San Francisco

Ring a Ding Ding

San Francisco (1936)

All I really remembered from my past viewing of San Francisco years ago was that it had to do with the San Fran earthquake of 1906, but as I began watching it this week, I started to question that conclusion. Although this Clark Gable movie concludes with the quake and its aftermath as a sort-of climax that will cleanse all the ills between he and his romantic interest in Jeanette MacDonald, the majority of the movie is virtually written to stand alone.

Gable is Blackie Norton, a somewhat notorious owner of the Paradise Cafe, a bar and dance hall. Just after the somewhat inexplicable time of after midnight at the turn of the New Year 1906, MacDonald’s Mary Blake arrives at the joint to ask for a singing job. The man obliges and allows her to sleep on his couch despite her initial preacher’s daughter convictions. Mary desires to be an opera singer and her style has to be brought down to the Paradise’s level, yet she manages to make an impression on the owner of the Tivoli opera house and the theater’s maestro. They want to have her audition for the big time but Blackie holds a newly signed two-year contract over their heads and forces the woman to stay at his bar.

Mary finally starts to sweeten to Blackie when that opera house owner Jack Burley (Jack Holt) comes calling yet again. Blackie tells the man he will give him the girl’s contract if she wants to go, but Mary stays loyal to the brute when he says he does not desire for her to leave. The two finally kiss but Mary cannot be with this sinful man and leaves to join the opera company. Blackie attempts to obstruct her debut but is blown away by her talent and the woman “harpoons” him into an engagement not realizing the businessman’s conditions require she chose the opera or he. She chooses the opera and an engagement to Burley.

Mixed into all of this is Blackie’s childhood friend Father Tim (Spencer Tracy) who sides with Mary in her endeavors because he knows Blackie’s ways will not make her happy. Circumstances also come to prove, however, that Burley is not as squeaky clean as Mary thought as the man takes revenge against Blackie despite having already won the prize bride. When the earthquake hits, Blackie is forced to face what truly matters in his life, which is Mary, naturally.

Gable puts on a great performance especially in the last 15 minutes or so when he must scour the rubble of San Francisco in search of his love. Not only his facial expressions but the performances of the distraught around him are incredibly gut wrenching and completely turn the mood of the picture into one of great sorrow.The special effects are also fantastic and horrifying. Curiously, the Mary character is not searching for the man she allegedly loves despite his evil ways but is instead singing to the masses in a refugee camp. True, we are more interested in Blackie confronting what is most important (now that his cafe is gone) than the pure woman, but it makes their resulting reunion not as rewarding for the viewer.

As the audience, we know Mary will choose Blackie in the end, but because of Blackie’s poor decisions along the way he is not quite as desirable match for her as we would like. MacDonald herself if also too innocent for those viewers who might side with Gable as the protagonist as we would rather see him with a more suitable mate. Overall, however, San Francisco is a great picture and worth checking out if only for the last 20 minutes.

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2 Responses

  1. Rachel,
    I really enjoyed your well thought out review of San Francisco. I’m pretty fond of the film but I haven’t seen it in awhile. I hope it re-airs soon. I totally agree with what you said about the last 15 minutes being the stand out for Gable.

    Happy New Year to you! Looking forward to what you have ahead here at MacGuffin in 2012.
    Page

  2. I wanted to slap Spencer Tracy’s character throughout this film! Jeanette MacDonald is not my favorite actress, but she was good in this. The earthquake and subsequent fire scenes are great. Nice review.

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