Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Tonight's Movie: San Francisco (1936) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

For a superb example of studio-era filmmaking firing on all cylinders, look no further than MGM's SAN FRANCISCO (1936), now available on a beautiful Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

I was fortunate to see SAN FRANCISCO in 35mm at UCLA in 2012, and it completely wowed me. It's hard to believe nine years have passed since that screening! I wrote about the movie extensively on that occasion and encourage readers to visit that post in conjunction with this Blu-ray review.

Watching it again thanks to the Blu-ray release, the movie continues to impress; I was completely hooked for the duration of the film's 115 minutes.

As I wrote in 2012, the film truly has everything, including the actor who might be the ultimate example of the '30s movie star, Clark Gable.

Beyond Gable's dynamic screen presence, there's the wonderful Jeanette MacDonald, not to mention Spencer Tracy, in what I think was his most likeable and genuinely relaxed performance.

Gable plays Blackie Norton, proprietor of a Barbary Coast saloon. He hires Mary Blake (MacDonald), a proper yet spirited singer recently arrived in San Francisco. They fall in love, but Blackie's not the kind of man to offer marriage to parson's daughter Mary, so she leaves to sing at an opera house and eventually becomes engaged to the more respectable Jack Burley (Jack Holt).

Little does Mary know that behind the scenes Blackie and Jack are pulling all sorts of shenanigans trying to put the other out of business.

Despite her engagement to Jack, Mary still feels a strong pull toward Blackie...and then, after everyone has gathered for an all-night ball at which Mary wins a prize, the rumbling begins...and wow, what a sequence. Those 1936 special effects still have a huge, huge impact, especially when viewed in conjunction with Gable's reactions.

Sure, the movie's inspiring ending may be a bit hokey, but I'll be honest, I cried -- not just for the music and the characters' emotions, but for a bygone era of filmmaking.

W.S. Van Dyke directed from a script by Anita Loos, with black and white photography by Oliver T. Marsh. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won Best Sound.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks marvelous and shows off the award-winning sound to fine effect. From Jeanette's singing to the earthquake rumbling, it all sounds great, with the dialogue clear and distinct. Having watched my share of releases with mushy soundtracks which test aging ears, this disc was a pleasure.

The Blu-Ray includes a full array of extras carried over from the original Clark Gable Signature Collection DVD release: A reissue trailer; an alternate ending sequence; the Traveltalk shorts CAVALCADE OF SAN FRANCISCO (1940) and NIGHT DESCENDS ON TREASURE ISLAND (1940); the cartoon BOTTLES (1936); and the documentary CLARK GABLE - TALL, DARK & HANDSOME (1996) narrated by Liam Neeson.


Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


Anonymous Stefano said...

"San Francisco" is a favorite and I have been to several theatrical screenings over the years. There was an interesting reaction when it was shown at LACMA's lamented Bing Theatre weekday matinee, with the audience mostly senior citizens. Recall that in the movie it is demure Mary Blake who proposes marriage to big, bad Blackie Norton. A number of elderly women around me responded with very audible pleasure to that proposal, which seems to be rare enough today let alone 1936 or 1906.

I agree that "San Francisco" is one of the most impressive examples of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking. Few movies have ever covered so much ground in just under 2 hours. What other disaster film also has 5 minutes of well-staged opera? The quake scenes are so stunning that modern picture makers should take the hint and walk away from their computers, get their hands dusty making real movies.

Yes, the finale showing survivors marching back to the ruined city singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is hokey, but I find it irresistible because it is rousingly staged, and because there is at least some metaphorical truth to it. The movie ends on a note of triumph: these people have survived, and they will rebuild. A message to take to heart in 2021!

7:32 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Blackie is a dry run for Rhett, always attractive, humorous, kind and in his way self effacing. Let's call it the reincarnation of Rhett without having had the misfortune of knowing Scarlett. Oh, and in that hokey ending, which is appropriate, reminds me of the folks singing at the conclusion of Schindler's List, Gable distances himself from all that, with subtlety and style.

Not quite best of all, but close, there we have Clark and Spencer together for the first time, showing us all how it should be done; like playing ping pong.

9:00 AM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

I haven't seen this movie for years and years and years. Maybe it's time to revisit it. Was it the first actual disaster movie?

9:01 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Stefano, it's fun to read your memories of seeing SAN FRANCISCO at LACMA. Although I didn't see SAN FRANCISCO there, I have fond memories of my parents taking me some of their matinees in the '70s. I agree with all your comments on the movie.

Barrylane, that's a good point about the dry run. As you probably remember, I'm not always a Spencer Tracy fan, but I think he's just right here, and your description of his interplay with Gable is spot on.

DforDoom, this film has brought me great pleasure each time I've returned to it, I hope you'll enjoy revisiting it soon. In terms of disaster movies, there were a few which preceded it. One might call NOAH'S ARK (1928) a disaster movie, and there is also DELUGE (1933). If we move beyond earthquakes and floods, there are also films like MADAM SATAN (1930) which features a dirigible disaster. But SAN FRANCISCO is surely one of the most impressive -- the special effects remain stunning today.

Best wishes,

10:31 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

For some reason, I've never seen the whole of this film, so your review has encouraged me to suss it out and enjoy from beginning to end.

About Jeanette MacDonald: I don't know why, but I always think I won't enjoy her performance. This is unfair, because she's talented and she easily garners audience sympathy, and I always end up liking her very much, despite myself. Of the little I did see of this film, I thought she was superb.

12:53 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

How could I have forgotten MADAM SATAN? It's a favourite of mine. A visually amazing movie.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Silver Screenings, I really hope you'll enjoy it! I have a real soft spot for Jeanette and am glad you usually end up liking her when you play one of her films.

DforDoom, my husband just watched MADAM SATAN for the first time a few days ago. I was working at the time but popped into the room a couple times to enjoy looking at the screen for a couple minutes. What a movie, indeed!

Best wishes,

10:33 AM  

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