Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald star in this film immortalizing one of the greatest cities on the west coast. The film opens on New Years, 1906, being celebrated in the streets. It’s joyful chaos with everyone dancing and singing together and streamers falling like snow, but then a fire breaks out (hint of foreshadow history buffs) and we watch children jump from a burning building onto the firemen’s trampoline. Plenty of action, and we haven’t even found a plot yet!
The story rolls out at The Paradise Café, a club owned by Blackie Norton (Gable), one of the roughest, most Godless men in San Francisco. Mary Blake (MacDonald) comes in looking for a job as a singer. Blackie hires her, even though her voice isn’t exactly nightclub material. One night, two men from the Tivoli Opera House see Mary and offer her a job singing opera. This seems like Mary’s dream come true, but Blackie reminds the men she’s under a contract with him. How sad, she’s got too much talent for a gin joint.
Between her numbers at The Paradise, Mary helps out singing at a local church. There she meets Father Tim (Tracy). He takes an interest in Mary for many reasons. One, he worries about a good church girl singing in a bar. Two, he also sees she’s better suited for opera. And three, Father Tim and Blackie grew up together and he’s seen all sides of Blackie, including when he turned away from the ideas of church and God and the time he anonymously donated a new organ to the church. He thinks that Blackie is “ashamed of his good deeds as others are ashamed of their sins.”
So that’s the set up. What ensues is a tug of war for Mary’s heart and talent between Blackie and one of the opera managers. Later, at a fundraiser dinner after Blackie’s Paradise is shut down and all his performers in jail, Mary volunteers to represent his establishment and sings San Francisco. Just when it looks like Blackie does have a loyal friend willing to help him, he rejects the charity and like an act of God, the great earthquake of 1906 hits.
I hope I haven’t given away too much of the story, but I wanted to be able to talk about the earthquake. There should have been a special effects award back in ’36, cause San Francisco would have won easily with the earthquake scene. Buildings crumble, walls fall on actors, the ground even splits, it’s really more than I expected.
The earthquake is really a 180 turn in the film, suddenly all that stuff about pride doesn’t matter anymore when people are stuck under rubble and there’s no water to put out the growing fire. As Blackie sees more and more people desperately running through the streets praying out loud, the gears in his head start to turn. Perhaps his old friend Tim is right, maybe there’s more to believe than what one can see and touch.
This is a very enjoyable film for the 1930’s. The story isn’t too out of date, there isn’t too much singing, the range of characters are believable and the fantastic classic actors are always a treat. If your kids wrinkle their noses in confusion when talk about Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, watch San Francisco. It could also be a little history lesson about the great earthquake of 1906.
“Well, we certainly don’t do things halfway in San Francisco.”
***1936 is a year I’m split on. The Great Zeigfeld is great, but if you want a more compelling story, less singing and that amazing earthquake scene you’ll have to pick San Francisco.***