Saturday, June 24, 2017

Stubs - San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936) Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt, Ted Healy Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Screenplay by Anita Loos. Produced by John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman. Black and White. Run Time: 115 minutes. U.S.A. Drama, Musical, Disaster

When we think of disaster films, we tend to think of the 1970’s and Irwin Allen, called the “Master of Disaster.” His productions included such films as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). These films helped to define the disaster genre, with their over-the-top situations and its stable of star cameo appearances. But while Allen may have been the Master, he was far from the first to make a disaster film.

The genre dates back to the beginnings of film, with Fire! (1901) made by James Williamson of England. Throughout silent films, disaster films were being made. The Titanic, which sank in 1912, was the subject of a pair of films, In Nacht und Eis (1912) and Atlantis (1913). The Bible was used as the basis for Noah’s Ark (1928). The trend continued when films added sound. Tidal waves destroy New York City in Deluge (1933) not to mention New York being ravaged by a giant ape in King Kong (1933). Add to the list, The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), a film about the real volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. So, it should be no surprise that the destruction of San Francisco only 30 years prior should be fodder for Hollywood.

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 AM, a 7.8 earthquake struck San Francisco and Northern California. Not only were at least 3000 people killed, but most of the city was razed as a result. When gas lines ruptured, fires spread. Without water, they were forced to blow up buildings with the hope of creating fire breaks. Damage and death were felt as far away as Santa Rosa and San Jose. The earthquake was so strong that the course of the Salinas River in Monterey County was permanently diverted 6 miles south.

The aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake that struck San Francisco.

So, I know what you’re asking, “If San Francisco is a disaster film why is the genre musical?” You can’t have Jeanette MacDonald in a movie and not have singing. She made several early sound films with Maurice Chevalier at Paramount, but is perhaps best known for her work with Nelson Eddy at M-G-M. Her popularity was near its height during 1936, in which she starred with Eddy in one of the highest-grossing films, Rose-Marie, and with Clark Gable in San Francisco.

The first draft of the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz based on a story by Robert Hopton on January 18, 1935, but was rewritten by Anita Loos. While most screenwriters were male, Loos was arguably the first-ever staff scriptwriter, thanks to D.W. Griffith, who put her on the payroll at Triangle Film Corporation. By then she had already written hundreds of scripts. Between 1912 and 1915, she wrote 105, all but four of which were produced. After leaving Triangle, Roos went to work for Douglas Fairbanks, writing the films that would make him a star.

Loos is also known for the racy comic novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), which was adapted into a Broadway musical and twice made into a movie. While the film from 1928 is now lost, the 1953 musical version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is the best-known adaptation.

After several rewrites, Loos had the screenplay that would be made into San Francisco. Even though Loos had written the script with Clark Gable in mind, actor Bruce Cabot was tested for the lead. Several other actors were supposed to appear in the film, including Mickey Rooney.

The film went into production on February 14, 1936, and didn’t conclude until May 14th , which is a long schedule for back then when studios were releasing about one film a week.

When the film opens, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) and Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) are in their shorts boxing. Tim manages to knock Blackie down before they call the exercise off. Blackie gets dressed in his suit while Tim puts on his collar. Blackie, as it turns out, is a saloonkeeper and gambler, while Tim is a Roman Catholic priest.

Club-owner Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) boxing with
his best friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy).

On New Year’s Day 1906, there are fires along the Barbary Coast which interrupt the revelries of Blackie Norton, the owner of the Paradise Club. At first, he’s worried that it is his club that’s on fire, but when he sees that it’s not, he rushes to the blaze to help in the rescue of two children trapped inside.

Afterward, he returns to the Paradise, where Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) has come looking for work. A recent arrival from Benson, Colorado, Mary is the daughter of a country preacher and out-of-work. Even though she has no experience other than singing in the church choir, Blackie likes her and offers her a two-year contract to sing at his club. He lets her stay at his place, to sleep on the couch, but as a precaution, she locks his door to keep him in his room.

Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) sings for Blackie while Mat (Ted Healy) watches.

The next morning, she’s gone, but Blackie can’t worry about her, because a citizen’s group, upset by the New Year’s Eve fires, come to urge Blackie to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on the promise of reforming the outdated fire code, as well as protect the interests of the Barbary Coast's merchants and club owners.

Blackie is encouraged by Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), his childhood friend, and accepts the challenge. His candidacy prompts Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a Nob Hill resident and the owner of tenements along the Barbary Coast, to come to Blackie and advise him against running.

Burley also owns the Tivoli Opera House and comes accompanied by the Tivoli’s maestro, Signor Baldini (William Ricciardi), who hears Mary’s singing and they immediately offer her an audition. But even though Mary has aspirations to become an opera singer, Blackie refuses to let her out of her contract with him.

Another reason to have Mary sing; Blackie sends her to Father Mullin's church.

One night, between her shows at the Paradise, Blackie sends Mary to sing at Father Mullin’s church to be one of the singers at the unveiling of their new pipe organ. It gives the two of them a chance to talk. Tim tells Mary about his boyhood friendship with Blackie and expresses the hope that Blackie will one day act as a force for good.

Father Mullin and Mary talk about Blackie.

Later, Burley offers to buyout Blackie’s contract with Mary, but Blackie leaves the decision up to her. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mary decides to stay at the Paradise. Blackie tells her then that he’s crazy about her and sets out to throw a party to celebrate their new relationship. But quickly, Mary starts to feel like just another conquest for Blackie and flees to the Tivoli.

On her opening night at the opera house, Burley proposes to her, but she does not accept. Later, Blackie shows up accompanied by a process server, bent on enforcing his contract with Mary and stopping the show. But when he hears her singing, Blackie is so moved that he physically stops the process server from fulfilling his duty.

Blackie and Jack Burley (Jack Holt) are rivals for Mary's affections.

After the show, Blackie goes backstage to Mary’s dressing room. She knows that she loves him and proposes marriage to him. Burley learns from Blackie about their plans and appeals to Mary, but Blackie presents her with an ultimatum by asking if she wants to marry him or stay at the Tivoli.

Backstage before her first performance back at the Paradise, Mary asks Blackie if they can set a date for the wedding. He tells her that he wants to wait until after the election. Tim comes to the Club.

Mary's "revealing" outfit is too much for Father Tim and he
tries to prevent her from performing at Blackie's club.

When he sees the revealing costume that Blackie has her dressed in he denounces Blackie for exploiting her. Tim tries to prevent her from going onstage. In the scuffle, Blackie punches Tim. When Mary sees that, she quits and leaves with the Father.

Burley’s mother (Jessie Ralph) convinces Mary to accept her son’s proposal after telling her that Blackie is not a good man for her. She relates her own story, starting as a washerwoman in Portsmouth Square. She had a man like Blackie in her life but chose instead to marry a solid man like the Elder Burley. Hearing that story convinces Mary to make her choice.

Burley celebrates his winning of Mary by arranging to have the Paradise’s liquor license revoked. Police raid the Paradise the night of the Chickens Ball, a competition that Blackie’s performers have won every year. They close down the club and jail his performers. Blackie really needs the prize money to help finance his campaign, but with his entertainers jailed he has no hope. He receives yet another blow when his friend Mat (Ted Healy) informs Blackie that the citizen’s group is withdrawing their support for his candidacy because the campaign has become too personal.

Mary and Burley attend the Chickens Ball and are confronted by Della Bailey (Margaret Irving), an old and loyal friend of Blackie’s, who tells them what she really thinks of Burley for closing down the Paradise.

Della Bailey (Margaret Irving) a "friend" of Blackie's brings him to
the Chickens Ball to hear Mary sing on behalf of his club.

With the competition almost over, Mary announces that she’ll be performing on behalf of the Paradise. Della sends for Blackie, while Mary gets on stage, where she sings a crowd-pleasing rendition of “San Francisco,” a song written especially for the movie by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. But just as she is about to be declared the winner, Blackie arrives and refuses to take the award from her. Feeling humiliated, Mary prepares to leave with Burley when the earth starts to shake and the building begins to crumble. Even though Mary and Blackie call out for each other, they are separated in the chaos.

The quake strikes and destroys San Francisco.

Within a few minutes, San Francisco is destroyed and Blackie is buried when a wall collapses on top of him. After the earthquake subsides, Blackie pulls himself out of the rubble and goes searching for Mary. There are fires breaking out all over the city, but without water, the firemen are resorting to dynamiting buildings with the hope of stopping the fires.

Blackie walks the streets looking for Mary.

Blackie finds Burley’s dead body and then walks to the family’s Nob Hill mansion. Mrs. Burley is being evacuated so that her home can be dynamited. She already seems resigned to the death of her son and tells Blackie that they both need “God’s help.”

Blackie goes to Nob Hill to tell Mrs. Burley (Jessie Ralph)
about her son's death. They watch as San Francisco burns.

After wandering around the city, Blackie finds Tim, who is doing his part in comforting the injured. Blackie asks him if he’s seen Mary. Realizing Blackie’s contrition, Tim takes him to a refugee camp where Mary is leading the dispossessed in a hymn. Mary sees Blackie as he kneels down in prayer to thank God for sparing Mary. She goes to his side and they’re reunited just as word comes that the fires are finally out.

Mary is, what else, leading the survivors in a hymn.

Blackie and Mary join the others as they march back to the city singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” The film ends at a vantage point looking down at the city in ruins and then morphs into a then modern view of the city following reconstruction.

The film proved to be quite popular. Made on a budget of $1.3 million, according to MGM records the film earned $5,273,000 ($2,868,000 domestically and $2,405,000 overseas) and made a profit of $2,237,000. The film would also be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Outstanding Production; Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke); Best Actor (Spencer Tracy); Best Writing (Original Story) for Robert Hopkins; Best Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and winning for Best Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer).

For an early disaster film, the effects were considered state of the art, though nowadays they seem almost quaint with its use of models. This is definitely in the days before CGI and before special effects were considered worthy of awards. But there is more to the film than some shaking, collapses and fires. This is supposed to be a romance set against the tragedy, something James Cameron would do as well in Titanic (1997).

The star of the film, Clark Gable, plays his usual macho man with a soft heart that he would play in many of his films. He is what was considered a man’s man back in the day with heavy drinking, gambling and a way with the ladies. Again, this doesn’t seem to be a real stretch for him. Despite that, he was somewhat nervous about appearing in a musical opposite Jeanette MacDonald without being able to sing himself.

And while MacDonald can sing, she is not my cup of tea. Her voice may be a great delight to some, but for me, every time she opens her mouth to sing, it is like so many fingernails on a chalkboard. I have never been a fan and this is not the film to change that opinion. She plays wholesome well, but at 32 or 33, her age when she made the film, she is a little too old for the just starting out role.

Spencer Tracy doesn’t seem to have a big enough role to have been nominated for Best Actor. While an important character, his is clearly in a supporting role in this film. Tracy, like many film actors, had a stage background, and was once called “the best-goddamned actor I've ever seen" by none other than George M. Cohan. There doesn’t seem to be a part that he couldn’t play and excel at, however, this is not really a showcase for his talents, nor does the role seem to challenge him much.

Ted Healy, who has the role of Mat, may not have been a big star or even a name you might recognize, but he is responsible for one of the most famous comedic trios to ever grace the silver screen. Healy started out in Vaudeville, working in an act that included his childhood friend, Moses Horowitz. The two would eventually go their separate ways and Healy would have a very successful career, becoming one of its highest paid actors on the circuit, making $9000 a week. He added acts to his stage show, even including acrobats.

It was when Healy’s acrobats quit in 1922 that Moses would re-enter the picture. Moses, also known as Moe Howard, became a part of the act, eventually adding his brother Shemp in 1923 and Larry Fine in 1925 and the Three Stooges were born, even though they were sometimes known as “Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen,” "The Three Lost Souls" and “Howard, Fine and Howard.” The group would eventually part ways with Healy in 1930 over a movie contract.

Director W.S. Van Dyke had once worked with famed and infamous silent film director D.W. Griffith, now an outcast in Hollywood. But Van Dyke put his old boss to work, having him direct some of the mob scenes in the film. Another silent director, Erich von Stroheim, who by now was acting and not directing in films, also helped with the screenplay, but without receiving credit.

Overall, San Francisco is more of a time capsule than a really great movie. While I wouldn’t discourage you to watch it, there are other films from this time period that I would recommend more. If you’re a fan of Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, then you will enjoy seeing these two actors together. If you’re a fan of Jeanette MacDonald, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Be sure to check out our Academy Awards Review Hub for more films which were nominated and won Hollywood's most prestiguous award. 

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