeed, the deep bass rumble and writhing of the quake is rumored to have terrified some theater patrons when the picture premiered in San Francisco. But it is James Basevi, Russell A. Cully and A. Arnold Gillespie’s special effects that remain a wonderment to behold; holding up even under today’s scrutiny; an ingenious amalgam of miniatures, full-size sets, models and rear projection; Oliver T. Marsh’s gorgeous B&W cinematography and Tom Held’s superb editing all conspiring to produce six minutes of exhilarating epic disaster.
Immediately following the cataclysm, surviving citizens begin their rescue and recovery efforts. To prevent the collapse of more buildings and stop a three-alarm blaze from consuming the rest of the city, the fire department is ordered to dynamite all existing structures whose foundations have been irrevocably damaged. This includes the Knob Hill fortress of Mrs. Burley, who watches helplessly as the family home her father built is leveled to the ground. Blackie finds Jack Burley’s remains buried beneath a pile of bricks, still clutching a feather from Mary’s gown. Mercifully, Mary is not among the dead. Blackie begs Father Mullin to help him in his search. But only after Mullin realizes the disaster has humbled Blackie before God does he lead him to the outskirts of the city where Mary is administering to the wounded and dying. Blackie gets on his knees and gives thanks for Mary’s survival, vowing to be a different man. Witnessing Blackie’s conversion, Mary returns to his side; a reprise of the song, San Francisco yielding to a dissolve from its fire-ridden decay to the contemporary metropolis it had become by 1936.
The last act of San Francisco is a fairly religious experience. As in the days when America’s film industry was collectively managed by self-professed pious individuals, showmen and moguls who fervently believed in God, country and the ten commandments…even the ones they never obeyed, the finale to San Francisco relinquishes its zest for crass commercialism to the nation’s Judeo-Christian allegiances promised to a higher authority. Partly to mask the dominantly Jewish-held control of the entertainment industry, though chiefly to appease and prevent government intervention via censorship of their cloistered kingdoms, the moguls helped to create a vision of America indivisibly wed to Roman Catholicism. This is embodied in the movie by Spencer Tracy’s benevolent patriarch of the church. The film’s first and second acts are structured around exposing the moral depravities of a city drowning in its own hedonism (highly sanitized and glamorized under Cedric Gibbons’ superb art direction).
The reformation that occurs in Blackie after the quake is indicative of the change in San Francisco itself; from its Sodom and Gomorrah-esque den of iniquities to a thriving cosmopolitan center, presumably dedicated to more altruistic human pursuits. Viewed today, San Francisco ranks among MGM’s finest efforts from the 1930’s and one of Clark Gable’s biggest hits to boot. Alas, Gable and Jeanette MacDonald would never again appear together in a picture; chiefly due to MacDonald’s discontent while shooting the picture and Gable’s intense dislike of her. Although the property had initially been brought to MacDonald with shared enthusiasm, perhaps wisely thereafter, she realized the movie really did not belong to her. It remains a Gable picture, as any picture starring Gable (save Gone with The Wind) has remained so. There is just too much he-man on the screen to suggest anyone else could carry their share of the load. And while Gable’s ascension to the throne in popular entertainment would continue throughout the early 1940’s, until Lombard’s death and Gable’s enlistment in the war deprived him of that devilish ‘little boy’ quality he so infectiously possessed as a grown man, MacDonald’s tenure as Metro’s grand diva would rapidly fizzle after 1939. She made only a few films in the early 40’s, retiring from the picture business to pursue aspirations on the stage and a lucrative recording and radio career.
In the past we have severely wished for more Gable back catalog to become available on Blu-ray. By 2018, this ought to have been a foregone conclusion. Alas, Warner Home Video has kept this one-time ‘king’ a closely guarded secret in its embarrassment of riches yet to be mined in hi-def. No Gable/no sale. How depressing. I will pause a moment here to express my discontent with both Warner proper and the Warner Archive (WAC) for not having taken a much more proactive stance on releasing more bona fide classics in 1080p. While WAC’s output has been much appreciated in terms of sheer numbers – and of course quality – their choice of catalog for Blu-ray teeters on the verge of becoming highly suspect; with ‘B’ and even ‘C’ grade fodder like ‘It Came From Hell’ or ‘The Green Slime’ taking precedence over movies like San Francisco. By now, we ought to have had more than a handful of examples from the Gable repertoire out there for public consumption in 1080p; starting with San Francisco, and presumably, to include such miraculous entertainments as Red Dust, Test Pilot, Idiot’s Delight, Honky Tonk and Boom Town – to name but a handful so undeniably deserving of the honor.
Warner Home Video’s DVD of San Francisco is quite stunning. Most of the B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with a very smooth visual characteristic that is quite satisfying. Age-related artifacts are present to varying degrees throughout this transfer, appearing a tad heavier during the earthquake sequence. Contrast is solid, although there is some fading around the edges of the early reels and weaker than anticipated black levels. There’s also some very minor built-in flicker to contend with and the occasional water damage. But what is most remarkable about this DVD is how aggressive the bass tonality is during the earthquake sequence. Even in mono, the sound field suddenly comes alive with a thunderous ovation of crumbling brick, metal and glass; summoning nature’s wrath quite convincingly. *Please note: there are two competing versions of San Francisco currently available: the out of print (but widely available on Amazon) legitimately authored DVD and the WAC MOD-DVD reissue. The legitimately authored DVD contains an alternate ending, a few vintage featurettes and a rather clumsily produced 'documentary' on Gable's career. I believe the WAC edition has jettisoned all of these extras and is bare bones movie only. There are no extras. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)