San Francisco is an early example of the disaster movie – given the showbiz treatment. It’s 80 percent razmataz and 20 percent disaster but the effects and the way how disaster and God is depicted in this movie is fascinating from a historical standpoint.
Release Date: 1936
Run Time: 115 mins
Taking the 1906 great Earthquake, we follow Blackie and Mary through their mellow dramatic lives before the disaster plays out before them.
The Disasters Faced
Earthquakes, rubble, religion, sin, soft focus and the idea that you may have to sing your way through the next thirty years in a shrill voice.
In 1936 when this was made, Clark Gable was still a powerhouse of a star and you can absolutely see why. His charm and suaveness in what is essentially a bit of an asshole of a role initially – the tough man who finds he has a heart – does shine through. He’s that loveable rogue whose all about business. Jeanette MacDonald comes across initially as a sweet and charming lady but over time I found her character grate because the film uses her singing profession to vehicle so – SO many songs. They are typical of its time – showbiz styled cabaret numbers with soul and heart. The first hour must spend about 15 minutes in pure song – but it felt at times like more. This lopsided approach meant that when the story calls for her to start chasing fame, I thought “Yay off you go!” and wanted the story to progress from the “do you love me?” “yes… no… yes” “but do you love me?” It drags on far too long leaving really only the last twenty minutes to deal with the effects, disaster and so on that I came for. The Earthquake doesn’t even stop the singing however and whilst it’s impressive – it feels too little too late and the forced love quad that the film opens out to dampens the big bucks destruction. Of course time is unkind to some of the sexist remarks and awkward naming of “Blackie” and having him be the underground dodgy dealer but the acting is done well, the camera work solid and the script interesting when not hamming it up.
The Earthquake itself sees the film utilise shaking sets which adds a sense of realism to it all. The big bar set where a lot of the action takes place was built on a shaky set and it pays off. Elsewhere models fall down or are detonated and some good pan shots of the city on flames work well. What does work very well is the aftermath crowd shots as people tend to their wounds. You don’t get extra filled screens in cinema much anymore and so I appreciate the effort much more.
Why It’s Worth Watching
For an example of early disaster movies, this is not as fun as The Rains Came, but the heart is there. The acting, production and sound is good for its time and if you’re a fan of musicals or early 1900’s styled music you’ll be lapping up MacDonald’s performances. She has a great set of lungs which to me worked best of the hymns and the titular track. Gable makes you melt. A Shout to Spencer Tracy too whom plays a Reverend whom spins some of the more complex and era bound thoughts of the film. Religion and God play a huge backing role in this film. Our female lead is hugely religious and spends time sliding towards Tracy whilst he seems to set up various hurdles for Gable to overcome to get to his girl. I found though that as a character, the Rev was actually full of double standards, so when he does all his holier than thou acts, I was less than impressed. How times have changed in some way – and not in others. Fascinating to watch though!
I’d also say if you get the DVD version you can see the alternative ending (no she’s not dead, it’s a different dissolve) that was made a decade later and there’s a great documentary about Clark Gables life on and off the screen. There’s also some shorts on how the effects were made too.
The Drinking Game
“Oh Blackie!!!” *sigh* (or perhaps each song)
Strangely I’m not sure I have one but Mrs Burley does a very good stiff upper lip mother.
Spoiler alert! At the end when Clark Gable finds Jeanette MacDonald alive he drops to his knees and thanks God very loudly as if he’s found religion. Strike one. The entire cast then bursts into song and joy as the fire gets put out. Strike two. They then all stop at the top of a hill and overlook the ruins with the biggest smile on their faces ever. You’re outta here!
It appears Jeanette’s wardrobe got around a bit. Some of her costumes and gowns were used for The Wizard of Oz and Me and My Girl. Second hand clothes reign supreme!
“I’m a singer”
“Let’s see your legs!”
Nothing much has changed in that world in 80 years then…
Historically inaccurate, heavily balanced towards showing off a singer and then throwing a few effects in at the end, San Francisco is uneven, stilted, biased and somewhat dated in its views and opinions in many places. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not good viewing. Not my favourite 30’s disaster movie, but a worthy one that just needs the volume turned down every now and then.
I really like this film… Despite the technical restrictions, the overwhelming violence of the disaster is certainly made clear. Also, bonus points for whatever first hand accounts may have lent to its accuracy: after all, they were catering to an audience who (may have) lived through the real thing!