Cast & Crew
W. S. Van Dyke
In San Francisco, the new year of 1906 is ushered in with a fire along the Barbary Coast, interrupting the revelries of Blackie Norton, owner the the Paradise Cafe, who rushes to the blaze to help. Blackie returns to the Paradise and meets out-of-work singer Mary Blake, the daughter of a country preacher. Although Mary's only experience has been singing in a church choir, Blackie is attracted to her and offers her a two-year contract. Soon after, a citizens' group, angered at the New Year's Eve fire, urges Blackie to run for supervisor on a ticket of reforming the outdated fire ordinances. Blackie, encouraged by his boyhood friend, Father Tim Mullin, accepts the challenge. Blackie's candidacy prompts Jack Burley, a Nob Hill patrician who owns tenements along the Barbary Coast, to visit Blackie and advise him against running for office. Burley, who also owns the Tivoli Opera house, is accompanied by the Tivoli's maestro, Señor Baldini, who hears Mary sing and offers her an audition. Although Mary aspires to be an opera singer, Blackie will not release her from her contract. One night, between shows, Blackie sends Mary to Tim's church to sing at the unveiling of its new organ. Tim tells Mary about his boyhood friendship with Blackie and expresses the hope that some day Blackie will act as a force of good rather than evil. Soon Burley offers to buy Mary's contract, and Blackie leaves the choice to Mary. When, out of loyalty, Mary decides to stay, Blackie responds that he is crazy about her. He then decides to throw a party of celebrate their new relationship, but she soon realizes that she is just another conquest to him and leaves for the Tivoli. Some time later, on Mary's opening night at the Tivoli, Burley proposes, but she does not accept. Meanwhile, Blackie enters the opera house accompanied by a process server whom Blackie has brought to enforce Mary's contract. During the opera, however, Blackie is so moved by Mary's singing that he physically prevents the process server from stopping the performance. After the finale, Blackie visits Mary in her dressing room and she proposes to him. He accepts, but makes it contingent upon her return to the Paradise. As Mary soon prepares to go onstage at the Paradise in a revealing new costume, Tim visits and denounces Blackie for exploiting her. When Tim refuses to allow Mary to go onstage, Blackie strikes him, after which Mary quits and leaves with Tim. Mary finally accepts Burley's proposal, after being convinced by his mother that Blackie is not good for her, but Burley, not satisfied with winning Mary, arranges for the Paradise's liquor license to be revoked and Blackie's performers jailed. The raid occurs on the night of the "Chickens Ball," an entertainment competition that Blackie has won every year. With his entertainers jailed, Blackie has no hope of obtaining the prize money that he badly needs to finance his campaign. Blackie is then given another blow when his friend Mat reveals that the citizens group is withdrawing their support because his campaign has become "too personal." When Mary and Burley go to the Chickens Ball, Della Bailey, an old friend of Blackie's, denounces Bailey for closing down the Paradise. Hearing this, Mary announces that she is going to represent the Paradise and sings a crowd-pleasing rendition of "San Francisco." Della sends for Blackie to witness Mary's performance, but just as Mary is proclaimed the winner, Blackie angrily goes onstage and refuses to take the award when she tries to give it to him. Humiliated, Mary prepares to leave with Burley when the ground quakes and the building starts to crumble. Mary and Blackie call to each other, but are separated in the chaos. Within a few moments, San Francisco is destroyed as buildings tumble and streets open-up. When the shaking stops, Blackie pulls himself from the rubble and searches for Mary. After finding Burley's dead body, Blackie goes to the Burley mansion, where Mrs. Burley, who is being evacuated so that her home can be dynamited to stem the tide of fires now raging through the city, tells him that they both need "God's help." Wandering through the desolation of the city, Blackie finally finds Tim, who is comforting the injured. Recognizing Blackie's contrition, Tim then takes Blackie to a refugee camp, where Mary is leading the dispossessed in a hymn. As Blackie kneels down to thank God for finding Mary, she sees him and goes to his side. They are reunited just as word comes that the fires are out. Blackie and Mary then join others marching back to the city singing "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah."
W. S. Van Dyke
Warren B. Hymer
Nigel De Brulier
Adrienne D' Ambricourt
Fred A. Fagna
John "skins" Miller
J. D. Jewkes
St. Luke's Choristers
Sarah F. Adams
Nacio Herb Brown
Julia Ward Howe
Bernard H. Hyman
Oliver T. Marsh
W. S. Van Dyke
Western Costume Co.
Edwin B. Willis
William Von Wymetal
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Essentials - San Francisco
Blackie Norton is the rough-and-tumble owner of the Paradise, a sketchy saloon on San Francisco's Barbary Coast in 1906. Refined but down-on-her-luck Mary Blake dreams of an opera career, but is forced to take a job singing in Blackie's saloon to make ends meet. Wealthy aristocrat Jack Burley falls in love with Mary and wants to help her opera career. Blackie, however, is in love with Mary also and refuses to let her go. When Blackie begins to exploit Mary at the Paradise, his childhood friend Father Mullin encourages him to turn over a new leaf. The cynical Blackie, however, will have none of it, and his tumultuous relationship with Mary soon ends in separation. When the devastating San Francisco earthquake hits on April 18, 1906, the city is brought to its knees and Blackie finally finds himself on the path to redemption.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman
Screenplay: Anita Loos
Based on a story idea by Robert Hopkins
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie, Harry McAfee, Edwin B. Willis
Editing: Tom Held
Music: Herbert Stothart (Music Director), William von Wymetal (Operatic Sequences Staged By)
Costume Designer: Adrian, Western Costume Co.
Sound: Douglas Shearer
Special Effects: John Hoffman, James Basevi
Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Ted Healy (Mat), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Burley), Shirley Ross (Trixie), Margaret Irving (Della Bailey), Harold Huber (Babe), Edgar Kennedy (Sheriff), Al Shean (Professor), William Ricciardi (Signor Baldini), Kenneth Harlan (Chick), Roger Imhof (Alaska), Charles Judels (Tony), Russell Simpson (Red Kelly), Bert Roach (Freddie Duane), Warren B. Hymer (Hazeltine).
BW-116m. Closed Captioning.
Why SAN FRANCISCO is Essential
One of the most popular films of its day, San Francisco was one of MGM's crowning achievements and was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
San Francisco marked the first time that two of MGM's greatest stars, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, ever worked together in a film. Audiences liked the way they played off each other so well that MGM paired them together in two more blockbusters, Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940). San Francisco is also the film that helped establish Spencer Tracy as a major star and one of Hollywood's finest actors. Tracy had been under contract at 20th Century Fox before moving to MGM. However, Fox hadn't been able to tap into his full potential and Tracy's career never got off the ground there. Quickly after moving to Metro, Tracy starred in Fritz Lang's electrifying Fury (1936) and San Francisco was released right on its heels. Tracy's two dynamic and completely different performances in each film made audiences and critics stand up and take notice. According to MGM, Tracy's fan mail went from 300 to 3,000 letters a week following the release of San Francisco.
San Francisco was the film that proved Jeanette MacDonald could handle a serious dramatic role. The film was a pet project of the singing actress, who up till then was known primarily for her roles in light operettas such as The Merry Widow (1934) and Naughty Marietta (1935). It was also the film where she first introduced the rousing title song by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann with lyrics by Gus Kahn, which has since been adopted by the city as one of its enduring official anthems.
San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins were both native San Franciscans who remembered the city by the bay before it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1906. They both wanted the film to pay tribute to the city that they deeply loved. The film was also intended as a loving tribute to larger-than-life Barbary Coast figure Wilson Mizner, on whom Clark Gable's character Blackie Norton was based, as well as MGM producer Irving Thalberg who had recently passed away.
The film's true star is, of course, the earthquake. It is believed that an uncredited James Basevi, one of MGM's resident special effects artist, did the major work in engineering the massive sequence in San Francisco, even though another special effects expert named Arnold Gillespie is actually credited. The following year Basevi moved to Fox Studios, where he created the horrendous storm that marks the climax of director John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). In 1939, Basevi returned to his original craft of art direction, subsequently working for Ford's later productions, including My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and Three Godfathers (1948). Basevi won an Academy Award for the art direction of The Song of Bernadette in 1943.
by Andrea Passafiume & Scott McGee
The Essentials - San Francisco
Pop Culture 101 - San Francisco
According to The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco the city's famed Castro Theatre shows San Francisco on April 18th every year in commemoration of the 1906 earthquake and fire.
According to the book Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald, "Ten days after the lethal quake of October 17, 1989, World Series baseball fans, unconcerned by the lingering potential of aftershocks, packed into Candlestick Park, home to the San Francisco Giants. Following a solemn minute of homage to the dead, they proceeded to extol their city's gutsy vitality with a spirited chorus of 'San Francisco'."
In the film, Jeanette MacDonald introduced the title song "San Francisco" written by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann with lyrics by Gus Kahn which has since become a popular official anthem for the city.
by Andrea Passafiume
Pop Culture 101 - San Francisco
Trivia - San Francisco - Trivia & Fun Facts About SAN FRANCISCO
The rousing title song introduced in the film by Jeanette MacDonald became an instant classic recorded by numerous artists all over the world. The city of San Francisco adopted it as one of its official city songs in 1984, and it still instigates waves of affection from its native citizens to this day.
It was rumored that legendary epic director D.W. Griffith, W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke's mentor, directed one scene in San Francisco, though which one is still in debate. Some claim that Griffith directed the big earthquake sequence, while others claim that he supervised one of Jeanette MacDonald's operettas.
Director Woody Van Dyke reportedly used another of his friends from the old silent film days, Erich von Stroheim, to write additional dialogue for the San Francisco screenplay.
San Francisco marked the first time that actors Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy ever worked together. Audiences liked the way they played off each other so well that MGM paired them in two more blockbusters, Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940).
The shot during the earthquake sequence in which the street splits open was an astonishing visual effect in its day. It was achieved by people using cables to pull apart two hydraulic platforms with hoses underneath gushing water to simulate broken water mains.
San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins were both natives of San Francisco and wanted the film to pay tribute to the city that they loved.
One scene towards the end of San Francisco gave Clark Gable some trouble. It was the scene in which Blackie is so humbled after the earthquake that he falls to his knees and prays for Mary's safe return. Such a scene went against Gable's traditionally macho image, and he resisted doing it at first. Director Van Dyke finally came up with a solution: Gable would be shown from the back dropping to his knees-it was the only way Gable felt it would work for a tough character like Blackie.
There are two endings in existence for San Francisco. In the film's original theatrical release, the film ends with a montage of modern day (1936) San Francisco having been rebuilt that included a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction. For a 1948 re-release, however, the footage with the incomplete Bridge was removed.
One of the ballads that Jeanette MacDonald sings in San Francisco, "Would You?", was featured prominently in the 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain. In Singin' in the Rain it is the song that Debbie Reynolds' character has to dub for Lina Lamont when it turns out that Lina can't sing.
According to The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco some of the actual survivors of the real 1906 San Francisco earthquake became ill during the earthquake sequence when the film originally premiered and had to leave the theater.
by Andrea Passafiume
Famous Quotes from SAN FRANCISCO
"Well, sister, what's your racket?"
"I'm a singer."
"Let's see your legs."
"I said, I'm a singer."
"Alright, let's see your legs."
--Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) / Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald)
"Hey, I thought I told you not to wear that thing."
"Aw, gee, Honey, I think it's nice."
"Yeah? Well I think it makes you look cheap. Now don't wear it anymore. Blackie doesn't like it."
Blackie / Trixie (Shirley Ross)
"There's no law against an opera singer being slender, young and beautiful." Jack Burley (Jack Holt), referring to Mary.
"Well, we certainly don't do things halfway in San Francisco." Waiter at Chicken's Ball (William H. O'Brien)
"You're in probably the wickedest, most corrupt city, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end's going to be. But nothing can harm you if you don't allow it to because nothing in the world, no one in the world, is all bad." Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy) to Mary
"One never knows where one's going to find talent."
"No, no, one never does, does one?"
-Jack / Blackie
Trivia - San Francisco - Trivia & Fun Facts About SAN FRANCISCO
The Big Idea - San Francisco
One real-life character that had always intrigued Hoppy was Wilson Mizner, a colorful entrepreneur who had been one of the kings of the Barbary Coast in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. As Anita Loos described Mizner in her 1974 memoir Kiss Hollywood Good-By, "James Barrie has written that charm is the bloom on a woman; if she has it she doesn't need anything more. In the same manner, bravado can be the bloom on a man. He doesn't need anything more. Well-back in the Gay Nineties Wilson Mizner was at the beginning of a career of superb bravado." Hoppy, a San Francisco native like Loos, had always admired Mizner. "Hoppy and I had been children there at a period when Wilson Mizner had held forth," said Loos. "I had been unaware of his existence, but Hoppy had been more fortunate, he had been a messenger boy on the Barbary Coast where Wilson had run a gambling casino. Hoppy had never ceased to look on Wilson Mizner as an idol."
One day Hoppy came to Loos with the idea of writing a story centering on a character based on Wilson Mizner. Loos took the idea to MGM producer Irving Thalberg. "Knowing Irving's admiration for Mizner," said Loos, "I took occasion one day to tell him Hoppy's idea. Hearing it for the first time in straightforward English, Irving was astonished. 'Do you mean our Hoppy conjured up that good a yarn?' he asked. I assured him that he did. 'All right,' said Irving. 'Go ahead and write it.'"
From Hoppy's initial idea, Anita Loos fleshed out the screenplay that became San Francisco. "Hoppy and I wrote that movie," said Loos, "to the glory of Wilson Mizner and the Frisco all three of us knew when we were kids. We called our picture San Francisco and named the Mizner character 'Blackie Norton.'...Its plot was unadulterated soap opera, told in an underworld setting, and it became one of MGM's most durable hits."
Just before Loos and Hoppy finished the screenplay, however, tragedy struck. Irving Thalberg, beloved MGM producer known for his dedication to excellence in motion pictures, died. Thalberg's health had always been precarious, but his death at the age of 37 from pneumonia still sent shockwaves of grief throughout the Hollywood community. "With Irving gone," said Loos, "San Francisco became the most important issue in the lives of both Hoppy and me. Wilson Mizner had died in 1933 and our movie would be the means of waving both him and Irving a last good-by."
With Thalberg no longer around to helm San Francisco, the project was given to someone else. "...without Irving's help, we realized our movie faced grave danger," said Loos. "Who among that group of hobbledehoy MGM producers could understand the subtleties of a man like Wilson Mizner who was as lovable as he was monstrous? L.B. [Mayer] assigned our production to Irving's greatest disciple, Bernard Hyman. But poor Bernie was a victim of that special Hollywood naiveté that's incapable of recognizing bad taste, most of all, his own. We were worried."
Bernard Hyman's first order of business on San Francisco was to secure W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke to direct. Van Dyke, nicknamed "One-Take Woody" due to his brisk shooting style, was a solid director known for hit films such as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), The Thin Man (1934) and Rose-Marie (1936).
The San Francisco project soon came to the attention of singing star Jeanette MacDonald. MacDonald had only been at MGM a short time, but she had made a big splash with a quick succession of box office hits such as The Merry Widow (1934), Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose-Marie (1936). Her appearance in these light operettas had made her a instant favorite with audiences.
MacDonald, however, was not content to be simply a singing star in frothy operettas. She was eager to have more control over her career and find a role for herself that would prove she could handle dramatic acting as well. When she found out about the role of Mary Blake in San Francisco, she knew it would be perfect for her. She was soon assigned to star in the film, and studio head L.B. Mayer made sure that the script was tailored to MacDonald's particular talents. Several musical sequences were added and two original songs "San Francisco" and "Would You" were written for MacDonald to sing in the film.
For her leading man, Jeanette MacDonald was adamant that it should be the king of MGM, Clark Gable. "The role," she wrote in a letter to MGM's General Manager Felix Feist, "demands a fine, virile actor, otherwise the whole story goes to pot." Gable, however, was not interested. He had heard rumors that MacDonald could be a prima donna on set, and he detested being around actresses that were pampered and spoiled. "Hell, when she starts to sing nobody gets a chance," Gable reportedly told MGM executive Eddie Mannix at the time. "I'm not going to be a stooge for her while she sings in a big, beautiful close-up and the camera shoots the back of my neck!"
When Gable initially refused to be a part of San Francisco the studio tried to persuade MacDonald to consider William Powell or Robert Young in the role of Blackie Norton. MacDonald, however, remained determined. It had to be Clark Gable. When MacDonald heard that Gable's packed schedule wouldn't allow him to make San Francisco even if he wanted to, she took matters into her own hands, lobbying MGM studio brass to help her convince Gable to take the part. "The entire outlook was so perfect," she wrote in a letter to Felix Feist, "the whole setup so 100% box-office, with a brand new team from the public's viewpoint, also Metro's, that I am heartbroken and at the same time furious that such an opportunity is going to be missed...Isn't there anything the Sales Department can do in having one of Gable's other assignments postponed so that this picture can be made as great as it should be with him in it?...Shouldn't it be intriguing for the public to see me with him instead of a musical comedy man like Chevalier or Novarro?...And shouldn't it be intriguing by the same token for the public to see Gable with me instead of again with Crawford or Harlow?" Seeing San Francisco's potential, MGM agreed to try and help MacDonald get her man.
Meanwhile, Woody Van Dyke had to cast the key supporting role of Father Tim Mullin. Spencer Tracy had just recently joined the MGM family after spending five years making lackluster films for RKO and other studios. No one had yet figured out how to utilize Tracy's unique acting talents, but MGM hoped to change that. The studio had just starred Tracy in Fritz Lang's electrifying drama Fury (1936) which hadn't yet been released, and director Van Dyke was eager to cast him in the role of Father Mullin in San Francisco. It was a supporting role, and Tracy wasn't sure he wanted to take it. However, Van Dyke convinced him that Father Mullin was key to the success of the picture. "...there's one important thing [San Francisco] has to have...and that's humanity," Van Dyke told Tracy. "Father [Mullin] has to supply it, and so help me, Spencer, you're the only actor I know who can bring humanity into a part. I don't know where you got it, but you have it." According to the 1987 book Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson, Tracy was conflicted. "I had a tough time deciding whether or not to get myself out of the part," said Tracy. "I thought of how my father wanted me to be a priest, and I wondered if it would be sacrilegious for me to play a priest. All of my Catholic training and background rolled around in my head, but then I figured Dad would have liked it, and I threw myself into the role."
In order to help convince Clark Gable to co-star with her in San Francisco Jeanette MacDonald took a drastic measure. She put her next MGM project Maytime on hold and took an indefinite leave of absence from the studio without pay in order to wait for Gable's schedule to be free. By making this move, she hoped to prove her commitment to the film and to Gable. MacDonald's gesture did impress Gable, and the thought of working with Spencer Tracy enticed him, but still he continued to resist. Eventually, L.B. Mayer pressured Gable by threatening him with suspension if he did not make the film. Finally, begrudgingly, Gable relented and agreed to play Blackie Norton.
Before cameras could roll on San Francisco, there was one more hurdle for the film to jump, which came from the Production Code office. The office vehemently objected to a scene in the screenplay in which Blackie punches his childhood friend, Father Mullin, in the jaw. "The administrator for the censor board, Joe Breen, sent for Hoppy and me," said Anita Loos, "and said grimly, 'Look here, folks. Gable is such an idol that the public may take his side when he knocks out a priest and cheer for the triumph of evil.' Hoppy's indignation made him more than usually incoherent, while I argued that our hero was to be regenerated in the long run; that the more wicked he was, the greater glory to the powers of good that would finally bring him to his knees. 'But his regeneration takes place in the last scene,' Breen protested. 'In the meantime a priest has been humiliated in a way that will bring the whole Catholic Church down on us.' Hoppy and I loved that sequence; to cut it out would emasculate the entire picture. But what could save it, now that Irving was no longer there to back us up?"
"The next day Hoppy and I were pacing the Alley as was our custom," continued Loos, "this time cursing the idiotic shortsightedness of censors, when Hoppy suddenly thought of consulting the priest of the small Catholic chapel across the boulevard from the studio. Father Benedict was very movie-wise. He was often sent for to expertise on religious scenes; his confessional was frequently visited by show-biz sinners; all of which made him tremendously understanding and sympathetic to movies. Father Ben heard our problem and racked his brains. Then presently his face lit up. 'I've thought of something that may save your precious scene,' he said. Following Father Ben's suggestion, we went to work immediately and sketched out the scene. Next day we took it to Joe Breen. Hops proceeded to defend our script as if he were Shakespeare fighting to keep the soliloquy from being tossed out of Hamlet. Our new scene took place in a gymnasium where we showed that our priest could easily outbox, outslug, and outsmart Blackie. So when the two men faced their moment of truth, Tim would purposely allow Blackie to knock him out; thus 'presenting the other cheek' and making our priest the hero of the encounter. I knew our solution was weak, but Hoppy's fast talk finally won out. San Francisco was granted the go-ahead."
With a first-rate screenplay and an A-list cast of Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy assembled, San Francisco was shaping up to be something very special for MGM. In addition, word was out that the film's recreation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake would be a spectacular special effects sequence unparalleled in movie history.
by Andrea Passafiume
The Big Idea - San Francisco
Behind the Camera - San Francisco
Clark Gable may have finally agreed to star opposite Jeanette MacDonald in the film, but that didn't mean he had to like her. Gable was cordial to MacDonald, but could never warm up to her when the cameras stopped rolling. Assistant Director Joseph Newman explained their inability to click as simply a "mismatch in routine." According to Edward Baron Turk's 1998 book Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald, "Gable liked to start shooting at nine sharp; MacDonald needed an extra hour before feeling ready; and when Van Dyke granted her that hour, Gable stewed with resentment."
As much as she had lobbied for Clark Gable to be her co-star, MacDonald couldn't have been more underwhelmed by his behavior on the set. "Gable is a mess!" she wrote in a letter to her manager Bob Ritchie after the first week of shooting. "I've never been more disappointed in anyone in my life. It seems (according to Mayer) he's terribly jealous of me and acts very sulky if I get more attention on the set than he...I like [Spencer] Tracy very much. There's as much difference between the two as day from nite (sic). Gable acts as tho' he were really too bored to play the scenes with me. Typical ham."
One episode in particular involving Gable left a less than favorable impression on MacDonald. Before filming their first love scene together, Gable reportedly filled up on a big spaghetti lunch. When the time came for him to kiss her, his breath was so bad from garlic that MacDonald nearly fainted.
Clark Gable did, however, get along with Spencer Tracy. They were close in age, both liked to tie one on, and the two managed to forge a friendship. Both possessed qualities that the other admired. Gable deeply respected Tracy's acting ability, and Tracy couldn't help but be envious of Gable's heartthrob status as a leading man.
While San Francisco writers Anita Loos and Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins considered W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke a director of considerable talent, they became worried shortly after filming had begun. Van Dyke, said Loos, was "an oaf when it came to the subtleties of the San Francisco tenderloin. We were horrified watching Woody direct a scene where Blackie reproves an underworld sweetheart for wearing a gaudy necklace and, indicating it, said, 'Blackie told you not to wear that. It looks cheap.' Those words should have been tossed off gently and with a smile, as Wilson Mizner would have done. But Van Dyke caused our hero to jerk the necklace off the girl's throat with a brutality that cut into her skin and to bark out the dialogue in the manner of a hooligan. Not all of Gable's native charm could overcome the loutish behavior in which Van Dyke was directing him. We proceeded to [producer] Bernie [Hyman's] office to demand a retake. Bernie was surprised. 'Why I thought the way Woody directed that scene was swell!' For over an hour Hoppy and I conjured up the spirit of Irving [Thalberg], explaining that one crass move on the part of our hero would cause the entire movie to flounder beyond recall. Bernie, bless his simple heart, finally got our viewpoint. He ordered the sequence reshot with Hoppy on the set to guide Van Dyke. Pacing the Alley the next day I said to Hoppy, 'When Irving died, he'd taken the studio to the top of a toboggan run. From now on there's only one direction MGM can go.' 'Babe, you just said a mouthful!' Hoppy declared, thus repeating a phrase that he himself might have added to the English language."
The recreation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire was a crucial element of the film. It was to be a 20 minute sequence of spectacular special effects that looked as realistic as any newsreel footage. As author Warren G. Harris explained in his 2002 book Clark Gable: A Biography, "Special effects wizards A. Arnold Gillespie and James Basevi showed the earth opening up and streets collapsing, which they achieved with hydraulic platforms pulled apart by cables, with hoses underneath gushing water to simulate broken mains. Sound engineer Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma) devised a way of literally shaking theater audiences by using nothing more than the simple monophonic amplification systems that were standard in those days." It was a sequence unparalleled in movie history at the time and sure to amaze audiences - if they didn't run screaming out of the theaters first.
All in all San Francisco took 52 days to shoot at the cost of 1.3 million dollars - an expensive film for its day. It opened in the summer of 1936 to excellent reviews and was an instant box office smash. Of the spectacular earthquake sequence the New York Times said, "It is a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions." Variety said, "An earthquake, noisy and terrifying and so realistic that the customers will be dodging the falling buildings and mentally hurdling the crevices that yawn in the studio streets, is San Francisco's forte."
San Francisco stood as a major achievement in storytelling for MGM as well as its state of the art special effects which set the standard for all films that followed. Actress Jeanette MacDonald, who had championed the project from the beginning, proved she could handle a dramatic role while writers Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins proudly paid tribute to deceased friends Wilson Mizner and Irving Thalberg as well as their beloved native city by the bay.
San Francisco touched a chord with audiences, which is why it remains a vital and relevant classic more than 70 years after its initial release. The film is much more than a melodrama with a spectacular earthquake at its center. San Francisco is an inspiring story of one man's spiritual transformation and the triumph of a city and its people that have been brought to their knees by disaster. "While the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican Parties were wringing their hands over the country's economic plight," said writer Edward Baron Turk, "San Francisco offered Depression-weary Americans a portrait of people rescued from calamity through faith in God and their own resourcefulness."
by Andrea Passafiume
Behind the Camera - San Francisco
San Francisco may have won for its sound recording, but its ties to the silent era were particularly significant. W.S. Van Dyke had been an assistant to silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith, and openly admitted that he learned everything he knew about filmmaking from the master. It was rumored that Griffith directed a scene for San Francisco, but which scene is in dispute to this day. One report had him directing one of Jeanette MacDonald's operetta scenes, while another had him responsible for some mob scenes at a nightclub. Some claimed it was the incredible 20-minute earthquake climax. Griffith's own experience directing grandiose scenes in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) gives this theory some merit. Griffith was not the only silent film figure to benefit from Van Dyke's affection and loyalty to the silent period. Long forgotten silent film performers who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression were give! n small, bit parts in the picture: Early slapstick comedienne Flora Finch; one-time Vitagraph star Naomi Childer; Rudolph Valentino's first wife, Jean Acker (a star in her own right during the silent days); and King Baggott and Rhea Mitchell, whom Van Dyke had directed in The Hawk's Lair (1918). Van Dyke even used silent film director Erich von Stroheim to write additional dialogue for the Anita Loos/Robert Hopkins script.
And speaking of Anita Loos, San Francisco was really her and fellow writer Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins's picture in spirit. The two long-time friends and co-workers were both from San Francisco and were only too eager to write about their native city. The script was actually based on a story by Hopkins, a writer best known for his witty dialogue and almost exclusively used by the studios as a "gag" writer. This was a good living for a talented writer, one who would be called in to supply a much-needed bit of humor in a quip for a specific character type.
Meanwhile, Loos was well known in Hollywood for her scripts that were frothy and full of puns and gags, after several decades in the film biz that started, ironically enough, with D.W. Griffith. Loos worked mostly at MGM as a scenarist, script doctor, title writer, and dialogist. Her best written characters were those like herself: worldly, cynical, sharp-tongued. And more often than not, she created characters based on people she knew personally. In fact, the character of Blackie Norton, played by Clark Gable, is based on Wilson Mizner, a real-life adventurer that both writers actually knew in old San Francisco. Mizner, a dapper man-about-town in every outward appearance, was a rascal who led a notoriously scandalous life in San Francisco, New York, and Hollywood. Having met in 1927, Mizner became a close friend to Loos, so close that Loos thereafter insisted their relationship would have been closer if she were not already married. Mizner died in 1933, leaving Loos and Hopkins an opportunity to pay homage to him in San Francisco three years later.
The film's true star is, of course, the earthquake. It is believed that an uncredited James Basevi, one of MGM's resident special effects artist, did the major work in engineering the massive sequence in San Francisco, even though another special effects expert named Arnold Gillespie is actually credited. The following year Basevi moved to Fox Studios, where he created the horrendous storm that marks the climax of director John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). In 1939, Basevi returned to his original craft of art direction, subsequently working for Ford's later productions, including My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and Three Godfathers (1949). Basevi won an Academy Award for the art direction of The Song of Bernadette in 1943.
Producer: John Emerson, Bernard H. Hyman
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: Anita Loos, Robert Hopkins (story)
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: Tom Held
Original Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Maisie Burley)
BW-116m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee
Critics' Corner - San Francisco
San Francisco received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Assistant Director, Best Original Story, Best Director and Best Actor for Spencer Tracy. It won for Best Sound.
THE CRITIC'S CORNER SAN FRANCISCO
"With those earthquake scenes, with Miss MacDonald's golden voice and beauty, with the dimpled Mr. Gable in a he-man role, and with Mr. Tracy quietly humorous, quietly powerful as the understanding priest, San Francisco does not have to worry much about length or anything else."
The New York Sun
"It is a cunningly screened pattern of cinematic hokum. While the narrative is not to be recommended for its dramatic or emotional integrity, W.S. Van Dyke has shot the works in his direction and the performers have given the material the over-emphasis necessary to make it a showy entertainment. Mr. Gable, as Blackie, is the most successful member of the company...Spencer Tracy is not so fortunate in the part of the Holy Father, but the role is not one that lends itself to the actor's particular talents...As for Jeanette MacDonald, she is almost entirely nonplused by proceedings. When she is chanting ragtime ditties in a Barbary Coast cabaret she is engaging and believable, but there is not much to be said for her rendition of operatic fragments when she has been taken up by the dudes, and she scarcely ever achieves any power in her straight acting."
The New York Herald Tribune
"An earthquake, noisy and terrifying and so realistic that the customers will be dodging the falling buildings and mentally hurdling the crevices that yawn in the studio streets, is San Francisco's forte. That sequence, quite lengthy, alone is enough, but the picture has other assets and exhibitors can depend on it to do about everything but chop the tickets...For Gable and Miss MacDonald the leading roles were tailor-made. Virile gents are Gable's specialty, and in this assignment, besides the opportunity to act generally hard-boiled until seeing the light at the finish, he's given the chance to kayo three different guys. Miss MacDonald not only has a desirable part from a romantic standpoint, but enjoys so many singing chances that the picture nearly classes as a musical...Spencer Tracy plays the priest, and it's the most difficult role in the picture. It was a daring piece of writing to begin with and only the most expert and understanding handling could have kept it within the proper bounds."
"Out of the gusty, brawling, catastrophic history of the Barbary Coast early in the century, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has fashioned a prodigally generous and completely satisfying photoplay...During its two-hour course...it manages to encompass most of the virtues of the operatic film, the romantic, the biographical, the dramatic and the documentary. Astonishingly, it serves all of them abundantly well, truly meriting commendation as a near-perfect illustration of the cinema's inherent and acquired ability to absorb and digest other art forms and convert them into its own sinews...San Francisco's earthquake comes. It is a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions; a monstrous, hideous, thrilling debacle with great fissures opening in the earth, buildings crumbling, men and women apparently being buried beneath showers of stone and plaster, gargoyles lurching from rooftops, watermains bursting, live wires flaring, flame, panic and terror. Out of it, inevitably, comes the regeneration of Blackie Norton, the happy ending of the love story and a new San Francisco...For so impressive and thoroughly entertaining a picture, only a round robin of appreciation would do justice to the many who shared in its making. Miss MacDonald's voice seemed more melodious than ever...Mr. Tracy...is heading surely toward an award for the finest performance of the year...And, finally, Anita Loos' screenplay is well-knit and tautly written."
The New York Times
"San Francisco...offers cineaddicts views of two unusual phenomena: the San Francisco earthquake...and Jeanette MacDonald acting with her teeth. Of the two, the latter is the more appalling. The earthquake, however, has more noteworthy sound effects. In addition to glimpses of tables falling, walls caving, bricks pouring, houses toppling, streets gaping and a city burning, it includes enough squeaking, howling, booming and crashing to shake the rafters of the sturdiest cinemansion. An earthquake in the real Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer manner, it lasts for 20 minutes on the screen and in all respects except casualties no doubt betters its original of 30 years ago."
- Time Magazine
"MGM's old war-horse just about scrapes by on starpower - Gable's cynical saloon keeper, MacDonald's showgirl, and Tracy's Irish priest battle for each other's souls - until San Francisco gets clobbered by the earthquake of 1906. Then it's another matter entirely, for this is one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema, rivalling the chariot race in both Ben-Hurs as well as the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. It's a symphony of editing and special effects that more than makes up for the first 90 minutes or so."
- The TimeOut Film Guide
"Top-grade entertainment with extremely lavish production. Jeanette overdoes it a bit as the belle of San Francisco, but the music, Tracy's performance, and earthquake climax are still fine."
- Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Compiled by Andrea Passafiume
Critics' Corner - San Francisco
San Francisco - Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy in SAN FRANCISCO on DVD
The movie also features film theoretician Slavko Vorkapich's best and most famous montage sequence, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 -- which took place 100 years ago just last month.
Synopsis: Well-heeled man about town Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) is the owner of the Paradise, a wide-open show club on the wide-open Barbary Coast. Blackie is secretly generous to the financial needs of his old pal Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), a priest with no illusions of convincing Blackie that the sin city needs cleaning up. Blackie is more interested in getting the city government to pay attention to the Coast's need for a real fire department and building codes. Singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) dazzles Blackie with her voice and her looks but won't fall for his fast moves; instead she inadvertently starts a business war between Blackie and opera impresario Jack Burley (Tim Holt). It's obvious that Mary's voice belongs in the opera but Blackie wants to control her life on and off the stage. Blackie's rejection of religion keeps Mary at arm's length. The situation is at a standstill until the fateful great earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906.
It's tempting to call San Francisco the first disaster film but it really doesn't fit the pattern popularized by the likes of The High and the Mighty and The Towering Inferno. It isn't organized as a stack of soap opera sub-plots for an ensemble cast. The story isn't high art but the dramatics are sufficiently interesting to make the last-act eruption of the historic event a big surprise for many a viewer.
The movie is really an ode to the City by the Bay -- note that they didn't name it "Earthquake." In one scene a rowdy patron of the Paradise says he's from Los Angeles and is given the Bum's Rush. It was so popular that Fox copied its formula with another disaster-related period epic, 1937's In Old Chicago.
MGM's seemingly inexhaustible production team marshals vast sets and special effects that still thrill audiences. The film is progressive both technically and artistically. Many shots utilize primitive traveling matte work to combine crowds with miniatures and to put patrons into the balconies of a painted opera house. The earthquake sequence uses miniatures, full-scale crumbling "shaker" sets, rear projection and matte paintings. Its overall design is by Slavko Vorkapich, a specialist in semi-abstract montages utilizing experimental editing techniques usually seen in Avant-garde films. Vorkapich's effects are jarringly violent, even though they show little actual trauma. Shots of falling bricks and masonry are juxtaposed with people and horses looking up in terror, and visual association causes us to imagine them being buried or crushed. One shot simply tilts up and into a statue, making it look as if it is tipping onto our heads. Impressionistic blur-cuts of falling stones and dust turn the screen into chaos.
San Francisco represents the studio system at the top of its form. MGM tailors the main role for its top star Gable. He and Spencer Tracy are two-fisted heroes with differing philosophies. The attractive but corrupt Gable learns from disaster and comes over to the side of the angels. It's an unapologetically sentimental tale of redemption on the Barbary Coast.
Gable's Blackie Norton character is easy to peg as an idealized version of a studio mogul. The plot hangs on his fractured negotiations to keep and control a 'star' that he loves, even though he stifles her future in a higher class of entertainment. Blackie even puts Mary into a 'trashy' costume to rid her of high-toned notions. It makes us wonder if Louis B. Mayer fancied himself a lover of his female stars as well as their boss.
We're more acutely aware now of the calculation behind the religion in scenarios like this one. There's nothing wrong with Blackie Norton's big conversion scene, as living through a disaster doubtlessly moves many to prayer. The film's overpowering sanctimoniousness might have come from emotional story confabs in Louis B. Mayer's office: "Have Jeanette singing with the survivors, clutching orphaned children! Let her song bless the injured being carried into the surgeon's tent!" We can imagine Mayer's yes-men straining to top each other's cornball visual ideas.
The aftermath of the quake is beautifully handled. Norton wanders in a daze, overwhelmed by the scale of death and suffering; as strangers are reunited with their loved ones he realizes how desperate he is to find Mary. Blackie's guidance to prayer by Spencer Tracy wouldn't be so mawkish if the film didn't affect such a cloying attitude toward religion. Father Mullin's placid saint is personally dedicated to Blackie's spiritual destiny. Mullin bests Norton in boxing bouts, as we all know that Might is always Right. Mullin blesses or condemns Blackie depending on whether he's doing right or wrong by singer Mary Blake. Mary's voice is equated with spiritual perfection: She hits notes perfectly because her soul is pure.
Spencer Tracy was nominated for an Oscar for mostly staring with kind eyes and noble understanding. Tracy was obviously a great actor but tended to gravitate toward dead-cinch sentimental roles more often than demanding ones. He clicked with the studio heads (as did Gable, on a bigger scale) because he could be repackaged three or four times a year in the same part, only different. If the movies were interchangeable it was because people like Louis B. Mayer liked them that way.
The uplifting finale is an expression of the spirit of the entire nation, offering the story of San Francisco as an inspiration to work itself free of the Depression. When the call goes out that the fires are extinguished the editing mimics examples seen in Soviet films and leftist American work, like King Vidor's Our Daily Bread. Groups and lines of beaming citizenry advance downhill -- men, women, European and Asian immigrants -- in a glorious parade of humanity. "We'll build a NEW San Francisco!" someone shouts, as if the dispossessed citizens are going to start pouring foundations as soon as the smoke clears. You can bet that the reality of reconstruction in San Francisco wasn't quite the collectivist effort championed here. The people on the hill, for the most part, are analogous to last year's millions displaced from New Orleans -- the uprooted common citizens were probably the last to have a say in what the new city would be like.
Comic Ted Healey appears as a sidekick entertainer, without his 3 Stooges. Jessie Ralph's rich widow entices Mary to wed the dull Jack Holt, and bring fresh blood to the family. Shirley Ross plays Gable's second-string Paradise entertainer but would find immortality two years later by singing Thanks for the Memories with Bob Hope in The Big Broadcast of 1938. The famous D.W. Griffith did some second-unit directing and appears in one scene as an orchestra conductor.
Warners' DVD of San Francisco is an excellent transfer and encoding of a B&W film that shows minimal wear and tear - just a faint scratch or two and a few replacement sections of diminished quality. Overall it plays beautifully; it also sounds a lot better than older TV prints. Ms. MacDonald's voice is greatly improved and the rumble-rama sound mix for the earthquake scene holds up well. (* see footnote below)
The extras are led off by TCM's sleek docu on Gable, Tall, Dark and Handsome. Hosted by Liam Neeson, it's a great introduction to a star who still has a hold on the public imagination seventy years later. Featurettes include a trailer, two Fitzpatrick travelogues and a color cartoon called Bottles.
An alternate ending sequence is an extended finale with more and different shots of the 'present day' San Francisco that sprang from the ashes of the old; it's not clear why it was changed, unless it's to eliminate a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge still under construction.
* 1.Louis B. Mayer seemed to be a sucker for classy ladies with good singing pipes; MGM gravitated to warbly operetta at every opportunity. Jeanette MacDonald's trained voice and Polly-Pureheart screen persona must have been Louie's idea of female perfection.
For more information about San Francisco, visit Warner Video. To order San Francisco, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
San Francisco - Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy in SAN FRANCISCO on DVD
Well sister, what's your racket?- Blackie Norton
I'm a singer!- Mary Blake
Let's see your legs!- Blackie Norton
I said, I'm a singer!- Mary Blake
Alright, let's see your legs!- Blackie Norton
Hey. I thought I told you not to wear that thing.- Blackie
Ah gee, honey, I think it's nice.- Trixie
Yeah? Well I think it makes you look cheap!- Blackie
Now don't wear it anymore. Blackie doesn't like it.- Blackie
Spencer Tracy, playing a priest, makes a note to himself in one scene "that Rooney kid skipped Mass again..." Two years later, he again plays a priest in Boys Town (1938) and is charged with reforming a boy played by 'Rooney, Mickey' .
Jeanette MacDonald's older sister, Blossom Rock, signed with MGM and was given the name Marie Blake. Jeanette's character in San Francisco was named Mary Blake.
Following the opening credits, a written prologue reads: "San Francisco-guardian of the Golden Gate stands today as a queen among sea-ports-industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was-splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent-that perished suddenly with a cry still heard in the hearts of those who knew her, at exactly Five-Thirty A. M. April 18, 1906," the actual time and date of the quake. Although onscreen credits list actor Bert Roach's character name as "Freddie Duane," within the film, a billboard spells the first name "Freddy." According to information contained in the story file for the film in the M-G-M collection at the University of Southern California Cinema-Television Library, Herman J. Mankiewicz submitted the first script based on Robert Hopton's original story on January 18, 1935. That script was very different from the produced film. The first Anita Loos script, submitted on April 23, 1935, was somewhat closer in content to the produced film, but still different. Several other drafts submitted by Loos over the course of the few months evolved into the produced film.
A April 25, 1936 memo in the story file indicates that at one time an epilogue was planned for inclusion in the film in which an older "Blackie" and "Mary," accompanied by their children, are seen in contemporary San Francisco. The memo also indicates that a "modern day" setting was being considered for the beginning of the film as well, thus placing the main story entirely in flashback. John Hoffman, credited onscreen with "Montage effects," worked as the second unit director for the opening "New Year's Eve" sequence that appears in the film, and was assigned to direct the modern epilogue, which apparently was not filmed. Information in the file confirms that James Basevi, at that time the head of M-G-M's special effects department, was responsible for the creation and direction of the "Earthquake" montage. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item on September 28, 1936, Basevi left M-G-M, along with his first assistant, Robert Layton, to work for United Artists, following completion of his work on The Good Earth. His next production was Samuel Goldwyn's The Hurricane.
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Bruce Cabot was at one time tested for the lead, although screenwriter Loos said that she wrote it with Clark Gable in mind. Another news item notes that Mickey Rooney was supposed to play a role in the film, but he did not appear in the completed film. Another cast sheet includes Moyer Bupp, Henry Hanna, Jasper Sock, Marilyn Harris, Elaine Von and Helen Westcott in the cast as "boys" and "girls," but their participation in the released film has not been confirmed. According to a February 17, 1936 Hollywood Reporter production chart, Nat Pendleton and Duncan Renaldo were initially in the cast, but they were not in the released film. News items during production noted that former M-G-M "prop man" Dave Marks was to appear in the picture, as were former silent film stars Al Shean, Mary MacLaren, Jean Acker, Harry Myers, Myrtle Stedman and Rosemary Theby; however, only Shean's appearance in the released film has been confirmed. Actor Jack Holt was loaned to M-G-M from Universal for the picture. According to the film's pressbook, D. W. Griffith, for whom San Francisco director W. S. Van Dyke had been an assistant on The Birth of a Nation, visited the set on the final day of shooting and was coerced into directing the orchestra during the "San Francisco" number sung by Jeanette MacDonald just prior to the earthquake sequence. The presskit also related that actor Walter Huston, an old friend of Van Dyke's, sang bass as a member of the chorus backing up MacDonald in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" number. The role played by MacDonald's character in the San Francisco Opera House was "Marguerite" in Faust by Charles-François Gounod.
The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to M-G-M's The Great Ziegfeld. Other nominations included Best Director for Van Dyke, who lost to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Best Actor for Spencer Tracy, who lost to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur and Best Original Story for Hopkins, who lost to Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney for The Story of Louis Pasteur. The picture was named one of the Top Ten films of the year by Film Daily Year Book and was one of the top box office hits of the year. A news item in Daily Variety noted that Warren Shannon, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, had requested that M-G-M change the name of the picture or else remove the earthquake scenes which he deemed "libelous to the city." The title song has remained popular since the film's release. According to news items, it was adopted as the city of San Francisco's official song by Mayor Angelo J. Rossi in June 1936, and by the University of San Francisco in October 1936. In 1984, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Quentin Kopp proposed re-adopting it as the official song, replacing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," which had been adopted in 1969, but then mayor Dianne Feinstein opposed the idea and the change was not made. M-G-M re-issued the picture in 1948. Many films and television plays have used San Francisco at the time of the earthquake for a setting. Another film made during the 1930s in which the quake was featured prominently was the 1938 Warner Bros. film The Sisters (see below), directed by Anatole Litvak, and starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.
Released in United States 1936
Released in United States 1936