What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2021) with… San Francisco (1936)

We’re back again for the classic 1936 movie San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald! Now, I had originally planned to post this back on February 14 as part of my Star Of The Month blogathon on Clark Gable, but then it was announced for release on Blu-ray, so I decided to delay it until I could see the new Blu-ray (and wrote about Mogambo instead). Still, most of what I had to say hasn’t changed, so here it is! Of course, we still have a few theatrical shorts to start things off with!

Coming Up Shorts! with… Bottles (1936)

(available as an extra on the San Francisco Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 10 minutes, 16 seconds)

When a druggist falls asleep one night, all the bottles in his shop come to life. This one is part of MGM’s “Happy Harmonies” series of shorts, and a fun one. In usual fashion for cartoons of the era, there isn’t a lot of story, but just stuff going on with a lot of characters singing various songs. While not as much fun as some of the Disney shorts of the era (in my opinion), this one was still enjoyable, and worth seeing every now and then.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Cavalcade Of San Francisco (1940)

(available as an extra on the San Francisco Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 8 minutes, 55 seconds)

This is a short from MGM’s TravelTalk series narrated by James A. FitzPatrick, which focuses on the Californian city of San Francisco. We get a bit of a view of the city’s landmarks (from about 1940), as well as a few bits about its history. It ends with some scenes from a World’s Fair exposition showing the history of the American West. It’s an interesting short, especially to see San Francisco from that time period, but, without any personal connections to the city myself, I find this to be one that I will probably not be revisiting any time soon.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Night Descends On Treasure Island (1940)

(available as an extra on the San Francisco Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 8 minutes, 6 seconds)

Another short from the TravelTalk series, this one focuses on the Golden Gate International Exposition at night time. We see a lot of the lit-up fountains, and various light shows, along with a number of paintings from the Palace Of Fine And Decorative Arts. Supposedly a follow-up to another short in the series that was filmed during the daytime. It’s another interesting one that allows us a view into that part of history when the Exposition was there, before the lights and everything would be turned off (like the short itself keeps emphasizing).

And Now For The Main Feature…

Our story starts in the waning hours of 1905 in San Francisco. Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), the owner of the Paradise Cafe in the Barbary Coast, is celebrating the New Year when he sees firetrucks heading towards the Barbary Coast. He watches the firefighters put out the fire before heading back to his place. While he’s there, he meets singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who just lost her living quarters due to the fire. He takes a liking to her and offers her a two-year contract to sing at the Paradise. As a result of the fire, a group of citizens band together and ask Blackie to run for supervisor, in the hope that he will help improve many of the unsafe buildings in the area. With the support of his friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie decides to run. His opponent, Jack Burley (Jack Holt), decides to pay him a visit and convince him to withdraw. He also brings along Señor Baldini (William Riccardi), the maestro at the Tivoli Opera House (which Burley owns). The two of them hear Mary singing, and try to convince her to come sing at the Tivoli. Although it’s her dream to sing there, she is stuck at the Paradise, since Blackie won’t let her out of her contract. However, Burley isn’t willing to give up, and keeps trying to make an offer. One night, Blackie, feeling confident she wouldn’t take up the offer, tells Burley that he will let her go, if she wants to. Without knowing this, she at first decides to stick with Blackie. However, when he throws a party to celebrate their “relationship,” she realizes she doesn’t mean that much to him, and leaves, taking him up on his offer to let her out of his contract. On opening night at the Tivoli, Blackie comes with a process server, intending to stop the show. However, he finds himself mesmerized by her singing, and decides to let the show go on. Afterwards, he goes to meet her backstage. Happy to see him again, Mary proposes marriage, and he accepts. However, when Burley comes backstage, Blackie makes his acceptance of her proposal depend upon her return to the Paradise Cafe. She decides to come back to the Paradise, but Father Tim objects to how Blackie is exploiting her in a revealing costume. Infuriated, Blackie punches his friend, and Mary decides to leave and go back to the Tivoli, which really angers Blackie. Even with this victory (and Mary accepting his proposal of marriage), Burley still insists on revoking Blackie’s liquor license and jailing his performers. Of course, this happens on the night of the Chickens Ball, a party where Blackie’s performers had been winning an entertainment competition in previous years (with a cash prize that Blackie sorely needed this time for his campaign fund). When Mary finds out what Burley did, she volunteers to go on for the Paradise, and wins easily. However, Blackie is furious with her and throws away the cash. Before anything else can happen, the city is hit with a very powerful earthquake, which makes a huge mess of things. Blackie manages to crawl out of the rubble, but Mary is nowhere to be seen. Can Blackie find her, or has the earthquake claimed the woman he loves?

While the posters proudly proclaimed that this movie was the first time that Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald shared the screen (and, to the best of my knowledge, would be the only time), the real team here was Gable and Spencer Tracy, in the first of three films they made together. Not only that, it helped Spencer Tracy’s career start to take off, after he had struggled at 20th Century Fox (who didn’t know what to do with him) and had signed with MGM. It ended up being the first of his nine nominations for the Best Actor Oscar. It was also a career changer for Jeanette MacDonald, who had mainly done some light operettas up to that point. Of course, the earthquake from the final twenty minutes or so is probably what this movie is best-known for, supposedly done by MGM’s special effects artist James Basevi (although Arnold Gillespie is given the credit).

Ah, Clark Gable. Where to begin? As best as I can tell, the film’s writers (Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins) based Clark’s character of Blackie Norton on real-life figure Wilson Mizner. Now, I know very little (if anything) about Wilson Mizner, but I do know that I like Clark Gable’s performance here. He does a great job portraying a character who, as Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin puts it, is ashamed of his good deeds the way others would be ashamed of their bad deeds. Besides him giving the organ to his friend’s church, we also see it in his treatment of Jeanette MacDonald’s Mary, especially when she proposes to him, as he makes it clear it’s her idea, and then he later asks if they can postpone it until after the election, since he had long derided the institution of marriage. But, more than that, his character seems to have parallels to the city of San Francisco (at least, as it is portrayed in this movie). The city is described by some characters as being quite “wicked” and ungodly, as he is. We watch as things get worse for the city and him as everyone’s pride increases, until his rejection of goodness (when he turns down her help at the Ball), at which point the earthquake strikes. Then, we see the citizens of the city (and him) start to reform. However you look at it, his performance has certainly made the movie easy to watch!

Now, when I first saw this movie, I had had no prior experience with actress and singer Jeanette MacDonald (outside of whatever clips were used in the That’s Entertainment film series). I still enjoyed the movie then, with all the performances working quite well, and the religious elements of the story certainly appealed to me. Having seen some of her other films in the time since I first watched the movie, I can appreciate her performance even more here. Of course, her rendition of the title song by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann is quite memorable, as is her introduction of the Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed song “Would You” (later used in the classic Singin’ In The Rain). But, I find myself also enjoying hearing her sing several hymns near the end of the movie, including “Nearer My God To Thee” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” All in all, whether it’s for Clark, Jeanette, Spencer, the earthquake sequence (which was done quite well, in my opinion), or any of a number of other reasons, this is a movie I enjoy watching every now and then! Certainly one you’ll find me having no hesitation about recommending!

This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection. The original camera negative was lost in the infamous MGM fire, so they were working from a combination of a nitrate fine grain second generation film elements (that were dubbed in French) and some more domestic elements. The results are fantastic (but, of course, this is WAC, so that’s nothing new). For those that don’t know, this movie has had two different endings. The film’s original ending had a montage of footage from then-modern day San Francisco (which included a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, then under construction), and a 1948 re-issue removed that, showing instead a freeze frame of then-current San Francisco. The DVD had the ending from the 1948 re-issue (and the original as an extra), whereas the new Blu-ray has the original 1936 ending restored to the movie (and the other included as a silent extra). Overall, I’m thrilled with this release, and would have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it!

Film Length: 1 hour, 55 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #2 in Top 10 Disc Releases Of 2021

**ranked #9 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2021

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)Clark GableMogambo (1953)

Rose-Marie (1936)Jeanette MacDonaldMaytime (1937)

Spencer Tracy – Libeled Lady (1936)

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