|SAN FRANCISCO (1936)|
W.S. Van Dyke
|Time: 115 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Won Academy Award for Best Sound. Nominations for Best Actor (Tracy), Director, Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
A strange mix of heavenly devotion and earthly disaster, this classic pairs the ever-charming Clark Gable with a woman way to good for him, which sort of ruins the fun. He stars as Blackie Norton, the owner of a popular gambling establishment on the Barbary Coast. Mary Blake (MacDonald) is a singer down on her luck looking to Blackie for a break. Never one to turn down a talented woman, especially one as beautiful and classy, he gives her a job at the Paradise as a singer. With nowhere else to go, Mary agrees to a two-year contract, though changes her mind when Blackie's less than honorable intentions come to light. Her immunity to his charms, wins her his respect and makes her all the more irresistible to him. So much so, that when his chief political rival offers to buy out her contract and place her on a stage where she belongs singing opera Blackie refuses to let her go. Not even a plea from his childhood friend, Father Tim (Tracy), or a threat against his business by Nob Hill landowner Jack Burley (Holt) can change Blackie's mind.
He knows Mary's in love with him and is determined to keep her by his side. However, their meeting of the hearts is irrevocably interrupted when Blackie admits his doesn't believe in God or many of his rules, including the one about the necessity of marriage. She leaves the Paradise, accepting Burley's offer to get her a position at the Tivoli Opera House. Unlike Blackie, Burley is an upstanding gentleman who asks Mary to be his wife. Not ready to give up the fight, Blackie shows up to stop Mary's opening night performance, since she's in breach of contract, but once he sees her onstage he realizes what a waste her talent is to the customers of the Paradise. That being said, he lures her back once more with a promise of marriage, which will take place after his run for city supervisor is over. Mary is the only one thrilled with this turn of events. When Father Tim sees how Blackie is exploiting his dear and devout friend, he convinces Mary to leave him once and for all, before her reputation is ruined for good.
To get back at Blackie, Burley has the Paradise raided on the night of the annual Chicken Ball, a charity event that earns the winner of a citywide talent contest $10,000. Blackie desperately needs the money to keep his club alive, but with all his talent in jail for the night, his situation is hopeless. That is until Mary steps in. Her rousing rendition of "San Francisco" gets the crowd on their feet and wins the gold-filled trophy for the Paradise, Her excitement turns to sadness when Blackie rejects her help like she rejected him. Their quarrel comes to an immediate halt when the building begins to heave and shake. A terrible earthquake rocks the city, killing many instantly as building after building crumbles to the ground. Blackie and Mary are separated in the stampede for safety. Aftershocks rattle the already terrified survivors as they watch their city erupt in flames. All Blackie can think about is Mary. He wanders the city aimlessly for hours on end looking for her, desperately hoping she's still alive. A chance meeting with Father Tim brings him the news he's looking for and a new understanding about the ways of the Lord. Now that he's found God, they can start their new life together, helping San Francisco become a great city once again.
Yes, those last few sentences are a bit heavy-handed, but so are the final 10 minutes of this otherwise entertaining romantic tale. Blackie's sudden conversion is ridiculous and slightly offensive, yet Gable is so sincere you almost believe it. For Blackie to deserve a woman like Mary, he has to move out of the gutter and amend his gambling ways. If this film had been made two years before, they probably would have ended the film with them getting marriedŠon the stage of the Paradise. Once the Production Code began to be strictly enforced, sinners either had to turn over a new proper leaf or they found themselves in jail. Or occasionally, depending on the genre, dead. Blackie's heart turning to gold is pure hogwash of the highest order and would ruin this film if the rest of it, especially the disaster sequences, weren't so entertaining. I'm not sure I liked the pairing of Gable with someone so classy, yet MacDonald proved she could hold her own and gave him a good reason to clean up his act. There's something about her, and a spark between them, that makes you believe she's worth the trouble. The musical sections sort of slow down the wit and pace, yet, again, prove why Mary is worth fighting for.
I find it hard to fathom how Tracy could have finagled a Best Actor Oscar nod, when he's in barely a third of the film and Gable, who's the star, is completely overlooked. Tracy's presence is the moral compass of the story, but that still doesn't make his performance all that memorable. Ah, the Academy voters. Their choices never cease to amaze. Of course, the real reason anyone still watches this film today would have to be to see the city of San Francisco disintegrate into a pile of rubble. Though almost 70 years old, those sequences still pack an emotional wallop that takes your breath away. Having been through a Big One myself, I can only thank God it was after the advent of better building techniques. The utter devastation is horrible to watch, even though some of the camera tricks and techniques mostly the scenes dealing with the out-of-control fires are obviously faked. The actual earthquake effects are pretty convincing and well done, holding their own against more recent disaster films like EARTHQUAKE, which fails to add anything new to the bag of cinema tricks when it comes to this natural phenomenon. All in all, SAN FRANCISCO is a moralistic romance wrapped in disaster that will leave adventure junkies bored and love seekers thrilled. There's a lot of romantic guff before all hell breaks lose, so viewer beware. If you're into classic films, this is a must see.