Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay by Anita Loos, Story by Robert Hopkins
Starring Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy
One of the beautiful things about his Project is getting to learn things about movies I never knew. You know, like the trends and hidden meanings behind the Oscars themselves. And honestly, looking at the losers has been far richer in discovery than looking at the winners. After all, if we didn’t look at the losers we’d never know just what kind of a force William Holden was in the 1950s, what with having been in something like 5 or 6 Best Picture nominees. Some actors will go their whole career without even being considered for a role in a Best Picture nominee, and here was William Holden scoring that many in one decade.
A similar lesson to draw is that while Holden seemed to own the 1950s, then Clark Gable was a real force in the 1930s, lending his talents to five Best Picture nominees, at least three of which are outright classics:
- 1934 – It Happened One Night (winner)
- 1935 – Mutiny on the Bounty (winner)
- 1936 – San Francisco (Also Ran)
- 1938 – Test Pilot (Also Ran)
- 1939 – Gone With The Wind (winner)
If you want my thoughts on the winners from above you can head over to the Best Picture Project, where you’ll find my insights brilliant and thrillingly on-point.
Of course, even while recognizing the accomplishment of being in five Best Picture nominees in a decade, we have to be fair and remember that during those years the Academy nominated as many as ten (1936, 1938, 1939) or twelve (1934, 1935, ) films for Best Picture, so it might’ve been easier to sneak one in than it was in the 1950s when there was only five in the Best Picture race. Also in fairness, in most years during the 1930s Gable was making upwards of 4 and 5 films a year, so if the biggest star in America couldn’t land at least a couple in the Best Picture race during the decade you’d wonder what the hell was wrong with him. So, while Gable appears a force of nature of the 1930s, you might also say, what if he wasn’t?
What’s It About?
San Francisco in 1906 is a happening place – there are bars, there are theaters, there is gambling. Most of these are illegal in some sense, but the authorities look the other way, so everything is good. Except…except it’s not all good, as most buildings are basically poorly-constructed tinder-boxes, ready to burn down at a moment’s notice.
Blackie (Gable) owns one of these theaters and makes a good living at it. Still, he is concerned for the low standards of construction and is eventually pressed into running for supervisor in order to improve those standards.
At the same time he meets Mary (MacDonald), a would-be opera singer. Because she needs a job, and because he’s immediately smitten, he takes her in. Though she wants to sing grand open, she needs the money and so slums it in a show she’s all wrong for that Blackie put her in. Improbably, she and Blackie fall in love.
Somewhere in here is Blackie’s best friend since childhood, Father Tim (Tracy), who is very much a ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ kind of guy when it comes to Blackie. His part of the story is somewhat peripheral and mention of him could easily be cut from this review were it not for the actor playing Father Tim – Spencer Tracy – scoring a Best Actor nom for the part.
In the end there is the usual romantic melodrama nonsense between Blackie and Mary that could easily be resolved if only the people involved would have a conversation. But then again, if they did resolve it with conversation they wouldn’t have the chance to be reunited by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which happens to level the town at just the right moment for the plot.
How Was It?
In a word, the movie was fine. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great. It was just fine. There’s sloppiness in the plotting and the foreshadowing – big surprise that all the concern for shoddy building standards pays off later during the earthquake – and there is the usual obviousness to the clash of low art and high art, and low class and upper class. Moreover, it treads on well-worn territory, playing as it does with the idea that with hard work any man can become a millionaire, a notion long since discredited. After all, lots of plumbers work hard and they never get the millions. But it’s not merely content to tread there, hopping over into the notion that a total rando can come out of nowhere and on talent alone become a star, a notion also since discredited. Even so, on the whole the movie is fine. Clichéd and silly, but at under two hours, it’s not like it stole much of my life.
The direction by W.S. Van Dyke is fairly straightforward, and simple. But this is something to expect from films of the studio era, when movies were churned out like on an assembly line and it was more important to get them done than to become an auteur. So, where films of later years would play for grandeur, Van Dyke does here what he did in The Thin Man: tells the story in the least-showy way, devoid of most camera movements, so that when he does move it, such as when it dollies up and over parishioners in a church pew, it’s noticeable and seems more than an affect.
But let’s be honest – the movie is fine, and the direction plain, but the real reason anybody remembers San Francisco at all anymore is because of the climactic sequence of the earthquake leveling the city. And honestly, it’s fair that’s the films legacy, given it’s really quite good, even with the by-now-primitive effects. It’s shot and edited with real verve, and in quick snippets, that give us a sense of the chaos and unpredictability of an earthquake. And though some of the effects are understandably creaky and you can see the seams – it is a 1936 movie, after all – they are still visceral because you know it really happened. When something burns, that’s because it’s really burning. When bricks fall, that’s really a falling brick. Yes, there are camera tricks to it all, but because there is that underlying level of reality in how the effects are done, the consequences feels like they have real weight.
So This Is Probably Not Cool
It’s best to just be up front with this, but there is a definite air of sexual harassment to the way Blackie pursues his relationship with Mary, that almost borders on rapey. At the least, it’s just straight-up sexual harassment. After all, the second he meets her he decides to hire her, paying well-above market rate. Why? Because it gets him close to her, and makes her beholden to him.
And what does Blackie do as soon as Mary signs on? Comes on to her. Sure, there’s a bit of propriety to how he comes onto her – it’s not like he gropes her or anything, just keeps trying to put his arm around her and put his face close to her’s – but the implication is obvious. And every chance he has to get her alone, he takes it. From day one he’s after her, is persistent, and refuses to be put off.
In 1906 I suspect his interest would have been fine, because those were the days when women weren’t supposed to have any opinion a man didn’t give to her first, and were supposed to be demure. Now, though? It’s all a bit icky.
What doubles down on the ick factor is there’s nothing in the text of the film to indicate why either one of them would be interested in the other. They have no real personality, but are simply a collection of a backstory. He’s a hard-scrabble atheist who clawed his way from the bottom to having some wealth. She’s a preacher’s daughter who managed to scrape her way to San Francisco. He has a yen to make money, she has a yen to eat. Other than that there’s no reason to think they’d be into each other. There really isn’t even sexual chemistry. Which means his interest in her can’t be anything more than just possessing her as a thing. And her interest in him can’t be anything more than financial security.
In 1906 when the story takes place, and even in the mid-1930s when it was filmed, this might have been okay. But now…?
How Do You Like Them Apples?
Gable was top-billed and has the lion’s share of the screen time – there’s a bare handful of scenes he sits out. Yet, at the 1936 Oscars, it was Spencer Tracy nominated for Best Actor. What’s a bit nonsense about this is Tracy’s role is clearly supporting in terms of the plot – he neither antags, nor protags. He is simply a secondary character who occasionally scolds Gable for being an atheist. But in terms of driving the plot, he does nothing.
Moreover, he doesn’t even have one of those major scenes that are occasionally singled out by Oscar voters as worthy. His performance is not Beatrice Straight losing her shit at William Holden in Network, nor is it Estelle Parson losing her shit a couple times in Bonnie and Clyde.
At the same time, Tracy is not lousy. He’s perfectly credible as a priest. What he’s not, though, is anything better than good. He does nothing to be magnetic, does nothing to offer spice, does nothing really of any note. Yet, he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor, a nomination that probably belonged to Gable.
I’m not sure how to square that circle.
A Modern Day Clark Gable
I have a nephew I like to tease because his ears stick out a little farther than normal. I don’t do it to shame him, more to point out how that trait runs in our family: my ears stick out more than normal, too. Never more than when I get a haircut – right after I’ve had a haircut it looks like my ears are practically jumping off my head.
Well, one guy that had us all beat was Clark Gable – that guys ears stuck so far out they might as well be in the next county. Which made it pretty clear that if Hollywood is looking for a handsome, modern-day Gable, for the pictures, they should hit me up. I can’t act worth a damn, but I sure know how to cash a paycheck.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1936 was The Great Ziegfeld, and while I’m not at all well-versed in the movies of 1936 – after seeing San Francisco I have now seen two of the ten Best Picture nominees, the other being The Great Ziegfeld – I can say this without reservation: San Francisco is the better film. Still, given my small sample size to work from, you should take that with a grain of salt. Hell, even when you add in all other nominated films I’ve seen from 1936, you can include just one other movie – Best Director nominee My Man Godfrey.
My point to all this? There really isn’t one, though I guess I should probably consider doing something like The 1936 Project once this one is all done, if only to catch up on all the Oscar nominees from 1936.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Which wasn’t even a thing at that time anyway.
 Obviously, I’m exaggerating on this.