German titles: San Franzisko, reissued as San Francisco, Stadt der Sünde (San Francisco, City of Sin)
Story: Robert Hopkins. Screenplay: Anita Loos. Cinematographer: Oliver T. Marsh. Recording Engineer: Douglas Shearer. Film Editor: Tom Held. Art Director: Cedric Gibbons. Costumes: Adrian. Musical Director: Herbert Stothart. Dances: Val Raset. Mob scene directed by D.W. Griffith. Additional Dialogue: Erich von Stroheim. Special effects (unbilled): James Basevi. Assistant Director: Joseph M. Newman. Third-unit Director: Earl Taggert. Montage Effects/Second-unit Director: John Hoffman. Art Associates: Arnold Gillespie, Harry McAfee, Edwin B. Willis. Opera sequences staged by William von Wymetal. Vocal instructor: Paul Lamkoff.
Clark Gable (Blackie Norton)
Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake)
Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullin)
Jack Holt (Jack Burley)
Ted Healy (Matt)
Margaret Irving (Della Bailey)
Jessie Ralph (Maisie Burley)
Harold Huber (Babe)
Al Shean (Professor)
William Ricciardi (Baldini)
Kenneth Harlan (Chick)
Roger Imhof (Alaska)
Frank Mayo (Dealer)
Charles Judels (Tony)
Russell Simpson (Red Kelly)
Bert Roach (Freddy Duane)
Warren B. Hymer (Hazeltine)
Edgar Kennedy (Sheriff Jim, process server)
Shirley Ross [AKA Bernice Gaunt] (Trixie)
Tandy MacKenzie (Faust)
Tudor Williams (Mephistopheles)
Spec O’Donnell (Man praying)
Bob McKenzie (Messenger)
Adrienne d’Ambricourt (Madam Albani)
Nigel de Brulier (Old man)
Mae Digges, Nyas Berry (Dancers)
John Kelly (Stagehand)
Tom Mahoney (Police captain)
Jim Farley (Charlie, a policeman)
Wilbur Mack (Bartender)
Pat O’Malley, Ortho Wright (Firemen)
Gertrude Astor (Drunk’s girl)
Tom Dugan [cut from print] (Drunk)
Belle Mitchell (Louise, Mary’s maid)
Fred M. Fagan (Waiter)
James Brewster, Samuel Glasser, John Pearson (Stooges)
Jason Robards Sr (Father)
William (Billy) Newell (Man in bread line)
James Macklin (Young man)
Tom McGuire (Bartender)
Harry C. Myers (Forrestal, a reveler)
Vince Barnett (Drunk)
Edward Hearn (Parishioner)
Henry Roquemore (Dave, a drinker)
G. Pat Collins (Bartender)
Harry Strang (Soldier)
Vernon Dent (Fat man)
Irving Bacon (Picnicker)
Orrin Burke (Pompous man)
David Thursby (Man)
John “Skins” Miller (Man on stretcher)
Helen Shipman (Bit)
George Goul, Edward Earle (Bit men)
Maude Allan (Elderly woman)
Jack Baxley (Kinko, campaigner)
Carl Stockdale (Salvation Army man)
Anthony Jowitt (Society man)
Jane Barnes (Girl)
Richard Carle, Oscar Apfel, Frank Sheridan, Ralph Lewis (Members of Founders’ Club)
Chester Gan (Jowl Lee)
Jack Kennedy (Mike, old Irishman in Church)
Cy Kendall (Headwaiter)
Don Rowan (Barbary Coast type)
Sherry Hall (Well-wisher)
Ben Taggart (Cop)
Long Beach Boys’ Choir (Choir)
St. Luke’s Choristers (Choir) *
Dennis O’Keefe (New Year’s celebrant)
Charles Sullivan (Fire spectator)
Beatrice Roberts (Forrestal, a guest)
Bruce Mitchell (Heckler)
Sidney Bracy (Burley’s butler)
Tommy Bupp (Bill, a newsboy)
Bill O’Brien (Waiter)
Sam Ash (Orchestra leader)
Bud Geary (Man restraining Blackie after the quake)
George Magrill (Marine)
Walter Huston, J. Delos Jewkes, Homer Hall, Douglas McPhail (“Battle Hymn of the Republic” singers)
Hector V. Samo (“San Francisco” singer)
Ben Hall (Club patron)
Philo McCullough (Father, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”)
Moyer Bupp, Henry Hanna, Jasper Sock (Boys)
Marilyn Harris, Elaine Von, Helen Westcott (Girls)
Bits: King Baggott, Rhea Mitchell, Flora Finch, Fritzi Brunette, Helene Chadwick, Naomi Childers, Rosemary Theby, Jean Acker, Donald Hall, Dave Marks, Mary MacLaren, Myrtle Stedman
*With W. Ripley Door. Another source also credits the Mitchell Boys’ Choir.
Oscar for Best Sound Recording: Douglas Shearer
Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Director, Best Original Story (Robert Hopkins), Best Assistant Director (Joseph Newman)
New York Film Critics’ “Ten Best” list
Film Daily’s “Ten Best” list
Photoplay’s Gold Medal Award, 1936
One of the twenty-five top-grossing films of 1935-36
San Francisco was nominated for an Oscar and named one of the ten best films of 1936 by Film Daily. Its near-Cecil B. DeMillian blend of sex and religion, happy sin, and last reel retribution made it an all-time box-office smash. It remains a glorious blockbuster from the “golden age,” and if its obligatory theme of divine punishment for sinfulness (i.e., drinking, gambling, exposing female legs) has lost a bit of its punch, the tremendous earthquake sequence has not.
Jeanette MacDonald now had two top box-office films with Nelson Eddy behind her. MGM was readying the old Romberg operetta, Maytime, for her and Eddy, but, wanting to ensure her reputation as a single personality, she chose to wait for Clark Gable to finish another assignment so that he could appear with her in San Francisco.
Writer Robert Hopkins had brought the story idea to Jeanette and asked her help in getting it before the bosses. She liked the story and recommended it to Ed Mannix and then to Louis B. Mayer. Gable, they felt, was ideal for the tough café owner, but he was understandably reluctant. All he would have to do was stand there while Jeanette sang, not his idea of a good picture. The film was rewritten to give him plenty of “Gable” scenes, and he relented. However, his displeasure was still such that he showed up on the set for his first love scene reeking of garlic. When Mary Blake pales and clings to Blackie’s lapels after their first screen kiss, it may not have been entirely acting.
San Francisco is widely touted as being Spencer Tracy’s first “good guy” role. Actually MGM itself had “type-cast” Tracy in gangster parts after signing him as a “backup” to Gable under its policy of having a similar type player under contract in case a major star became difficult or ill.
Tracy’s newly discovered “spirituality” had already shown strongly in such earlier films as The Power and the Glory for Fox and the classic Man’s Castle at Columbia. Interestingly, Tracy and Gable were both originally spotted by Hollywood while playing Killer Mears in stage versions of The Last Mile. (Preston Foster played the role in the 1932 film.)
MGM’s research department, under the direction of Nathalie Bucknall, did a Herculean amount of digging into surviving records of the 1906 earthquake (or, as San Franciscans archly insist, the “1906 fire”). This was the heyday of the research department, when studio income permitted a vast outlay in the interests of authenticity. All details down to the screw holding on a doorknob (with the obvious exception of the women’s costumes and hairstyles) could be certified absolutely historically correct. This would continue until World War II took the money and technicians necessary for great historical epics. Never again would authenticity be the servant of such rousing good filmmaking.
The stark reality of the earthquake-fire sequences in San Francisco comes ultimately from the brilliance of the images, not their actual occurrence in history. Although uncredited, the superb special effects are the work of James Basevi, who created some of the screen’s finest cataclysms (i.e., the plague of locusts in MGM’s The Good Earth, the hurricane in United Artists’ The Hurricane).
The tone of the film is set by an opening title: “San Francisco, guardian of the Golden Gate, stands today as a queen among seaports …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 5:13 AM, April 18, 1906.” The parchment on which this pronouncement is inscribed bursts into flames.
Missing from the final release print is an opening flashback showing Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as newsboy chums twenty years earlier. Only a vestigial title remains, returning us to 1905. It is New Year’s Eve, and, in a dizzying display of cutting room pyrotechnics, we join the revelers swirling through the snow of confetti and streamers, laughing, dancing in the streets, cheering an elegantly gowned lady mounted on a carriage horse, and filling mugs of wine from Lotta’s Fountain (still standing on Market Street). Freddy Duane (Bert Roach), the king of the local wine merchants has opened his warehouse.
Duane is congratulated on this advertising coup by a passing gentleman in opera cape. The gentleman turns toward the camera, and we discover our hero, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable). He is apparently well known in this section of San Francisco for he is warmly greeted by everyone, including a carriage full of seductively clad ladies from a local establishment, presided over by the regal Della (Margaret Irving).
A horse-drawn firetruck streaks through the crowd heading for the Barbary Coast, and Blackie leaps aboard. It isn’t his joint that is on fire though, just an old rooming house. Blackie stays to see the last occupants, two children, leap into a net and then saunters on down the crowded sidewalk. In the crowd, he pushes past a tired young lady with a small valise.
Blackie enters one of the brighter nightspots, the Paradise, with an air of authority that proclaims him the owner. On the raised stage at one end of the crowded room, the ladies of the chorus are heralding the new year, led by Trixie (Shirley Ross, who would achieve immortality of sorts when she and Bob Hope introduced “Thanks for the Memory” in The Big Broadcast of 1938). Blackie’s relationship with Trixie is made clear when she wipes his shoes clean and docilely accepts his snatching a rhinestone dog collar from her neck because he thinks it looks cheap. “Blackie doesn’t like it,” he chides, giving us his life’s philosophy in four words. Another of Blackie’s old flames is a society lady at one of the tables. She kisses him passionately, then introduces her husband, who is nuzzling a giggling dancer.
On stage, Matt (Ted Healy) attempts to warble a ballad and is interrupted by flying fruit. Babe the Bouncer (Harold Huber, Nelson Eddy’s sidekick in Naughty Marietta) quickly collars the culprit and drags him toward the door. Learning that he is from Los Angeles, Babe surreptitiously slugs him and totes him in a fireman’s carry to the entrance. (The drunken customer, Vince Barnett, was actually knocked out by Huber, who apologized with tears in his eyes.)
Babe is just straightening his tie when he is accosted by the same young lady we noticed outside. Mary Blake (Jeanette), just been burned out in the rooming house fire, is looking for a job as a singer. She tried “uptown” without success and now has turned to the Barbary Coast.
Babe appreciatively escorts her to Blackie’s box. Blackie asks first to see her legs, then if she knows the song the band is playing. She picks up the last few bars of “Love Me and the World Is Mine.” Twice her voice breaks under Blackie’s gimlet-eyed appraisal, but she squares her shoulders and hits the final notes full blast. Blackie offers her $75 a week. She faints. “Give me $75 a week,” Matt informs the astonished Blackie, “and I’ll drop dead!”
Later that evening, Mary is finishing a hearty meal in Blackie’s apartment over the Paradise. Blackie dismisses the Chinese servant in attendance and begins questioning Mary from the other room while he changes into “something more comfortable” for the evening’s conquest. Mary tells him that her father was a country parson in Colorado. “Was? Oh, he got on to himself.” No, she explains, he died four years ago. Her mother financed her singing studies and her trip to San Francisco.
Laughingly, Blackie acknowledges her tale as he carefully locks his watch and gold cufflinks in a dresser drawer. “Well, after all, Mr. Norton,” she tells him simply, “there aresuch people as country parsons. Sometimes they do have daughters.”
Blackie promises her some swell new clothes in the morning and closes in. Mary pushes him away, grabs her suitcase, and heads for the door. He blocks her way, saying she doesn’t have to stall him if she has a “john on the string.” If there’s anything he admires, he tells her, it’s a woman you can trust out of town. Tomorrow he’ll advance her the train fare to send for him. In the meantime she can bunk on the couch.
Mary stands dazed and undecided until Blackie elaborately leaves the key to his bedroom on her side of the door. As he dons black satin pajamas, he hears the key turn in the lock and shrugs with amusement. He turns out the light, pauses, then turns it back on again, leaning forward to look at himself in the dresser mirror. “Good night, sucker,” he says.
In the parlor on the other side of the door, a set decorator’s dream of bric-a-brac and bordello-bred bad taste, Mary finds the elaborate settee too short for sleeping comfort. She tosses some pillows on the floor and settles down, but the metallic embroidery on one fringed cushion cuts her cheek. With a sigh, she heaves it across the room where its tinselly letters glint ironically at her in the dark: “Welcome to San Francisco.”
The next morning, we see yet another facet of Blackie Norton, the man among men. He is sparring at the gymnasium with an old friend. A group of Barbary Coast businessmen parade in as he finishes and ask him to run for supervisor. It’s the only way they can get decent fire laws. Blackie’s sparring partner returns, now dressed as a priest.
“You’ve always liked a fight, Blackie,” comments Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy). Blackie and his friends troop across the back alley to the Paradise for a drink to seal the bargain.
Mary is rehearsing in the empty hall, singing “San Francisco” in slow tempo like a hymn. Blackie stalks over to the upright piano. “Heat it up,” he orders and pounds out a tempo version of the tune. “That’s the way you’re going to sing, or you’re not going to sing for Blackie!” He decides to sign her to a contract.
Mary’s voice continues in the new tempo, and we see her in a white sequined dress and “can-can” bonnet on the stage of the crowded Paradise. The enthusiastic throng is soon augmented by two elegant gentlemen from “uptown.” Jack Burley (silent film star Jack Holt) is slumming with Signore Baldini (William Ricciardi), maestro of the Tivoli Opera. Entertainment isn’t Burley’s only goal. He has come to suggest that Blackie give up running for supervisor.
In Blackie’s private box, they are interrupted by the silver-haired “Professor” (vaudeville star Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean) who played under the maestro twenty years before in Dresden. Excitedly he urges the great Baldini to listen to the singer he has discovered, a singer with such a voice! Quietly Blackie orders the “Professor” to stop holding up the show and the little man scuttles away.
Mary’s voice is heard over the hubbub in a “classical” number, “A Heart That’s Free.” Matt is all for dragging her off the stage, but Blackie notices Baldini’s great interest and motions Matt to be still. Burley is interested too and sends his card, requesting the honor of meeting Mary. She comes shyly to the box, telling Signore Baldini that they might have met under more favorable circumstances. She once sat for six days in the outer office of the Tivoli Opera, hoping for an interview.
Burley is sure the Tivoli can use her now. Blackie smiles as he apologizes for having Mary under a two-year contract. The two men understand that they are now officially antagonists, and not just politically.
Blackie sends Mary to sing a number at a place around the corner. The “place” turns out to be Saint Anne’s Mission, run by Blackie’s friend, Father Tim. The number is “The Holy City,” which she sings with a boys’ choir. The parishioners consist of some of the superb types that MGM seemed always able to call up—derelicts with the weariness of poverty and hunger etched deeply in their faces. In the last row, two tarts, preparing for their evening’s work, sit raptly under the spell of the music.
Father Tim invites Mary to his study for some coffee before she returns to the Paradise. There, in his big “spiritual” scene, he tells how he and Blackie were newsboys together and then took different paths. Blackie is a tremendous force. If only he were a force for good instead of evil. Father Tim has tried to change him without success. “Maybe,” he says significantly, looking at Mary, “I’m not the right one.” Mary blushes beneath his gaze.
Father Tim tells us enigmatically that Blackie “is as unscrupulous with women as he is ruthless with men” and yet he “has never taken an underhanded advantage of anyone.” (A study in semantics, this Blackie!) Father Tim assures Mary that she has nothing to fear unless she’s afraid of herself. She is in the wickedest, most corrupt, Godless city in America. “Sometimes I wonder what the end is going to be.” With his portent ringing in our ears, the coffee boils over.
The hiss of the scalding liquid is drowned by the noisy brass band and shouts of an outdoor political rally for Blackie Norton. Della, as a prominent local businesswoman, assures the crowd of the support of the “ladies” of the Coast. Then Blackie, extremely jaunty in a Norfolk suit and cap, moves the crowd to cheers with his fiery rhetoric and a knockout punch to the jaw of a heckler sent by Jack Burley. The ever-hopeful Trixie rushes to congratulate him, but he tells her to wait for him by the beer truck.
Quickly, he seeks out the “Professor” and asks his help. Trixie, he claims, is hanging around the beer truck, getting stiff. He would consider it a favor if the “Professor” would take her back to town. Mary has been standing between them, watching the exchange like a spectator at a tennis match, but Blackie doesn’t notice her until the “Professor” explains he has been acting as her escort. Blackie expresses astonishment at her presence and offers to see that she gets home all right. The band music changes into an oom-pah-pah version of “Would You?” as they waltz, Mary losing more and more of her determination.
During their carriage ride home, they have a confrontation about God. Blackie doesn’t go for that “sucker competition.” He’s got to be number one boy. Mary tells him that people who believe in something can love each other more. He says he won’t hold it against her, and, taking this for agreement, Mary accepts his arm around her shoulders.
In the gloomy daytime Paradise, Mary sits amidst upturned chairs and mopping scrub ladies, rehearsing the dreamy ballad “Would You?” The Paradise band is truly remarkable, for although it consists entirely of brass, her voice is supported by a dozen violins.
A poker game in the next room again reveals Blackie as a good guy, tossing $100 to a player he has just cleaned out. Burley arrives and offers to buy Mary’s contract. She is summoned from rehearsal and told that Baldini thinks she is ready for the Tivoli. Flushed with joy, she turns to Blackie, and a long look is exchanged. She asks if he wants to sell her contract. “Nope.” Then she can’t accept.
Blackie is nearly crowing as he shows Burley out and then invites Mary into a private inner office. There, bursting with boyish enthusiasm, he shows her the trophies won by the Paradise the last three years at the Chickens’ Ball. The wine agents, he tells her, put on a competition and give a $10,000 prize for the joint that puts on the most artistic show. “Artistic achievement!” he enunciates proudly. He’s going to win again this year and use the money for his campaign fund for “the little mugs down here on the Coast.”
He turns from trophies of the past to the live one at hand and soon is making love to her. She naturally resists, but not too vigorously. In a “Gable scene” that is a whirlwind of logic and he-man poetry he besieges the lady: “How does it feel to feel like a woman and be afraid of it?” Still dubious, she is swept into a passionate kiss.
He takes this for affirmation and jubilantly leads the dazed and smiling Mary out through the Paradise toward his apartment upstairs for “some chop suey.” On the way, they pass through a rehearsal, and Trixie stops mid-step at the sight of Blackie with his arm around Mary. He orders champagne for everyone, and it is obvious this is a familiar custom. “Nice going, sister,” sneers Babe. “Here’s to you, darlin’, and I wish I had me youth!” toasts one faded belle. “I wish I’d never had mine,” Trixie mutters darkly. Blackie chucks her under the chin consolingly.
He misses Mary in the crowd and assumes she’s gone ahead to the apartment, which has an outside entrance. Out in the street, he is stopped by Father Tim. Mary has asked the priest to say goodbye for her. She is going to work at the Tivoli. She’s safe with Burley, Father Tim tells Blackie, because she doesn’t love him. Shrugging, Blackie invites Father Tim upstairs for some chop suey.
Backstage at the opera house, the overture to Faust can be heard. In Mary’s dressing room, Burley proposes. He leaves without waiting for an answer and begins checking the opera house to see that everything is in order for this most important night. The actors nod to him as he passes through the backstage hallways. Emerging into his box, he greets his mother, a silver-haired lady of noble features (Jessie Ralph), then strolls into the lobby. Dowagers draped in jewels and satin murmur their best wishes, which he graciously acknowledges. The Tivoli is his as much as the Paradise belongs to Blackie Norton.
Among this elite audience are Blackie and Babe, who have brought a process server (silent comedian Edgar Kennedy). They have come to close the show, but Mary’s singing is so moving that Blackie can’t go through with it. Midway through Mary’s final scene, Babe notices that the process server has tired of waiting and gone backstage. Blackie rushes after him and prevents any interruption of the music by neatly clipping the officer with a handy belaying pin.
The performance concludes to triumphal applause. Mary is swept along backstage by a throng of well-wishers to her dressing room where Blackie is waiting. Making her excuses to her singing teacher (Adrienne d’Ambricourt), the “Professor,” and the rest, she shuts the door behind her. Mary and Blackie are alone for the first time since she left.
He loves her, he concedes, and he’s only “sprung that line once,” twenty-five years ago. He hasn’t seen the girl lately though. She’s up in San Quentin.
“Will you marry me, Blackie?” Mary blurts out. If that’s the only thing that will make her happy, he jokingly agrees. Their kiss of reconciliation is interrupted by Father Tim, and Mary happily tells him the news. Burley walks in and is understandably irritated at this further invasion of his territory.
Blackie explains with elaborate casualness that he is just visiting his fiancée. Burley pales, and Mary tries to soften the blow, but Blackie is rushing on with his plans. Mary must hurry and dress so they can get back to the Paradise. The gang is all waiting to hear her sing “San Francisco.”
Even Mary is astonished. She stands in close-up between them, looking from one to the other as Blackie asks her what she wants: “Me…or this?” Her anguished face slowly fades and with a blare of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-dee-ay” we are back at the smoke-filled Paradise.
Mary, in a stunning costume that reveals her legs in sheer black tights, is waiting in her dressing room with Blackie when Father Tim is announced. She grabs for a cape to hide her scandalous outfit and begs Blackie to set a date for their wedding so that they can tell Father Tim. The priest is far too disturbed by Mary’s legs to care about a wedding date. Blackie assures him that Mary will be queen of the Coast. He’s got five thousand posters announcing her return and ten thousand little ones for trolley cars and ash cans!
Father Tim orders Mary to leave immediately. “You can’t marry a woman and sell her immortal soul,” he tells Blackie. Blackie’s territory and possessions are again being challenged, this time by the deity. He defends himself by socking Father Tim in the nose. We see him start the swing, Mary’s horrified face as a blow sounds, Blackie’s reaction to what he has done, Father Tim with blood dribbling from his mouth, and then Mary’s face again, going from shock to square-jawed resignation. She gathers her cape about her and marches with Father Tim from this den of sin, as impatient customers begin breaking up the furniture.
Mary returns to Jack Burley and goes home with him to meet his mother. Home is a Nob Hill mansion and the regal Mrs. Burley is an Irish immigrant who came around the Horn in the winter of ‘51 to work as a washerwoman near Portsmouth Square. In a very moving scene, Maisie Burley tells Mary that she too had a Blackie Norton in her life. She begs the girl to marry her son and raise fine kids for the future of San Francisco. Otherwise, where will all this wickedness end?
Burley’s campaign to win Mary goes one step further. Blackie’s Paradise is closed down for selling liquor without a license, a charge that will put him in jail for a year. It is obviously a political move to keep Blackie from running for supervisor. Blackie’s former supporters send word that they aren’t going to fight Burley any longer. Blackie is alone.
He is granted a few hours to raise bail for his performers, and then he sadly turns out the lights and locks the Paradise for the first time since it was opened. He has until 6:00 AM to report to jail.
Outside, a newsboy is hawking papers. On the front page is a photograph of Mary in La Traviata. We don’t have time to consider that newspaper photographs were almost unknown in 1906, for the picture comes to life, and we are on stage at the Tivoli as Mary triumphs with “Sempre Libera.”
Afterward, Burley announces that he is taking her to the Chickens’ Ball. Don’t worry, he smiles, Blackie won’t be there. To the robust strains of “At a Georgia Camp Meeting,” they thread their way through the crowded tables at the ball. Further evidence of the city’s sinfulness, if any were needed, is provided by a patron who drags a giggling dancer from the dressing room as his wife cheers him on.
Mary, in shimmering white, is above all this. On stage, an exuberant minstrel dance is in progress. Della appears behind Burley and drops into the chair next to him. As she tells Burley what she thinks of him, Mary learns what has happened to Blackie and her fellow performers. The black dancers make their strutting exit and are replaced by the “Golden Gate Trio,” who warble the “Philippine Dance.” (A line in the authentic period song, fortunately obscured by the ensuing dialogue, tells us we “ought to see the darkies prance.”)
As all roads lead to Rome, so all paths on this fateful night are due to cross at the Chickens’ Ball. Blackie comes in to return Della’s jewelry. Hocking it will do no good. His performers are being held without bail. He spreads open the handkerchief full of jewelry and absently picks through the lady’s lifetime acquisitions. “Say,” he picks up one ring. “Didn’t I give you this?” “Yeah,” replies Della, with a catch in her voice, “you were just a kid…”
Blackie is just exiting down the stairs as Freddy Duane announces that, since no contestants have come forth for the Paradise, the show is over. Mary leaps to her feet. “Irepresent the Paradise!” Burley forbids her, grabbing her arm, but she shakes him off and strides to the stage. The delighted Della sends a waiter to catch Blackie.
The crowd’s cheers redouble when Mary announces her selection: “San Francisco.” Standing quietly stage center, she sings the verse straight, then, with a pregnant pause, launches into a torchy version of the chorus as it was never torched before. Sauntering and swaying gently, she teases the audience through a full chorus, then drops to one knee in an imitation of a minstrel singer, throbbing voice, gestures, and all. The audience joins in at her urging, and she becomes a glittering dynamo, writhing in the glow of the footlights, her voice soaring over the din as the crowd responds, creating a total theatrical experience. (Miss MacDonald bet director Van Dyke $500 that this “hot” version of “San Francisco” wouldn’t work. To his surprise, he received her check. To her surprise, he cashed it.)
The vote for the contest winner is a mere formality. Mary is happily struggling to lift the trophy cup full of gold pieces when Blackie strides onto the stage. He seizes the cup from Mary and hurls it across the floor. “I don’t need this kind of dough.”
Mary stands trembling, and the audience murmurs their astonishment. Blindly Mary stumbles from the stage, accepting her cape from a now obliging Burley. She threads her way toward the door, fighting her tears.
Blackie’s infamy is too much for the San Andreas Fault. A low moan is heard, building to a roar. The revelers freeze as glasses tremble on the tables. A sharp upward shot shows plaster splintering from around the swaying chandelier. As the intensity of the quake increases, the images flash by faster and faster. The floor begins to lurch. A woman clings to the edges of the table before her, trying to maintain her balance and her dignity. Panic begins among the patrons. The wall behind Blackie shudders, then bursts apart. Mary screams and reaches desperately toward him, but Burley has her in his arms, bearing her away down the stairs. We see her faint and then disappear in a cloud of plaster dust.
The balcony at one end of the room sags away from the wall, sending patrons, tables, and chairs cascading to the floor below. The screams of terror mingle with the cries of the injured and the roar of the earth. Then, as suddenly as it started, it stops.
There is an appalling silence, punctuated by low moans. Blackie, half buried in bricks, pulls himself painfully to his feet. (At the previews of San Francisco, the scene of Blackie being buried by a wall of prop bricks was so unbelievable that the audience burst into laughter, and the scene was scissored as the wall starts to break up. Actually, Gable was trapped beneath the debris and narrowly escaped smothering. So much for verité.)
Blackie pauses momentarily beside the body of the faithful Della, then turns to the living. He pulls a waiter from under a beam.
In the street outside, people in nightclothes are milling about, crying out for the missing. A hoarse voice calls to Blackie from under a pile of debris. Two of his friends are trapped there. He grabs a husky passerby, and they begin heaving at the timbers. Suddenly another tremor begins. The house in front of them sways dangerously. The stranger drags the struggling Blackie to safety as the stone front of the building collapses, hopelessly burying his friends under tons of rubble.
A piano crashes through the window of a store, landing on the street in an explosion of keys and wires. The facade of a house drops away, hurling a woman and baby from the eerily exposed third floor. Then quiet again, broken by distant screams and the yelping of a dog.
Blackie begins his quest for Mary. One girl tells him she has seen Jack Burley. She points numbly to a fallen wall where Burley’s head and arm protrude. A scrap of white feather from Mary’s dress is in his limp hand. Blackie plucks frantically at the bricks, imploring people for help. One man hesitates, then rushes on, crying, “Irene!” As Blackie digs faster and faster, he hears the man’s voice break into a sob: “Irene.” He turns to see him cradling a lifeless body in his arms.
The brick pile yields nothing, and Blackie plunges on through the ruined city. In an unforgettable visual moment, he steps over a small crack in the street that instantly spreads into a huge fissure with broken pipes spurting water. One man topples into the hole and another clings desperately to the edge. Live wires drop onto splintered wood in the streets, and the debris explodes with electric fury. Flames shoot the length of the street, eagerly consuming the wooden houses. Fire trucks rush clanging through the streets, but the hydrants yield only a pathetic trickle. The mains are broken. There’s no water to fight the fires.
Evacuation begins. The army moves in and starts dynamiting a fire lane to prevent the flames from spreading. Blackie watches the mammoth explosions moving up Nob Hill toward the Burley mansion. He finds Mrs. Burley hobbling down the hill, clutching a pathetically small valise of possessions, while servants tug at a tiny cart loaded with a few pieces of furniture. Behind them, the incredible Burley mansion, a monument to moneyed Victorian architecture, stands highlighted by the flames below.
Blackie doesn’t need to tell Mrs. Burley that her son is dead. She has sensed it already. She buries her head in his shoulder as he strokes her hair. A soldier orders them to move on. They reach the bottom of the hill as an explosion rips the air behind them. Mrs. Burley turns to see the turrets of her home toppling. “My son was born there,” she murmurs. A second blast turns the structure to toothpicks. She parts from Blackie: “It’s God’s help we both need now.”
We look out over the burning city, and the light changes from day to night. Blackie is still searching for Mary, going from cot to cot in the aid stations and peering frantically into faces at the soup kitchens. Everywhere he asks about a red-haired girl in a white dress. “God help you to find her, brother,” replies one man fervently.
Blackie looks for Father Tim and is directed to an aid station at the car barn. There, amidst cots and cable cars, he finds Matt dying. He begs the nearby nun to stay with Matt and goes on from bed to bed. We see an old Italian man writhing with pain as his wife clings helplessly to his hand. The limp, shattered form of a young woman goes by on a stretcher. A nun pulls a sheet over the face of a wizened old man.
At the back of the car barn, Blackie finds Father Tim soothing a small girl. “You haven’t found Mary yet, have you?” Blackie shakes his head numbly. “Well, you can’t want her for the Paradise, Blackie, that’s gone.” Blackie tells him he wasn’t thinking of the Paradise. Father Tim turns to the little girl for a moment, then grabs Blackie’s arm. He is taking him to Mary.
They pick their way through Golden Gate Park after the fire. A platoon of soldiers marches across their path. Another soldier is ordering people to the hospital tent for inoculation. The park is a tent city of rescued furniture, blankets strung on ropes, and families gathered around small cooking fires. The children are romping, untouched by the tragedy. Women are hanging things to dry on improvised clotheslines. Life is going on.
From the crest of the hill comes the sound of singing. Blackie recognizes Mary’s voice in “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The drama of the moment is not entirely spoiled by the rag-tag refugees who accompany her in perfect four-part harmony. Mary is comforting the mother of a dead child (a child who inconsiderately twitches quite a bit during the scene). Mary’s emotion is real. However, her dress a memory of its former glory, her hair matted and hanging loose. Blackie is overcome. As we have anticipated throughout the film, he finds God, and drops to his knees.
Through her tears, Mary sees Blackie kneeling in the dirt below. She goes to him and they stand a few feet apart, silently looking at each other.
A cry is heard: “The fire’s out!” The people around them come to life, jubilantly calling out the news. “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” shouts a youth. “Hallelujah!” cries a woman.
Over the din of shouts and cheers, we hear the first strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” slowly, then building as the crowd turns and begins marching. We don’t know quite where they are going, but the effect is so stirring that we fall right in with them. In the midst of their ranks are Blackie with his arm around Mary and Father Tim just behind them.
The camera is trained on the bare crest of a hill silhouetted against a brilliant sky. As the music thunders, a solid wall of humanity marches into view. They gaze out at the smoldering ruins and to the strains of “San Francisco” we see a montage of the new 1936 San Francisco rising on the ashes: the skyscrapers, the new Bay Bridge, the automobiles and buses, the soaring towers of the Golden Gate Bridge majestically spanning the harbor although still without benefit of roadway. (This touching tribute to the rebuilt San Francisco was sadly eliminated from the 1948 re-release prints and replaced by a single shot of the contemporary skyline in an effort to “modernize” the film.) Jeanette’s voice soars like the spires of the bridge and we know we have indeed seen a movie!
If the four principals (counting the earthquake) make San Francisco a memorable film, the other members of the cast provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes story. In the seven years that had gone by since sound films took over, many silent film actors had fallen on hard times. It was certainly a source of embarrassment to the studios that players who had once been their biggest moneymakers were now on relief. In a burst of benevolence (and publicity), MGM announced a policy of hiring as many old timers as possible for the film. Jack Holt, of course, was a silent star who had hung on during the sound era and continued to star in many B films. Al Shean (the Professor) was the surviving half of the immortal vaudeville team of Gallagher and Shean. Edgar Kennedy (the process server) was a former Keystone Kop and later comedy star in his own right, specializing in the famous “slow burn.”
The supporting and bit players included King Baggott, who starred in three hundred pictures prior to 1920, and Rhea Mitchell, who costarred with him in the 1918 serial The Hawk’s Lair, directed by Van Dyke. Vernon Dent, who menaced Buster Keaton in so many comedies, Flora Finch, who had been John Bunny’s leading lady, Naomi Childers, a star at Vitagraph, Fritzi Brunette from Yankee Films, Helene Chadwick of Astra-Pathé, Rosemary Theby of Vitagraph, Jean Acker (Rudolph Valentino’s first wife), Harry C. Myers, Donald Hall, Jason Robards Sr, and dozens more participated. This attention to “old-timers” produced one touching incident.
D.W. Griffith, the father of the silent film, appeared on the set one day to visit his old employee, W.S. Van Dyke. Van Dyke had come to Griffith’s attention twenty years earlier when he was a “captain” of extras in the Babylonian mob scenes for Griffith’s mammoth masterpiece, Intolerance. Now Griffith “directed” a mob scene for Van Dyke as a lark, probably not realizing or caring what a pathetic story the MGM publicity department could make of it.
San Francisco made Film Daily’s Ten Best Films list, but curiously was nowhere to be seen on the similar list issued by the New York Times. After its earlier enthusiasm, the Times had already come to regard musicals as a lesser branch of filmdom and would pass up musicals entirely, including such all-time greats as Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, until 1955 when they grudgingly named Oklahoma! and It’s Always Fair Weather(!)
Jeanette’s personal success, as well as the tremendous smash made by San Francisco, made her the top box-office attraction of the year. Her next film was Maytime, a film that would be interrupted by the untimely death of the young guiding genius of MGM, Irving Thalberg.
Variety reported that the manager of the Paramount Theatre in San Francisco, Allen Warshauer, was responsible for the finale of the general 1936 release version. Fearing local hostility to the film, “Warshauer had a cameraman take special pan shots of the city. These were shown at the mention of the dream city of the future which ends the picture and had audiences standing to cheer. John Emerson, who aided Bernie Hyman in producing the picture, attended the first showing and okayed the new ending, saying he would recommend its use on all prints. W.S. Van Dyke, the director, also flew here for the opening.”
Variety also referred archly to “the constant singing of Jeanette MacDonald,” but then added that “she has never looked better nor sung better and being in a sock picture is an aid to her appearance and performance.” Spencer Tracy got most of their praise for playing the tricky rôle of a priest who says “mugg” and “sucker” without giving offense.
The New York Times review is worth quoting only to show the strong element of self-importance that was beginning to dominate film reviews: “Out of the gutsy, brawling, catastrophic history of the Barbary Coast early in the century, MGM has fashioned a prodigally generous and completely satisfying photoplay. Astonishingly, it serves the virtues of the operatic film, the romantic, the biographical, the dramatic, and the documentary abundantly well, truly meriting the 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.” They added that “Miss MacDonald’s voice seems more melodious than ever.”
More typical of the praise lavished on San Francisco was that of William Boehnel in the New York World-Telegram: “There comes a time in every motion picture reviewer’s life when he is afflicted by a sense of remorse for having squandered his stock of adjectives, for having abused such words as ‘great,’ ‘magnificent,’ ‘superb,’ because when a truly notable film comes along, he really has nothing left with which to describe it.” He acknowledged that the film is “good old fashioned hokum….a pretty obvious shilling-shocker dressed up in five pound notes….In the role of Mary Blake, Jeanette MacDonald is superb. Looking more attractive and appearing in better voice than ever before, she plays the part with uncommon charm, forbearance, and emotional depth. Not only does she give the finest performance of her screen career, but she has never sung more thrillingly than she does here.”
(See Discography for further information)
All recordings by Jeanette MacDonald. Intriguingly, she never recorded the film’s hit song, “Would You?” The song was later featured in the 1953 “twenties” musical, Singin’ in the Rain, which consisted of Freed-Brown songs.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
“The Holy City”
“Il etait un roi de Thulé”
“Nearer, My God, to Thee”
“San Francisco” *
*Those who thrilled to Jeanette’s fiery interpretation of this song in the film may be disappointed in the rather tepid—but only—recording she made more than fourteen years later in 1950.
In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.
Overture: “San Francisco,” “Would You?”
“Happy New Year” (Shirley Ross and female chorus) – music by Bronislau Kaper and Walter
Jurman, lyrics by Gus Kahn
“Noontime” specialty (Ted Healy) – written by Ted Healy
“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” (Healy, heard behind conversation) –
music by Theodore A. Metz, lyrics by Joe Hayden
“Love Me and the World is Mine” (MacDonald) – Ernest R. Ball and David Reed Jr
“San Francisco” (MacDonald) – Music by Bronislau Kaper, lyrics by Gus Kahn *
“A Heart That’s Free” (MacDonald) – A.J. Robyn and T. Railey
“The Holy City” (MacDonald and Long Beach Boys’ Choir) – Stephen Adams
and F.E. Weatherly
“San Francisco” reprise – (MacDonald and chorus)
“Would You?” (MacDonald) – music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed
Scenes from Faust, music by Charles Gounod, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.
“Me voilà toute seule” (Tandy MacKenzie as Faust) – behind dialogue
“Air des bijoux” [The Jewel Song] (MacDonald)
“Soldiers’ Chorus” fragment, Act IV (chorus)
“Il se fait tard” fragment (MacDonald and MacKenzie)
“Anges Purs” (MacDonald, MacKenzie, Tudor Williams as Mephistopheles)
“Sempre Libera” from La Traviata (MacDonald with MacKenzie) – music by Giuseppe Verdi,
libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
“At a Georgia Camp Meeting” (orchestral, minstrel show) – by Kerry Mills
“The Philippine Dance” (male trio) – by Bob Carleton
“San Francisco” reprise (MacDonald, chorus)
“Nearer, My God, to Thee” (MacDonald and chorus) – music by Lowell Mason,
lyrics by Sarah F. Adams
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (MacDonald and chorus) – music by William Steffe,
lyrics by Julia Ward Howe
Finale: “San Francisco” reprise – chorus
*After copyrighting this world-famous version during pre-production, Kaper, Jurman, and Kahn then wrote and copyrighted a second title song, an obviously hokey satire on “place” songs. Fortunately, the song we know and love was chosen for the finished film.
Research by Miles Kreuger of the Institute of the American Musical indicates that, under “male quartettes,” the MGM pay records list The Highlanders (Howard Chandler), The Uptowners (Homer Hall), and Doug Steade. Zarubi Elmassian and Nick Angelo are listed as recording a few bars from Il Trovatore, either not used in the film or a mistaken reference to La Traviata. William Steffe arranged “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Young singer Douglas McPhail, later in Sweethearts and star of Babes in Arms, is an extra, standing just behind Jeanette on the crest of the hill in the finale.
In 1991, a musical production of San Francisco was announced, scheduled to open in London in October 1992. Martin L. Marcus had optioned the rights from Turner Entertainment and engaged Rob Bettinson as director, Tim Prager to do the book, and Geoff Morrow to write the music and lyrics. “This will be like an operetta,” Marcus said, but the production, to be produced by award-winning Nica Burns, never jelled.