This month, Clark is a hard gamblin’ hard drinkin’ woman chasin’ shyster, Spencer Tracy is his best friend the priest and Jeanette MacDonald is the saintly opera singer who steals his heart in San Francisco.
Gable is Blackie Norton, a ruthless saloon-keeper in 1906 San Francisco, proud of his gambling ways. Despite their differences, he falls in love with Mary Blake (MacDonald), an aspiring opera singer who he hires to sing in his revue. His childhood pal, priest Tim Mullin (Tracy), objects to him putting Mary on display and stopping her from her opera aspirations. Realizing that Tim is right and that she should pursue her dreams instead of letting Blackie hold her back, Mary leaves him and becomes a successful opera star. It isn’t until the shattering earthquake that Blackie realizes his true feelings for Mary and sets out to find her among the rubble.
This film is a favorite of many a Clark Gable fan, and it is not difficult to see why. As far as Gable fans are concerned, this one has it all: action, romance, special effects, drama. A prestige project for MGM, San Francisco took fifty two days to shoot and costs $1.3 million, an extremely large sum in 1936. Money well spent, however, as the film went on $5.3 million at the box office, becoming the second biggest hit of Clark’s entire career, after Gone with the Wind.
Clark is at his swoon-worthy best here. When we first see him, he’s a perfect dashing specimen in a top hat, tails and cape, complete with cane–rather Rhett Butler-esque!
Truly at the peak of his heartthrob status, we are treated to many scenes of Clark smirking, winking and smooth talking with the ladies. Early on in the film, he shares a long liplock with a patron, who then points to the man next to her and says to Clark,”I want you to meet my husband.” Not many men can get away with that without getting their lights punched out!
We are also treated to a boxing match between Spencer and Clark, with Clark wearing nothing but what looks to be a high-waisted diaper!
His priest pal Spencer sums up Clark quite perfectly: “He’s as unscrupulous with men as he is ruthless with women.” Perfectly true as he tries to wiggle his way into pure and simple Jeanette’s heart–finding out she’s a virgin, he says, “I’m a sucker!” Myrna Loy, Clark’s frequent co-star, once lamented that the American public boxed her in to always be Nora Charles and Clark to always be Blackie Norton. It’s true, several of his films afterward were copies of Blackie in one way or another.
I’ll admit to, um, fast forwarding MacDonald’s opera house scenes. But one cannot help but be roused by her lively rendition of the film’s trademark song, “San Francisco” right before the earthquake. The song is, to this day, the theme song of the city. I had a friend who worked in a hotel there and once I called him and he put me on hold. What was the hold music? Jeanette belting out “San Francisco”! And yes, my friend made fun of me for being excited about hold music…
Clark apparently wasn’t a fan of Jeanette’s soprano –he was hesitant to star in the film because he thought he’d just be a prop standing there listening to her sing. To appease him, most of Jeanette’s singing scenes were filmed separately from Clark’s reaction shots. Interesting fact: One of MacDonald’s opera gowns was later re-used as a gown for Gilda in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Jeanette was not one of Clark’s favorite leading ladies. He found her to be diva-like and a bit too prim and proper for his taste. He was also irritated that it was in her contract that she was given time off every month for her, ahem, “ladies days.” It is often repeated that she bothered him so much one day on the set that he purposely ate spaghetti loaded with garlic for lunch, knowing that that afternoon they were supposed to film a love scene. Jeanette was so offended by his breath she nearly fainted. Seems a bit immature for him, who knows if it’s true or not.
The earthquake scenes are really something to behold. The stunning special effects used to simulate the earthquake were created by hydraulic platforms that were pulled apart by cables with hoses underneath. They took weeks of testing to perfect.
Legendary director D.W. Griffith was hired to direct the earthquake scenes after the producers saw the rushes of Van Dyke’s version, which they thought were rushed and fake-looking. Griffith gave them the authenticity they needed. His only direction to the mobs of extras was, “Pretend it’s an earthquake! Run for your lives! Try to help your friends!”
A critical darling, San Francisco won the Academy Award for Best Sound Recording. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Assistant Director, Best Writing (Original Story), and Best Actor Spencer Tracy. Clark was bitter about Spencer’s nomination, especially since his role was more of a supporting part. While I do think Spencer does a good job here , I think he is rather wasted in the role. Spencer (here and also in Test Pilot) was much too talented an actor to be playing Clark’s sidekick with a conscience. Spencer and Clark were friends for decades, but Clark was always envious of Spencer’s acting chops, while Spencer was jealous of Clark’s intense popularity.
Clark objected to the final scene in which he falls to his knees and cries while he thanks God. He found it unmanly and refused. Director Van Dyke finally convinced him to do it by promising him to film him from behind.