Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tonight's Movie: San Francisco (1936) at UCLA

I returned to the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood this evening to enjoy two fine 1936 entries in UCLA's ongoing Spencer Tracy festival, SAN FRANCISCO and LIBELED LADY. SAN FRANCISCO was shown in a beautiful 35mm print. I hadn't seen this film since watching it on commercial television as a teenager. What a pleasure to see this outstanding film on a big screen!

SAN FRANCISCO certainly exemplifies the old adage "They don't make 'em like they used to." A near-perfect package of entertainment, it features charismatic big-time movie stars in an engrossing story, which as a bonus is filled with beautiful music. Oh, and there's an earthquake!

Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) hires pretty Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) to sing in his Barbary Coast establishment. Mary's a hit with both the audiences and Blackie, but when Blackie offers Mary love, but not marriage, she decides to accept the offer of Jack Burley (Jack Holt) to sing more high-class music in his opera house.

Mary is also a success as an opera star, but off the stage she struggles with her love for the rough, not-too-respectable Blackie, especially when Jack asks her to marry him. Blackie's lifelong friend Father Tim (Spencer Tracy) counsels Mary and tries to help Blackie turn his life around. Then the Great Earthquake occurs...

All the reasons Gable was one of the biggest stars of the era were freshly brought home watching him in SAN FRANCISCO. As I noted when I saw him at UCLA last summer in HOLD YOUR MAN (1933), the commanding power of Gable's screen persona packs a real wallop when blown up on a big screen.

I think sometimes that perhaps over the years Gable has come to be taken a bit for granted, but it takes a very special performer to have an impact on Gable's level. Beyond his star power, he was a superb actor, equally capable of playing light scenes or deep emotion, with the ever-present twinkle in his eye making the audience root for him even when his character isn't always admirable. As played by Gable, it's completely believable that that Bad Boy of the Barbary Coast would have also anonymously donated an expensive organ to a struggling church.

Lovely Jeanette is always delightful, capable of going toe to toe with Gable and Tracy and carving out her own special place in the movie. Mary may waffle between Blackie and the more respectable life Burley offers, but it's a believable conflict, and Mary also shows a great deal of spirit when needed. MacDonald's singing is wonderful throughout the film, but two memorable numbers deserve special mention: the rousing "San Francisco" just before the earthquake, and the beautiful "Nearer My God To Thee," sung near the end of the film. These scenes linger in the mind hours after the film has ended.

I feel the role of Father Tim is one of Spencer Tracy's most likeable performances, low-key yet completely compelling. Just watch the scene in his office where he makes coffee and gets to know Mary; the viewer can't take eyes off of him. There are nice bits of humor sprinkled here and there, such as the sidelong way he looks at Gable near the end of the film. Father Tim effectively provides the audience with enough back story to know that Gable's Blackie is really a decent guy at heart.

Tracy was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, which is a bit curious, as the Best Supporting Actor category would have seemed more appropriate recognition, given his role and the amount of screen time.

In addition to Tracy's acting nomination, SAN FRANCISCO was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke), Best Assistant Director, and Best Original Story. It won the Oscar for Best Sound. It's worth noting that an Oscar category for Best Special Effects wouldn't be created until 1939. The earthquake sequence is certainly Oscar-worthy, and unlike the seemingly interminable but less impressive EARTHQUAKE (1974) decades later, it knows when to quit.

This movie runs 115 minutes. The very good script was by Anita Loos, based on a story by Robert E. Hopkins; the script was published in both hardcover and softcover by the Southern Illinois University Press in the late '70s. The black and white photography was by Oliver T. Marsh.

The supporting cast includes Jessie Ralph, Ted Healy, Shirley Ross, Margaret Irving, Harold Huber, Edgar Kennedy, Al Shean, and William Ricciardi.

The boys choir accompanying Jeanette at the organ dedication was the St. Luke's Episcopal Church Choristers; this church in Long Beach, California, supplied the boys choir for many films over the years, including MRS. MINIVER (1942).

SAN FRANCISCO is available on DVD as a single-title release or in the Clark Gable Signature Collection. The DVD contains an alternate ending; the future San Francisco seen in the final shot was changed for a 1948 re-release.

The DVD can be rented from Netflix, and the movie is available for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

It was also released on VHS.

Finally, SAN FRANCISCO can be seen from time to time on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available on the TCM website.

Related post: Tonight's Movie: Inherit the Wind (1960) at UCLA.

January 2021 Update: SAN FRANCISCO will be released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive in February 2021. My review of the Blu-ray may be read here.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

What you say about Gable is so true. For years I accepted him as a star and then came to appreciate the actor. Lately, it has finally sunk into my thick skull that the man combined both traits in a unique way which makes him always a pleasure to watch. One of these days I may be lucky enough to see him on the big screen.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Excellent post, and what a wonderful event. I second what you and CW have to say about Gable's unique charm and abilities. Oh, to see that movie on the big screen, with those special effects.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

Back in the '70s, the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco would run San Francisco for the week surrounding the anniversary of the Great Earthquake every year, and it packed 'em in every night. I remember that the rumble of the earthquake scene fairly shook the walls with an amazing amount of bass for a 1930s movie -- that's why it won (and richly deserved) the Oscar for sound recording.

Interesting that you say the earthquake sequence "knows when to quit." You're right, of course, but there's a reason for that: I read somewhere once that both tremors in the picture were edited to last exactly as long as they did in real life.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman and Jacqueline, I'm so glad to know that others see Gable as I do. I have really gained a fresh appreciation for Gable, seeing him on the big screen for the first time in years. (Aside from GWTW, a screening of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY when I was about 13 made a *huge* impression on me, not only make me a Gable fan but causing me to read the Nordhoff-Hall trilogy and anything I could find on Pitcairn Island.) I hope you both have the opportunity in the future to see Gable on the big screen -- this film is a prime choice for that!

Jim, that's so interesting that the film was regularly shown in San Francisco to commemorate the anniversary! Thanks for letting me know that. That rumbling certainly was effective. I love the bit you shared about the length of the quake(s). I'm not sure if it really ran a long time or it just *seemed* like it, but EARTHQUAKE drove me nuts because it appeared determined to make it last long enough for the audience to see how it impacted every actor in the film (grin). Being a native Californian, I appreciated the older but more realistic depiction.

Best wishes,

8:15 PM  

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