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Film Friday: «San Francisco» (1936)

This week on "Film Friday" I am celebrating Jeanette MacDonald's 113th birthday, which happens to be tomorrow. While I have only seen three of her films so far, one of them this one also features two of my favorite actors of the classic Hollywood era, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, hence why I decided to tell you a little bit about it today.
Original release poster
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, San Francisco (1936) follows Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), the rough-and-tumble owner of the Paradise, a saloon in the notorious Barbary Coast in 1906. He hires down-on-her-luck singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who soon becomes a sensation at the Paradise. Angered by the consequences of a recent fire, a group of citizens urge Blackie to run for city supervisor and attempt to get a fire ordinance passed that would condemn many Barbary Coast, but would save lives. Encouraged by his childhood friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie decides to run for office. He is opposed by crooked landlord Jack Burley (Jack Holt), who lures Mary away from Blackie with the offer of singing at the local opera house.

Despite a marriage offer from Blackie, who has fallen in love with her, Mary becomes engaged to Burley. No satisfied with winning Mary, Burley arranges for the Paradise's liquor license to be revoked and Blackie's performers jailed. Distraught about the future of his club, Blackie ends up at the city's annual Chickens Ball, where Mary and Burley are in attendance. Mary, after learning of the club's padlocking, sings a crowd-pleasing rendition of "San Francisco" and wins the Chickens Ball competition for the Paradise. However, Blackie angrily refuses the prize money, saying that Mary had no right to sing on behalf of his club. Humiliated, Mary prepares to leave the ball with Burley when an earthquake strikes the city. Within minutes, San Francisco is destroyed as buildings tumble and streets open up. When the shaking stops, Blackie pulls himself from the rubble and searches for Mary, but finds only Burley's dead body. Wandering through the desolation of the city, Blackie finally finds Tim, who takes him to a tent encampment where Mary is leading the dispossessed in an hymn. After seeing her, the once atheist Blackie kneels down to thank God for sparing Mary's life. As Mary walks towards Blackie, word spreads through the camp that the fires have been extinguished. They then join the crowd marching back to the city, determined to build a new San Francisco.

Father Tim Mullin: You're in probably the wickedest, most corrupt city, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end's going to be. But nothing can harm you if you don't allow it to because nothing in the world, no one in the world, is all bad.

When not working on the MGM lot, writer Anita Loos would often meet friends at a small café outside the studio walls to eat and talk freely. One of her closest friends was Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins, a "gag man" hired by Metro to provide producers and writers with quick lines to perk up scenes that were otherwise flagging. They would frequently reminisce about the time they had spent in San Francisco the Barbary Coast in particular and the people they had known, such as playwright and entrepreneur Wilson Mizner, who had died in 1933 from alcohol and heart problems. A California native, Mizner operated badger games during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century, before moved to New York to write the Broadway plays The Deep Purple (1910) and The Greyhound (1912). After being arrested for running a gambling den in Long Island in 1919, he travelled to Florida, taking advantage of a land boom to swindle some of American's wealthiest men. In 1926, Mizner returned to California, where he opened the famous Brown Derby restaurant and wrote screenplays for some of the early talkies, notably Michael Curtiz's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932). According to Loos, Hopkins "had been a messenger boy on the Barbary Coast where Wilson had run a gambling casino. Hoppy had never ceased to look at Wilson Mizner as an idol."

One day in early 1935, while walking around on the studio lot, Hopkins and Loos decided to write a screenplay that would celebrate their departed friend and the city they loved. A tall, disheveled caffeine addict, Hopkins had a tendency to talk out his ideas in one-liners that were usually unrepeatable in mixed company. As Loos recalled, his succint summary of their story was, "Okay, there's this canary who thinks her cunt's just for piss and this cocksucker of a priest and this brass-balled gambler who get thrown together during the [1906 San Francisco] earthquake." Loos understandably cleaned up Hopkins' version and then pitched the idea to MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, who immediately green-lighted the project, envisioning it as a vehicle for Clark Gable, arguably the studio's biggest male star at the time. With Thalberg's approval, Loos and Hopkins began developing what she described as an "unadulterated soap opera, told in an underworld setting." They called the film San Francisco and named the Mizner character "Blackie Norton," which was written specifically for Gable, a personal favorite of Loos.

Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald in a
publicity still for San Francisco
Loos reportedly wrote the part of singer Mary Blake for Grace Moore, an operatic soprano who had briefly been under contract to MGM in the early 1930s, but had since moved to Columbia Pictures. Her performance in One Night to Love (1934) had recently earned her a Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Since MGM was not interested in borrowing Moore from Columbia to co-star with Gable in San Francisco, the female lead was tailored instead to Jeanette MacDonald, a lyric soprano with whom studio chief Louis B. Mayer had been infatuated for some time.

Endowed with a voice that ranged nearly three octaves, MacDonald was unlike any other MGM leading lady. She refused to wear false eyelashes or heavy make-up and she opted for wigs rather than have the hair that she loved tampered with by studio hairdressers. A woman of very independent spirit, MacDonald had grown tired of Metro's attempts to dictate the boundaries of her career. She wanted to expand into formats other than operettas and prove that she could handle dramatic acting as well. When Hopkins approached her with the project, MacDonald "was all in for San Francisco because I felt like the mother of it in a way. Since Hoppy had said 'This is a picture for you and Gable,' I was stuck with this, this idea had clung to me."

Having been on stage since childhood, the Philadelphia-born MacDonald had become a Broadway star in late 1920s. After seeing a screen test she had done for Paramount, director Ernest Lubistch cast her opposite Maurice Chevalier in his film The Love Parade (1929), a Best Picture nominee at the 3rd Academy Awars. During the next three years, she appeared in a series of musicals and light comedies, including One Hour With You (1932) and Love Me Tonight (1932) both co-starring Chevalier but she grew dissatisfied with her career and left for Europe. While there, she met Thalberg, who then signed her to a contract with MGM. Her first assigment at the studio was The Cat and Fiddle (1934), which was not a success, despite a Technicolor finale. She then reunited with Chevalier in the acclaimed operetta The Merry Widow (1934), before MGM cast her in Naughty Marietta (1935) her first of eight pairings with classically trained baritone Nelson Eddy after which her popularity was assured.

Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable
Gable, however, was not interested in making a film with MacDonald, refusing to read even an outline. He reportedly told MGM executive Eddie Mannix at the time: "Hell, when she starts to sing nobody gets a chance. I'm not going to be a stooge for her while she sings in a big beautiful close-up and the camera shoots the back of my neck." Gable made it clear that once he finished work on Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), he would take his vacation and return to the studio only in assignments already agreed upon and scheduled.

When Gable refused to co-star in San Francisco, MGM tried to persuade MacDonald to consider William Powell or Robert Young for the part of Blackie Norton, but the actress was adamant. Convinced that the film roles fitted her and Gable "like a pair of gloves," MacDonald decided to write a letter to Felix Feist, MGM's general manager of sales and distribution: "The entire outlook was so perfect, the whole setup so 100% box-office [...] that I am heartbroken and at the same time furious that such an opportunity is going to be missed. Isn't there anything the Sales Department can do in having one of Gable's other assignments postponed so that this picture can be made as great as it should be with him in it?" Feist responded that he would look for an opening to talk the project up.

When MGM kept refusing to change Gable's schedule so that he would available to appear with her in San Francisco, MacDonald did almost the unthinkable in Hollywood to prove her committment to the actor and the project: she took unpaid leave from the studio, thereby putting on hold its current picture being developed for her and Eddy, Maytime (1937), and opening up her schedule so that any time at which Gable became available would be the right time for her. Gable was impressed; he respected anyone who could be that dedicated where money was concerned. Still, he remained unyielding in his refusal to play Blackie Norton to her Mary Blake. After months of resistance, Gable grudgingly took on the part but only after Mayer threatened him with suspension.

D. W. Griffith and W. S. Van Dyke (leaning
on ladder) on the set of San Francisco
Meanwhile, Thalberg reluctantly decided that his declining health, combined with his increasing committment to making The Good Earth (1937) the final film he would produce before his unexpected death in September 1936 at the age of 37 would not allow him to supervise San Francisco personally. He then suggested that Loos' husband and former writing partner, John Emerson, co-produce with Thalberg's right-hand man, Bernard H. Hyman, who immediately secured W. S. Van Dyke to direct the picture.

Nicknamed "One-Take Woody" for his quick and effective style of filming, Van Dyke was one of MGM's most reliable directors at the time, reponsible for such hits as White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and The Thin Man (1934). He had previously worked with MacDonald and Eddy in Naughty Marietta and Rose Marie (1936) and would later direct another four of their pictures together. Famous silent film director D. W. Griffith worked on San Francisco without credit, helming some of the mob scenes.

Before reassigning the project to Emerson and Hyman, Thalberg has been interested in casting Spencer Tracy as Father Tim Mullin, a notion with which Van Dyke thoroughly agreed. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Tracy began his career on the Broadway stage, before director John Ford cast him in the comedy Up the River (1930), which also marked the film debut of Humphrey Bogart. Thereafter, he signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation, but struggled to find a suitable vehicle that would showcase his unique acting talents. His most notable credits during this period include Michael Curtiz's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) and The Power and the Glory (1933). When Tracy was loaned out to MGM to star in The Show-Off (1934), Thalberg took notice of the 34-year-old actor and conviced Mayer to sign him.

Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald
Although Father Mullin was just a supporting role, Van Dyke believed that the character was key to the success of the picture. "There's one important thing [San Francisco] has to have," the director told Tracy, "and that's humanity. Father [Mullin] has to supply it, and so help me, Spencer, you're the only actor I know who can bring humanity into a part." However, Tracy, who was filming Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) at the time, was conflicted about accepting such a role. An Irish Catholic, he felt a great sense of responsibility in representing the church to a mass audience, as well as a hesitancy that stemmed from his own conviction that maybe he should never have become an actor in the first place. "I had a tough time deciding whether or not to get myself out of the part," Tracy later said. "I thought of how my father wanted me to be a priest, and I wondered if it would be sacrilegious for me to play a priest. All of my Catholic training and background rolled around in my head, but then I figured Dad would have liked it, and I threw myself into the role." 

Filming on San Francisco took place between February 14 and May 14, 1936 on the MGM soundstages and backlot. Gable may have agreed to co-star opposite MacDonald, but that did not mean he had to like her. Just to demonstrate how unhappy he was about being forced into the film, Gable arrived on set for his first scene with MacDonald reeking so badly of garlic that she could barely stand to be near him. After a week's work, she wrote to her manager, Bob Ritchie, "Gable is a mess! I've never been more disappointed in anyone in my life. It seems (according to Mayer) he's terribly jealous of me and acts very sulky if I get more attention on set that he. [...] Gable acts as tho' he were really too bored to play the scenes with me. Typical ham." Throughout production, they "kept up a show of cordiality," but never entirely clicked off-camera. Assistant director Joseph Newman described the core of their friction as a "mismatch in routine": the punctual Gable liked to start work at nine sharp, but Van Dyke would always grant MacDonald an extra hour to get ready.

Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable on a break from
filming the earthquake sequence
However, Gable did get along well with Tracy. They had known each other since 1929, when Tracy replaced Gable in the Broadway drama Conflict. In 1930, Gable impressed theatregoers playing Killer Meats in the Los Angeles production of John Wexley's The Last Mile, which Tracy had been successful with in New York. By the end of that year, Gable was under contract to MGM, while Tracy was similarly committed to Fox. "Hollywood didn't have any Lambs Club [a New York social club for theatre workers] where we could bump into each," Gable said, "but both of us went out more in those days. Every now and then we'd meet at some night club or some party and we'd sit around and take the picture business apart." In addition, they would occasionally meet at the Riviera Club in San Monica to play polo and did a lot of drinking together, forging a close friendship as a result. Gable and Tracy later co-starred in Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940). 

Along with memorable renditions of arias and anthems, including "The Holy City" by Stephen Adams and Frederick Edward Weatherly, MacDonald introduced two songs in San Francisco that became instant standards: "Would You," the tender waltz with music by Nacio Herb Brown and lyrics by Arthur Freed, later reprised on screen by Debbie Reynolds (dubbed by Betty Noyes) in Singin' in the Rain (1952); and the inspiring "San Francisco," composed by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. An hymn for the survivors of the earthquake in the film, the popularity of "San Francisco" had held on into the present in its home city. It has become a sentimental sing-along at public events such as the annual earthquake commemoration, as well as one of the two official city songs, along with Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

Clark Gable as Blackie Norton
after the earthquake
The recreation of the San Francisco 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire was a crucial element of the film. James Basevi, then the head of MGM's special effects department, worked with art director and his soon-to-be successor A. Arnold Gillespie to create a scene that would make San Francisco "the measure of all disaster films to come." With the assistance from engineers at the California Institute of Technology, they created the effect of the earth splitting open and streets collapsing by using hydraulically operated rocker platforms pulled apart by cables, with hoses underneath gushing water to simulate broken mains. 

For the scene with dozen of citizens running in terror, Van Dyke instructed several extras to pick up one of the other actors as if they were carrying an injured victim. Apparently, one of the extras became so carried away that he flunged Loos, who was standing nearby, over his shoulder and carried her out of the crumbling saloon. She later commented regretfully that as she had not been in proper turn-of-the-century costume, she had to be edited out, "which was unfortunate since nobody shrieked as realistically as I did!" The 20-minute sequence was put together by second unit director and montage expert John Hoffman.  

San Francisco opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on June 26, 1936 to critical and commercial acclaim. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times noted that the film "manages to encompass most of the virtues of the operatic film, the romantic, the biographical, the dramatic and the documentary. Astonishingly, it serves all of them abundantly well, truly meriting commendation as a near-perfect illustration of the cinema's inherent and acquired ability to absorb and digest other art forms and convert them into its own sinews." He also praised the earthquake sequence, describing it as "a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions," and the entire cast, especially Tracy, whom Nugent said was "heading surely toward an award for the finest performances of the year." For their part, Variety wrote, "An earthquake noisy and terrifying, is San Francisco's forte. Quake occurs after more than an hour and up to then the picture is distinguished chiefly for its corking cast and super-fine production." With gross receipts totaling $5,273,000 worldwide, San Francisco which cost $1,300,000 to produce became MGM's biggest hit of 1936 and their greatest moneymaker before Gone with the Wind (1939).

At the 9th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in March 1937, San Francisco won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording and received five additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Story and Best Assistant Director (John M. Newman). Van Dyke lost to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), while Tracy lost to Paul Muni for his performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). The Best Picture winner that year was The Great Ziegfeld (1936), an MGM production directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Another Best Picture nominee was Libeled Lady (1936), a screwball comedy starring Tracy, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

Anita Loos Rediscovered: Film Treatments and Fiction by Cari Beauchamp and Mary Anita Loos (2003) | Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bio-Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald by Edward Baron Turk (1998) | Spencer Tracy by James Curtis (2011) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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