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Splendid, Engaging Romantic Drama From The Thirties Endures.
jpdoherty9 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Alongside "Gone With The Wind" MGM's SAN FRANCISCO (1936) is without doubt the finest romantic drama to emanate from Hollywood in the thirties. A movie that had everything going for it - a splendid story and script, a superb star in Clark Gable, a beautiful actress with an arresting singing voice in Jeanette MacDonald, wonderful songs and an earthquake sequence that will not only knock your socks off but can stand up proudly beside anything that computer graphics can conjure up today. The picture also was the most sensational profit making movie of 1936 speeding past "The Great Ziegfeld" from the same year. Produced for the studio by John Emerson and Bernard Hyman it was directed with great punch and attention to detail by W.S.Van Duke. The Perfectly handled screenplay was written by Anita Loos from a story by Robert Hopkins and the crisp monochrome cinematography was by Oliver T. Marsh.

It is 1905 in San Fransico and Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) runs "The Paradise" a not too respectable night club on the rowdy Barbary Coast. A girl Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) arrives in the city from the country looking for a job singing. She approaches Norton who interviews her and is very taken by both her beauty and her prowess as a singer. He hires her and in the following weeks they fall in love but Blackie comes up against some competition from Jack Burly (Jack Holt) the wealthy owner of the Tivoli opera house. Burly falls for Mary too and wants to buy out her contract from Norton to have her sing in the opera. But Norton refuses and is not for turning. However after an altercation with Blackie she walks out on him and goes to the Tivoli where she becomes a singing sensation. Still in love with Blackie she however sees no future with him and just as she becomes engaged to Burly a tremendous earthquake wreaks havoc on the great city. The picture ends with the death of thousands of citizens including Jack Burly and an injured Blackie searching through every bit of rubble for Mary before eventually finding her alive and well and leading the survivors singing the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee" in a makeshift camp outside the destroyed city.

Performances are top notch throughout the movie. Gable is terrific as the flamboyant Blackie Norton. His role looking every bit like a dry run for his Rhett Butler three years later. Excellent too is the inviting and quite lovely Jeanette MacDonald. The vivacious lady is simply electric! She just lights up the screen and delights us with her mellifluous singing voice in renditions of arias from Gounod's FAUST, Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, Nacio Herb Brown's lovely WOULD YOU and the rousing title song SAN FRANCISCO written by Polish composer Bronislau Kaper who was just starting out on his illustrious film music career at MGM. The song would become a hit and remains to this day the city's favoured anthem. Of course the real star of the picture is the special effects with the climactic earthquake sequence. Designed and implemented by Russian montage expert Slavko Vorkapach it remains an amazing achievement for thirties cinema which can still manage to excite and frighten today with just as much impact as anything in modern film.

It is almost inconceivable that a seventy five year old movie can remain such a firm favourite which it steadfastly has maintained over the years. The film was nominated for four Acadamy Awards (winning one for sound recording), has a beautiful screenplay, is wonderfully directed and besides the lovely songs from the attractive Miss MacDonald contains some moments of real charm especially the scenes with the two principles. SAN FRANCISCO is a great and fascinating film from vintage Hollywood and looks like it will continue to be one of the most fondly remembered movies of all time.
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Timeless special effects created in 1936 by John Hoffman
mail-462127 October 2007
John Hoffman (my father) was responsible for the Great Earthquake scene and a number the other montage sequences in the film. A friend of his, the film preservationist David Shepard, tells me the film had already been shot, but the studio execs weren't happy with it. So, they handed it over to the then head of MGM's Montage Department, John Hoffman, to see if he could salvage it. Hoffman rewrote, directed and edited many of the scenes. The result: five Oscar nominations (including 'Best Picture') and one win ('Best Sound') – released in 1936, it preceded the introduction of the Oscar for Special Effects award by a few years.

A few years ago, when the Academy Awards Ceremony featured a review of the greatest disaster films ever made, I was disappointed to note that San Francisco hadn't been included. Still, from reading the reviews posted here, it's great to see how many people still appreciate it today.
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MGM All-Star Classic Still Shines!
cariart11 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"San Francisco", MGM's 'Showcase' film of 1936, demonstrates why no other studio could 'touch' Metro at it's prime. Take the biggest star in Hollywood, team him with the 'Queen' of 1930s MGM musicals, add the greatest film actor of a generation in support, then top things off with a 'no-expense-spared' recreation of the most famous earthquake in history, and an instant Classic was born!

Seventy years later, the film has lost little of it's luster; certainly the 'Message' is a bit heavy-handed, the long opera sequences may make some viewers cringe, and some of the effects (involving double exposures) seem quaint in an era of CGI...but Clark Gable still projects his signature cockiness and virility, Jeanette MacDonald is still radiant (and can sure belt out "San Francisco"), and Spencer Tracy is still magnificent (it is easy to see why he received a 'Best Actor' nomination, in what was obviously a supporting role; he easily steals the film, in every scene he's in).

Directed by the remarkable W.S. ('Woody') Van Dyke, a consummate craftsman, and one of MGM's fastest directors (contradictory terms, but he combined speed and style, effortlessly), with a screenplay, surprisingly, by future "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" author, Anita Loos (from a story by Robert Hopkins), "San Francisco" exudes confidence, from the riotously decadent New Year's Eve, 1905, opening scene, to the finale, as Gable, MacDonald, Tracy, and, apparently, most of the survivors of the earthquake and fire march to a hilltop, vowing to build a 'better' city, and singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", as they view the smoking ruins, which dissolves into the 'modern' San Francisco of 1936.

Corny? Certainly! But undeniably rousing, as well!
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Hold onto your seats!
munson-23 November 1998
SAN FRANCISCO is a major Hollywood production from the 1930's, From the Boldness of the opening credits, along with a rousing rendition of the tune by the same name, the viewer suspects that they are going to witness a special movie event.

The plot is a rather forthright formula story of a tug-of-war romance between bad boy Clark Gable (Blackie Nortion, saloon owner) and mama's boy Jack Holt (Jack Burley, scion of a well-to -do family) for the affections of singer Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake, beautiful, virginal). It's also a story of good vs. evil, the good portrayed by Spencer Tracy as a Catholic Priest.

But it's the hard-hitting script and it's crisp dialogue, the recreation of a turn-of-the-Century San Francisco, the great acting, the music, and the fabulous Earthquake sequences that make this show the classic that it is.

SAN FRANCISCO is a tale of contrasts. On one hand the Barbary Coast with it's bars and bordellos, yet on the other hand we have a city of the fine arts, opera, and the Nob Hill elite. We have the rich, the spendthrifts, and also the poor who seek shelter in the Mission Houses.

The acting of Clark Gable cannot go unmentioned. His Blackie Norton is the most mockingly amoral character, proud of his lack of religious faith..... relying only on himself. Yet as Father Mullin (Tracy) says at one point in the movie, "Do you know who gave the chapel that organ we've been dedicating tonight? The most scoffing, unbelieving, and godless soul in all San Francisco, ..Blackie Norton. Cost him over $4,000......Don't tell him I told you. Blackie's like that, ashamed of his good deeds as most men are ashamed of their bad."

The famous 1906 Earthquake is a real show-stopper. Entire sets were hoisted on hydraulic lifts and rockers, and literally shaken down. VERY REALISTIC. I would have reservations about showing this picture to kids under 10 years of age. They may develop a neurotic fear of earthquakes following this one.

Enjoy and re-enjoy.
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A stunning film, especially for the 1930's
AQKent25 October 2000
This movie has it all: good history, great acting, superb special effects, a Stellar cast (Gable, Tracy, and McDonald, all top stars at the time), and a great story line. You get so wrapped up in the lives of these people that you even forget that there's an earthquake a' comin', until it HITS, and right in the middle of the human drama... Remember the first time you saw it? The timing was SO good that I'm sure most audience members felt the same confusion and sense of impending doom that the characters on-screen were experiencing at the same time. It's a real jaw-dropper...

In addition, there's a string of occurrences in this film which often go overlooked by all of the above: the INCREDIBLE singing of Jeanette McDonald, which punctuates the film at several key moments. When she sings, on demand, "Love Me and the World is Mine", the audience, just like Blackie Norton, can't help but be stunned by her voice, seeing that this woman has a set of PIPES! Whether it's opera, hymns, or the title song, her singing is the thread that ties all the parts of this film together, and, considering sound recording in 1936, it's stunning. Next time you visit this film, make a note to yourself: focus on her singing. She had an amazing talent that no one in film has matched, before or since. Her singing alone makes this film worth the price of admission.

So, rent the film and enjoy one of the greats... can't wait until it comes out on DVD.
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One of a kind!
HollywoodandVine8 December 2006
When I found this video I snatched it off the shelf! I found this to be such a great glimpse of a by-gone era never to be seen again. I play some of the scenes over and over again as I have a great interest in Victorian architecture, etc. Pay attention to background sets, furniture, etc these folks really did their home work! I read that the special-effects were so remarkable considering the film was made in the late 1930's. You have to really focus on the conversations and the message the film was relaying to the audience. The city had garnered such notoriety for being a rough, wild and sinful city. The religious overtones were being emphasized as if to imply the city deserved what it got. This was being circulated all over the world of course. There is the scene where Jeneatte McDonald is having a 1 on 1 conversation with her future mother in law. Mrs Bailey tells her that the "aristocracy" of San Francisco is not what people think. "They are a wild and crazy bunch living a sinful life with party's that last for days! She says. So you see the film wanted us to feel how society viewed others in those days. Wonderful film I never tire of seeing it!
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Groundbreaking and earth shattering drama
lugonian17 November 2001
SAN FRANCISCO (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, is a predecessor of all those disaster movies Hollywood made famous in the 1970s, but in spite of many, including EARTHQUAKE (1974), nothing comes close to this production, a well written script (by Anita Loos), fine character development and superb cast headed by Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. However, it's not the first major motion picture to feature earthquake sequence on film. One would have to go back to the silent Warner Brothers production of OLD SAN FRANCISCO (1927) starring Dolores Costello. SAN FRANCISCO is not a remake, simply a story of fictional characters pitted against an actual occurrence set at the turn of the century.

The story begins in San Francisco after New Year's Day, 1906, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), an ambitious singer whose specialty is opera, has just lost her apartment due to a fire, and comes to the Barbary Coast looking for work. She obtains a job singing at the Paradise, a café managed by Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a ruthless proprietor who oversees that his guests get whatever they need: dinner, drinks, entertainment and gambling. Mary later becomes acquainted with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie's best friend since boyhood, and finds comfort in him that she doesn't find in Blackie. In time she learns to love and accept Blackie for what he is, an anti-religious man with a rough exterior who is known, only to Father Tim, for doing good deeds in secret. Problems arise when the aristocratic Jack Burley (Jack Holt), hears Mary sing and arranges an audition, leading to success at the Tivoli Opera House. Blackie decides to run for city council and tries to abolish the Barbary Coast's fire-trap buildings. Since Jack happens to be a major Coast landlord, and very much in love with Mary, he and Blackie soon become rivals. This is soon followed by an on-again, off-again relationship with Mary, Blackie and Jack, before the rumbling and tumbling climax of the San Francisco earthquake on the early morning of April 18th, 1906.

In spite of some faults in SAN FRANCISCO, the movie itself is groundbreaking entertainment, and a big boost for its major lead actors and anyone else responsible for it's production. While Gable and MacDonald dominate the story in its tight 116 minutes, it's Spencer Tracy, in a minor but important supporting role, who was honored an Academy Award as Best Actor. This seems odd considering Tracy not being in every scene. There are times he's just there watching and smiling (such as in the opera segments), and other times he comes off with some good sentimental dialog, then disappears during long stretches before reappearing again. His performance doesn't go without merit, in fact, it never does, but a performance such as this is worthy of a supporting actor category. Gable is also excellent. He succeeds in making his unpleasant character likable. This could very well had been a nomination for Gable, however, he received none. There's good male bonding chemistry between Gable and Tracy, good enough to pair them again in TEST PILOT (1938) and BOOM TOWN (1940). One of their most notable scenes in SAN FRANCISCO occurs when Gable as Blackie has a heated argument and socking Tim a priest. This then controversial segment was kept in the final print by adding a boxing scene earlier in the story as Father Tim and Blackie boxing in the gym together with Tim giving his best pal the final punch. On the plus side are the costume designs and authentic hair styles that capture the era the movie is set. The true highlight, however, happens to be the 20 minute earthquake sequence that's so realistic that it's hard to believe it wasn't done by modern-day computer technology.

While SAN FRANCISCO is virtually a drama, songs and opera segments are plenty, consisting of "Old Acquaintance," "Happy New Year," "Hot Town in the Old Town Tonight," "Love Me and the World is Mine," "San Francisco," "A Heart That's Free," "Hosannah," "San Francisco" (reprise); "Would You?" "The Philippine Dance," "San Francisco," "Nearer as God to Thee" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." MacDonald's opera performance includes segments of "Air Des Bijoux," CARRE from "Faust," "Marguerita" and "Sempre Libera" (by Guiseppi Verdi from LA TRAVIATA). The new songs of "San Francisco" and "Would You?" were written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The supporting players consist of Jessie Ralph (Maizie Burley, Jack's mother; Shirley Ross (Trixie); Margaret Irving (Della Bailey); with Ted Healy, Harold Huber, William Riccardi, Edgar Kennedy and Warren Hymer.

One final note: For years when "San Francisco" was presented on local television annually on April 18th, the day of the 1906 earthquake, the conclusion consisted of the city's destruction super-imposed by the rebuilt city from different angles and the landmark of the Golden Gate Bridge. By 1982, television prints, future home video copies and presentations on Turner Classic Movies consisted of a slightly different conclusion lifted from the 1948 reissue showing the destroyed city super-imposed by new buildings and nothing else. The original finish was finally restored as part of the "alternate ending" when transferred to DVD, making this the one most highly recommended as the movie itself. (****)
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I still get a lump in my throat when Jeanette MacDonald belts out the song "San Francisco"
bengleson20 July 2002
I have just watched the colorized version of this knock-out film. Whether in color or B &W, it is a powerfully entertaining film. When Blackie Norton finds religion and Mary Blake spots him, humbled and on his redemption encrusted knees,tears well up in my jaded eyes. Everything works so wonderfully in this film. Still, as destructive and tragic as the earthquake scenes are,this movie is basically a love story and what male would not swoon over the voice and the innocence of Mary Blake. Certainly not me.
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"Tell Me You're the Heart of All the Golden West."
bkoganbing7 November 2005
MGM's blockbuster was conceived originally as a vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald to co-star with some non-singing players while her normal screen partner Nelson Eddy was on a concert tour. Mr. Eddy always considered his screen roles secondary to his concert singing which was the reverse of how Jeanette felt.

According to a recent book about both Eddy and MacDonald, Clark Gable had been gotten out of romantic dalliance with some hush money MGM paid some woman off with. He didn't really want to do the film, but Louis B. Mayer kind of hammerlocked him into it. MacDonald however chose Spencer Tracy for the part of Father Tim Mullin, Gable's best friend and conscience of the movie.

Nevertheless the part of Blackie Norton, impresario of the Barbary Coast in 1906 San Francisco fits Gable perfectly. The man takes his pleasures where he finds them, but has a concern for the folks in his area who are getting the raw end of things from the upper crust on Nob Hill as personified by Gable's rival Jack Holt.

Gable and Holt are rivals for Jeanette MacDonald as well. She's fresh from the country, a parson's daughter with a great set of soprano pipes. Both like what they see, but Holt appreciates her voice quite a bit more than Gable at first.

Besides Ms. MacDonald, Gable and Holt have their differences over some of the rottenly constructed houses on the Barbary Coast and Gable wants a lot of new construction there. Of course the Earthquake of April 18, 1906 settles the whole issue of urban renewal.

If the special effects Oscar was around at that time, San Francisco would have won it for sure. Even over 60 years after the film came out and with the more modern techniques of special effects available, the sight of the earthquake is still visually stunning.

Gable and MacDonald did not get along on the set, Gable was more used to down to earth leading ladies like Crawford and Harlow. MacDonald and Tracy got along just fine. Her intercession with Louis B. Mayer changed the course of Tracy's career forever. Previous to San Francisco, Tracy played a whole slew of roughneck heroes in B films at Fox and his first few at MGM were in the same mold. As Father Tim Mullin, Tracy became the wise father figure (no pun intended) that the public came to know so well. He received his first Academy Award nomination for this part.

Jeanette has some operatic selections and three hymns to sing during the film, The Holy City, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Nearer My God to Thee. She also got two original songs, Would You and the title tune of the film.

The song San Francisco was adopted by the city fathers of San Francisco as the city's official song. That is until Tony Bennett lost his heart there. Controversy still rages on the bay as to which should be the official song of San Francisco.

San Francisco made a whole lot of money for Leo the Lion that year. It in fact inspired Darryl F. Zanuck to burn down Chicago the following year so he could get in on that disaster epic box office.

San Francisco still holds up well today, the action, the music, and Spencer Tracy's groundbreaking performance. Something for everyone.
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Gable, MacDonald, and Tracy as San Francisco topples around them
blanche-25 May 2006
As in the '70s, disaster films were all the rage in the '30s, with "Hurricane," "The Rains Came," "In Old Chicago," and, of course, 1936's "San Francisco" which certainly sent the other studios running to destroy anything they could. The film stars Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy as three citizens of that beautiful city on April 18, 1906, when the big earthquake struck.

Gable plays Blackie Norton, a quintessential role for him - a tough, charming rogue who runs The Paradise Club. MacDonald is the lovely and talented Mary Black who arrives there looking for work, and Spencer Tracy is Father Tim, who is Blackie's conscience (so he ignores him) and Mary's moral compass. Mary is torn between two loves - her love for Blackie and her love for opera. Burley (Jack Holt) wants her contract from Blackie so he can star her at the Tivoli Opera, but in all things, she suppresses her own desires so that she can stay with Blackie. She finally does leave but returns...only to leave again after an ugly confrontation between Blackie and Father Tim. Things get a lot uglier at an annual contest - and that's when the chandelier starts moving back and forth.

It's amazing what the films in the pre-computer age were able to do with special effects because the earthquake in "San Francisco" is dazzling, spectacular, and downright scary. Given the horrors of 9/11 and Katrina, one is drawn into the devastation and suffering as people search for loved ones, watch their houses fall, go crazy, and see their beloved city dynamited because there's no water to stop the raging fires. 70 years later, it's all way too close to home.

As good as he always was with Gable, Spencer Tracy did not have much of a role as the good father, but he's excellent. MacDonald poses a problem. Normally, she plays a diva or spitfire, and she did those roles beautifully. But Mary Blake is a modest and religious woman who speaks softly and sublimates her own desires for the man she loves. It doesn't ring true, and it doesn't work opposite the volatile Blackie of Gable's. If Mary had been more like other roles she played, MacDonald probably would have had good chemistry with him. As it is, they don't make much of a couple. Her singing is pretty until she hits the opera stage - with the combination of the tinny sound system in those days and the way women were trained on high notes then, the end result isn't good. She sings "The Jewel Song," which she often did in concert, the finale of "Faust," and "Sempre Libera." MacDonald was a lyric coloratura and suited to the demands of the opera stage in the '30s, but today she sounds dated as standards have changed.

This is a great film to see to appreciate the artistry of the early technicians. The effects in "San Francisco" hold up against anything that came 40 years later. The ending is pure Hollywood hokum, but very stirring. It gave this viewer goosebumps. Don't miss Hollywood at its very best.
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FilmLabRat28 June 2003
GREAT story, wonderful characters, excellent acting, beautiful cinematography and complex, realistic sets! Makes me nostalgic for these old, well-rounded, meaningful movies. Gable's character, "Blackie" is a marvelous example of the dual human nature that has hidden gold inside - people are not always as they seem. Life is a constant struggle that keeps everyone developing and brings out the true heart - for better or worse.

Beyond the basic plot, the film shows the potential devastation of earthquakes [historic retelling of the 1906 SF quake] and the ability of human beings to band together, overcome petty grudges and social class barriers and rejoice in life, transcending the mundane concerns. Incredible spiritual awakening in several characters, too. What was important before the tragedy became silly and forgotten in the wake of the rubble and death - back to basics. Can't say enough about the story, depiction of history and the outstanding cinematic artistry.
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The Barbary Coast, the priest, the singer and Blackie.
silverauk5 August 2002
San Francisco hundred years ago must have been an attractive place to be before the earthquake. The director W.S. Van Dyke made other disaster-movies for Hollywood but this must be his best. The special quality of this movie is that the effects of the earthquake are secondary to the story-telling of Robert E. Hopkins and the script by Anita Loos. Everybody is moved by the quarrel opposing Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) and Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) for the singer of the opera Mary Blake (a magnificent Jeanette MacDonald). Jack Burley (Jack Holt) is impressive as he ought to be. The nightclub "Paradise" is realistic as it was at that time without exaggerating. This is a movie about morals: how you can remain decent in a decadent environment.
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wait for it
rsyung11 July 2001
San Francisco, like so many other films from this era, just reminds me again how movies today have lost the art of the build-up. They just hit you over the head with mind-numbing action from frame one. Hollywood(and audiences of today) would do well to watch classics like "San Francisco", where story takes precedence over special effects and when the effects do come, they are in service to the story. And they mean so much more and have so much more impact when held back until the last possible moment. Why can't we allow ourselves to be immersed in the story? Or are we just too impatient for it now?
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Love and Earthquake in the Sin City
claudio_carvalho22 October 2011
On 31 December 1905, a fire destroys a building at Barbary Coast in San Francisco and on the next day, the singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) from Benson, Colorado, that lived in the burnt building looks for a job at the nightclub Paradise. The owner Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) is a ruthless but good man and hires Mary after asking her to show her legs. Blackie is also invited to run to the position of Supervisor of the Coast by his friends and acquaintances to protect the neighborhood.

When Blackie's competitor from Nob Hill, Jack Burley (Jack Holt), and his friend Maestro Baldini (William Ricciardi), hear Mary singing, Jack invites her to sing at his fancy Tivoli Opera House. However, Mary has a two-year contract signed with Blackie and is in love with him. But when the other artists from Paradise see her with Blackie and make malicious comments about her, she quits and goes to Tivoli. On her debut at the Tivoli, Blackie goes there with an authority to call off the concert. Blackie has an injunction against Jack Burley since Mary is still under contract with him. However, when he hears Mary singing the opera, he changes his mind and proposes her to get married with him.

Mary returns to the Paradise but when Blackie's friend Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) sees Mary exposing her legs, he does not allow her to go to the stage. Mary works at Tivoli and is proposed by Jack Burley to marry him. Meanwhile the powerful Jack Burley uses his influence with the Powers that Be to close the Paradise and arrest the performers. During a musical competition between the clubs, Mary Blake learns the truth and decides to help the Paradise with her presentation. However, it is 1906, the year of the major earthquake that struck San Francisco.

"San Francisco" is a wonderful film of love and earthquake in the sin city. I had no idea that this film was so good and this is the first time that I watch "San Francisco". The story is excellent, with charismatic and ambiguous characters, enjoyable songs sang by Jeanette MacDonald and stunning special effects, with a realistic and convincing earthquake. The very last scene is fantastic.

Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald show a magnificent chemistry and it is impressive the resemblance of the face of Madonna in the 80's with Jeanette MacDonald. I only regret that I had not seen this film before. My vote is eight.

Title (Brazil): "San Francisco – A Cidade do Pecado" ("San Francisco" – The Sin City")
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Spectacular in its Day!
dougandwin10 August 2004
Oh, yes "San Francisco" was a masterpiece movie when it was made in 1936 - the special effects designed and brilliantly brought to the screen by MGM were astounding, and this film was a giant hit. Having seen it many times over, I am still enthralled by the Earthquake scenes, and it was great to see Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable working so well together - somehow this was one of Gable's best two roles of his career as Blackie. Jeanette MacDonald was somewhat miscast in some ways, but her singing of "Nearer My God to Thee" was inspirational - it was a pity it was so short. The supporting cast was excellent while the spirit of the city of San Francisco was well captured by the direction of W.S. van Dyke. Jack Holt and Jessie Ralph, a couple of old stagers, did well - but the star of the show was the Earthquake.
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San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate
Bucs196012 November 2004
You can't go wrong with the pairing of two of the great stars of Hollywood, Gable and Tracy......and the great star of the west coast, San Francisco. The role of Blackie Norton may be one of Gable's best, so cynical,so devil-may-care and just a little bit dangerous. Tracy play the understanding priest with his usual aplomb. As he told someone once "Don't ever let them catch you acting".

Gable's attraction to Jeanette McDonald is a little bit unbelievable. She really did belong with Jack Holt in this film......or better yet Nelson Eddy should have showed up at the last minute and swept her away with a song. Gable and McDonald don't mesh at all and there was not much chemistry between them although I must admit she is lovely. Be that as it may, the film is one of the best of Hollywood's mid-30's offerings. There is something for everyone; music, drama, comedy and the finale of the earthquake which is what we are waiting for. And what a spectacle it is!! It is very well done in those days before sophisticated special effects; with tumbling buildings, crashing walls and the inevitable fire. There are a couple of poignant scenes when the firefighters must blow up buildings and homes to control the fire thus destroying lifetimes of work and memories.

The ending is a little bit over the top as those who have lost their families and all that they own, joyously sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and march up the hill to view the destruction (I'm not sure I would be that upbeat)......but it is still effective. The fade to the modern day (1936) San Francisco is just the right ending note. I highly recommend this film, not only for the Gable/Tracy pairing but also for the general excellence of the production.
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The Best Remembered Earthquake?
theowinthrop11 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The San Francisco Earthquake happened 99 years ago next week. Ironically it's anniversary is a few days after the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, as well as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Forgotten is also the anniversary on April 27 of the explosion and burning of the steamboat Sultana in 1865 (which killed more people than the Titanic did!). Truly T.S. Eliot's comment, "April is the cruelest month" has some substantial facts to back it.

There are not many movies dealing with famous earthquakes, although they do appear in films like PENNY SERENADE (where Irene Dunne and Cary Grant survive the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923). The San Francisco Earthquake has popped up in other films besides SAN FRANCISCO. Within two years of this film Warner Brothers produced THE SISTERS starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, in which Davis survives the earthquake. There was at least on silent film dealing with the earthquake too. But SAN FRANCISCO is the best known.

I find it good as an entertaining film, and mediocre as a study of the actual events of April 18 - 25, 1906. The performances of Gable, MacDonald, Tracy, Ralph, and Jack Holt are all good. Al Shean gives a nice cameo as a musician who champions MacDonald. Even Ted Healy is less obnoxious here - he has a good dying scene.

The most interesting thing about the film is the way the focus of villainy keeps shifting between Gable and Holt. We know that Clark Gable's Blackie is the hero of the film, but he frequently acts like an antihero in pushing aside MacDonald's operatic ambitions. We know that Holt is Gable's ruthless business rival, and the leader of the money people who refuse to consider fireproofing the buildings of the Barbary Coast area (it's not economical). But he does love MacDonald, and can't believe Gable's totally selfish intention to keep her working in his saloon rather than putting her in her proper spot on the stage of the San Francisco opera home. This seesaw effect is usually not noted by critics of the film. It is actually a plus in keeping one's interest in the actual plot.

My carping criticism is of a typically historical nature. The best study of the earthquake is Gordon Thomas and Max Gordon Witt's THE SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE, which points out the huge amount of official corruption in the background of the earthquake. The city was run by Boss Abe Ruef and his mayor-stooge-partner, Eugene Schmitz (a former bassoon player in an orchestra). They ignored improving the fire department's equipment, and as a result the earthquake would touch off a fire that was impossible to control. The fire was only stopped when federal troops under General Frederick Funston took over the city, set up martial law (possibly going too far - there were too many reports of killings done to prevent looting but that killed innocent people), and using dynamite to blast holes into the paths of the flames. Some aspects of this are shown in the earthquake sequences, but Schmitz and Ruef were not mentioned, nor was Funston (a war hero - he helped end the Phillippine "Insurrection of 1899 - 1902" by capturing Emilio Aguinaldo, it's leader, by a trick). Also more recent studies show the extent of the damage of the earthquake was greater than admitted in 1906. For years the casualty rate was estimated as only 500 (roughly the same as the Chicago Fire in 1871 and one third of the Titanic). About a decade ago a more careful study of census information, etc. showed the death toll was between 3,500 to 6,000, making it one of the deadliest events in American history.

The city of San Francisco did resurrect and rebuild itself quickly after the quake and fire. Ruef was sent to jail and Schmitz sent packing. San Francisco held World Fairs in 1915 and 1939-40. It is a most beloved city for tourists on our west coast to this day. But they know, with their San Andreas Fault nearby to remind them, that it will inevitably happen again one day. They are better prepared, but it will happen, and it will be a bad day once more when it does.
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Very good classic
jhaggardjr22 January 2001
"San Francisco" is a very good classic picture. It's in many ways kind of similar to "In Old Chicago", which came out a year after this film. Both films have love stories, both have beautiful sets, and both climax with a disaster that really did take place in their respective cities. "San Francisco" takes place in the mid-1900s. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are two of the thousands of people living in the city that was tragically rocked by the massive earthquake of 1906. Like "In Old Chicago", the disaster recreation here is impressive. The film tends to drag a little from time-to-time, but that's only a minor quarrel to an otherwise classy movie. All-in-all, I was pretty entertained by "San Francisco".

*** (out of four)
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San Francisco-Rousing Tribute to A City ****
edwagreen11 January 2006
Jeanette MacDonald belts out the title song in a benefit to help out her former boss Blackie Norton, played to the hilt by Clark Gable. Gable, must have been rehearsing for the part of Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind." Blackie and Rhett are so similar.

Mary Blake arrives in town and meets up with Blackie and the priest. (Spencer Tracy) Both men love her, but of course, as priest, for Tracy it's a respectful love. Respect, that is, for her moral character, which he questions by Blackie having her dress in the way she did at his dance hall.

A fight ensues between Blackie and the good Father. Both had been childhood friends. Enter love interest played by Jack Holt. Jack brings Mary to his mother, a brilliant Jesse Ralph, who recounts that she once loved a Blackie Norton type and married him!

The movie is best remembered for its vivid earthquake scene. That April earthquake of 1906 was totally devastating. Blackie searches for Mary-He finds the father who brings him to Mary. Your heart will go out when you see Gable fall to his knees to give thanks for Mary's life. A rousing finale, where the title song is again sung as the city is rebuilt, ends this terrific film- a testament to the citizens of this great city.
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Nearer to thee my God..
dbdumonteil28 March 2006
The granddaddy of all the disaster movies which thrived during the seventies but much different and much better than any of them.

Actually,"San Francisco" might look like an update version of " the last days of Pompei" by Bulwer Lyton...Or some update of those Genesis pages which deal with those doomed Sodom and Gomorrah towns.

That is to say how religion plays a prominent part in this earthquake story.The priest -a nice Spencer Tracy- urges the sinner Gable to come back to God ,and he tells singer McDonald that Frisco is just a heathen town ...and the natural disaster neatly appears as God's punishment,revenge.

And however,unlike the seventies disaster flicks of the seventies,there are no real "heroes" -whose percentage of loss in this kind of tale is pretty low nay nil- or "villains" -who provide the raw material when the storm is raging furiously.No cardboard characters ,no couple-whose-marriage-is-on the-rocks,no coward-who-redeems-himself ,no.... (check the "modern" disaster movies) A disaster movie which is primarily a musical.Mac Donald sings ceaselessly and what's exciting is that her songs never come at the most awkward moment:they perfectly fit in the action .Whatever she sings,from these laudable canticles (nearer to thee my God) to music hall stuff (San Francisco open your golden gate) to opera (her version of Gounod's "Air des Bijoux" is really impressive)it always comes at the right time.

"San Francisco" is an excellent show which remains eminently watchable today.
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My brief review of the film
sol-29 October 2005
Lavishly put together, with excellent sets and costumes that celebrate the depicted era, combining this with brisk pacing and vibrant characters helps to create a highly engaging experience here. Spencer Tracy was Oscar nominated for his performance, but it is Clark Gable who really shines. He not only has to be charismatic, but has to be able to show true emotion too, which occurs towards the end of the film. The final twenty or so minutes of the film are superbly crafted, showing the aftermath of the quake, and the climax point of the material is very intense. Also, the special effects are impressive even by standards today. Unfortunately, the film is tries to fit in a musical side too, and it does not work out, with the song and opera scenes being a bit of a distraction from the plot. The story itself is rather convoluted too, with unions, elections, rivalry and a whole array of different things fitted in without being explored properly. Otherwise, this is a wonderful piece of cinema, ending on a solid note, relatively gripping with its content, and led well by Clark Gable. It is one of the best films that I have seen from 1936 so far.
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I love Jeanette MacDonald!
Norma711 November 2004
This is a great old film. I have seen it several times, and enjoy it every time. I think Jeanette MacDonald is beautiful, and what a voice! I love to hear her sing.

My mother gave me my middle name of Jeanette after her. It is interesting that a film with so much "fancy" singing

could have been so popular. The general public must have had more class then than now.

It is good to see the "oldies." Many of them are better than today's films.

I certainly like this one.
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An Earthquake Proves There Must Be a God Warning: Spoilers
Blackie Norton is an atheist who runs an establishment catering to vices such as drinking, gambling, and ogling pretty women. However, we also see that he has a good heart underlying his sneering façade. Tim tells Mary about Blackie's good heart, saying in general that no one is all bad, an absurdity on which I will not bother to comment. The important thing about this conversation he has with Mary in this regard, however, is the smug know-it-all look he has on his face, which only gets worse as the movie wears on. A lot of people suppose that belief in God and moral goodness are linked together in some essential way, and this was especially true in 1936, when this movie was made. Therefore, Blackie's atheism in conjunction with his good heart, we are being guided to believe, is unsustainable.

Early in the movie, we see Blackie and Tim in the boxing ring, in which Tim knocks Blackie to the mat, as he usually does, according to Blackie. It is important to establish that Tim can lick Blackie in a fight, because later in the movie, when Blackie and Tim are arguing over Mary, Blackie punches Tim, who just stands there and takes it with a hurt look on his face, the blood trickling down from his lip. In other words, Tim is turning the other cheek in spite of his superior ability at fisticuffs. If the movie had not featured that boxing scene early on, we might suppose that Tim's reluctance to strike back is out of cowardice and weakness, that he is hiding behind his collar.

Though Mary loves Blackie, yet it bothers her that he doesn't believe in God. Blackie responds, "God? Hey, isn't he supposed to be taking care of the suckers that come out of the missions looking for something to eat and a place to sleep?" Some might answer that it is God that inspires the people that run the missions. But as Mark Twain once noted, "If you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself."

This challenge returns to us toward the end of the movie where God indeed has the field to Himself. In other words, when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries. As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God. The mother of the man whom Mary was planning to marry says of her son's death that it is God's will and that it's God's help they both need now. This brings out the great paradox regarding the connection between religion and suffering. The more suffering people experience, the more likely they are to turn to God. And yet, the more suffering people experience, the more we wonder why an all-powerful, loving God would allow it.

Eventually, Blackie finds a place where the injured are being cared for, where Tim is offering them comfort. One might expect that in the face of all the death and destruction that has befallen the city, Tim would look as grief stricken and overwhelmed as everyone else including Blackie. But no, Tim has a look of serenity on his face when Blackie sees him, and that look stays on his face right through the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, when the Barbary Coast was indulging in all its wantonness—drinking, gambling, carousing—Tim's facial expression was often grim and disapproving. But now, with all the misery and suffering around him, Tim is in his element. As the city burns, as people die before his eyes, as he hears people cry out for the loss of their loved ones, Tim is truly at peace. This is especially so when he sees Blackie. Now, at last, Blackie will see. There must be a God after all.

"Wait a minute!" you say. "How does this prove the existence of God?" Well, actually what it proves is that people need God. And if people need God, then they need priests like Tim. For years, Tim had to endure all of Blackie's scoffing and sneering, but now the day of triumph is at hand. Blackie is truly humbled, confused by all the suffering and misery that he does not comprehend, as he stands before Tim, who has known all along that this day would come, and whose heart is filled with joy.

When Blackie asks Tim if he has seen Mary, Tim takes him to a place outdoors where survivors of the earthquake have found refuge. There is Mary, singing "Nearer My God to Thee," accompanied by those around her, while a mother holds her dead child in her arms until others gently take him away from her and she collapses in tears. It is all so heavenly.

When Blackie sees Mary, he says to Tim, "I want to thank God." And then we see it, the spectacle that exceeds even the earthquake: Blackie Norton, on his knees, tears in his eyes, giving thanks to God, while Tim looks on smiling sweetly.

When Mary sees Blackie on his knees in prayer, she comes to him, and now we know that Blackie will finally have Mary's love. Just then, someone yells that the fire is out, at which point everyone becomes happy, shouting that they will rebuild San Francisco, marching over the hill, back to the city, as they sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." When you consider that within less than the length of one full day, husbands have lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and children their parents, they all seem to be holding up amazingly well. God be praised.
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That Wonderful Song
Lechuguilla9 October 2008
Every time the title song is played in this film, my opinion of the entire film goes up. That's probably not the best way to judge a film, but it's such a terrific song. And Jeanette MacDonald's rousing stage performance of it near the film's end is one of the great musical productions in cinema history.

This film is a spectacular, big budget extravaganza with big name stars, a huge cast of extras, lush, period piece costumes, and terrific special and visual effects toward the end, as the city heaves and moans from the great earthquake of 1906. Back in the 1930s, "San Francisco" must have made quite a splash with the public.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, a charming, freewheeling, blustery rogue with a heart, who runs a nightclub called The Paradise, on the famed Barbary Coast. Enter Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), an upright, almost uptight, religious singer who comes to The Paradise looking for a singing job. Blackie hires her. But her real love is opera. And when the owner of the Tivoli Opera House hears Mary sing at The Paradise, he offers her a job singing opera at the Tivoli.

Most of the plot has Mary flip-flopping between her loyalty to Blackie and her natural inclination to sing at the Tivoli. Mary thus comes across as ambivalent and easily manipulated, but also loyal and virtuous.

The main storyline is fine. But it's the film's music and the knowledge of the ominous event that awaits the characters at the end that make the film really worth watching. In this sense, "San Francisco" is rather similar to "Titanic" (1953).

The B&W cinematography in "San Francisco" is quite good, making allowances for rear screen projection and other antiquated devices common in the 1930s. I did not care for the subplot that had Spencer Tracy as a priest. And the on-stage operatic aria at the midpoint stops the main storyline dead in its track. Jeanette MacDonald sings a lot of songs, which is great. But I would have preferred less opera and more pop songs from that era. The film's ending, with its emotionally moralistic tone, was annoying.

Despite some minor irritations, "San Francisco" is a terrific movie. It has a viable story with believable characters, a sense of destiny, terrific visual effects, and Jeanette MacDonald singing the title song. What a voice ... what a song!
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Gable is great
stills-61 January 2000
Gable carries this movie with sheer nerve and charisma. Spencer Tracy is good in a minor role, he gives his one-dimensional priest a second dimension. McDonald I could have done without. She doesn't seem to know what to do with Gable when they're in a scene together. She's got a nice voice, but her naif ingenue is just dull.

The best reason to watch this movie (aside from Gable's characteristic smirk) is for the earthquake scene, still impressive after a long evolution of special effects that have become grander and more expensive. We see all of the destruction that we need to in order to understand the story, and that's what counts.

There was a little too much hokum in the last 30 minutes (as Gable might say), and the portrayal of San Francisco as a modern-day Gomorrah is a little too much to take. But it's greatly entertaining despite the overt, head-bashing religious overtones.
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