02 April 2010

San Francisco (1936)

Delightful San Francisco Gets Stuck in Your Head
By Kristin Battestella

Over the years, I’ve really only known one thing about the 1936 classic San Francisco, and that’s the titular song. Fortunately, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake make for more than just a catchy tune.

San FranciscoBlackie Norton (Gable) spins the lavish lifestyle at his Barbary Coast nightclub, The Paradise, much to the continued chagrin of his life long friend Tim Mullen (Tracy) - the local priest. When Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) auditions to sing at The Paradise, Blackie is charmed by her devotion, voice, and grace. However, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) of the Tivoli Opera House tries to steal Mary away from The Paradise- and she soon prefers Father Tim stalwart faith to Blackie’s ill devised political ambitions. Unfortunately, when the 1906 earthquake strikes San Francisco, romance and politics are quickly forgotten in search of something more.

It’s not a musical per se, but song and dance plays a critical part in San Francisco. Oscar nominated director Woody Van Dyke (The Thin Man series) gives San Francisco a film within a film feel. There’s stage shows and dance numbers to observe; yes, but the table conversations and Barbary Coast drama is just as important. The movie is about the great titular song and Mary’s humble rise and high vocal cords, sure, but fellow Oscar nominee Robert Hopkins (Saratoga) and writer Anita Loos (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, The Women) give us multiple layers to unveil. Though lovely, the audience becomes quickly aware that San Francisco isn’t all about the music. There’s gentle religious debate, Victorian etiquette mixing with clubs, old wealth, class and marital status, crooked government, and more-especially when the earthquake pulls everything together. Indeed San Francisco captures as much of the pre-quake city’s scope as possible. I dare say a remake or another spectacle film dealing with the 1906 earthquake is due, but I fear today’s Hollywood would miss the fine balance between emotion and personal drama and quake hysteria- like the painful melodrama but stellar effects of Pearl Harbor or Titanic. San Francisco gets the action of the quake against the personal drama right.

I’m not a die hard Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind, It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty) fan but his Blackie Norton has the charm and business edge needed for the San Francisco heyday. Norton is as witty to his friends as he is to his competitors-and just as fast with the dames. Gable’s delivery is tight and clipped, and the humorous asides are great dead pans. There are however, some great quiet looks from Gable, too, allowing the soft side of Blackie to show. We can tell he likes Mary, and we know a jealous quip when we hear it. The audience likes Blackie, but can see his imperfect mix of loving Mary and using her talents at his club. Of course, San Francisco is not above showing Gable in all his thirties beefcake in a weird boxing scene between Blackie and Father Tim. Thanks to Gable’s fine performance, however, we don’t need to see Norton throw some punches to know he is going to take the politics of San Francisco by storm.

Boy, Spencer Tracy cornered the market on playing a priest back in the day! The Best Actor winner for Boys Town and Captain Courageous and Lead Actor nominee here matches Gable with religious guidance and ideological morality. The odds are stacked against Father Mullen in his hoped reformation of Blackie, but he can see the kind soul hidden behind the hip exteriors and is willing to stand up for his faith against his friend. While both men are charming, Tracy has a touch of jealousy and as much chemistry with MacDonald as Gable does. It’s a vague and unusual love triangle of sorts, but Tracy’s pull of good against Gable’s worldly ways is a delightful seesaw-and Tracy struts his godly charm in less screen time, too.

Jeannette MacDonald’s (The Merry Widow, Rose Marie) good girl Mary with the great voice is but a charming rookie on the Barbary Coast, but Blackie’s met his match in this preacher’s daughter all right. Her contractual loyalty to Blackie against Operatic stardom is lovely devotion compared to the gambling and loose stylings of San Francisco-but Mary’s hesitancy to fall in love with Blackie is beautifully done. Her innocence in religious debates with Norton is heartfelt and understandable. We want Mary to melt Blackie’s heart, but we don’t want him to change her. It seems so strange to me that Gable and MacDonald didn’t get along, for their onscreen repertoire is great. I also think it’s sad that Jeanette MacDonald’s star is probably lost to non-classic film or opera audiences. Casual move fans might know MacDonald more for her oft-onscreen pairings and supposedly off-screen romances with Nelson Eddy, but San Francisco proves her worth against other big actress singers of the day.

I would have liked more attention on the supporting players in San Francisco, but the layered drama doesn’t quite allow room for more beyond the leading trio’s complexities. Jack Holt (The Treasure of Sierra Madre) is juicy as Blackie’s witty operatic competition, and Three Stooges orchestrater Ted Healy- who died shortly hereafter- is equally charming as The Paradise’s snarky manager Mat. Gallagher and Shean alum and Marx Brothers writer Al Shean and Jessie Ralph (Camille, Little Lord Fauntleroy) are also perfection as the Opera House Professor and the aristocratic Mrs. Burley. Both take time to show Mary that San Francisco isn’t all bad and even has a lot of heart. However, the quake drastically changes everything for these supporting players, and they in turn make the most of their critical scenes and push our leads to where they need to be. The numerous Ziegfield girls and song and dance men also keep San Francisco’s club scene light and authentic, again maintaining the balance between drama and heyday.

Though charming, San Francisco might not be for all modern viewers. The early black and white photography hinders the supposedly big and happening New Year’s Eve bits, but the fires and quake destructions do look good. Some of the action early on also isn’t action at all, but merely folks standing on stage and lots of conversations or folks looking at other people while they sing. I think there might be some soft focus up close shots of Gable, too, but weren’t all the divas filmed as such back then? Also, if you don’t like ragtime music or earlier, operatic styles- then San Francisco is definitely not for you. Young folks might not even be able to understand the titular song’s lyrics or care about Mary’s great operatic debut. Now having said that, we are talking about a 75-year-old film that does in fact hold up musically and dramatically- beat that!

Now then, there’s no sense in me not talking about it, because we all know about the 1906 big one. Despite the limits of black and white and filmmaking of the time, San Francisco gives a dynamite, dramatic recreation of the earthquake. The destruction is powerful and shattering, the screaming women and numb survivors are utterly captivating, and the climatic action here is worth just as much as today’s overblown Pearl Harbor or Titanic. You don’t need a three-hour long, effects laden opus when you can show realistic terror, chaos, and aftermath. Thankfully, the late Victorian dresses, stage costumes, hats, and men’s capes in San Francisco all look great, too. In theory, 1936 Hollywood was not so far removed from San Francisco 1906 as we are now a century on, so a level of authenticity or vintage dressing is expected. Some of these old films have such great art decoration simply because there were more gently worn vintage artifacts available. It would be a lot tougher for Victorian San Francisco to be filmed on location with original fashions today, wouldn’t it? There are a little too many thirties jazz-esque bobs perhaps, and of course, there are a few stereotypical Chinese servants and iffy quips about Chop Suey; but the onscreen feelings of San Francisco captures both time periods with grace and style.

Fans of good old time splendor and dance numbers can take San Francisco all in good fun, as will classic film lovers. Quake historians and scholars might also like to take a gander, and those of a religious classroom can also find what they’re looking for in San Francisco. Tonight, leave your heart in San Francisco without ever leaving your couch!

No comments: