Old Ass Oscars: San Francisco (1936)

By  · Published on February 20th, 2011

Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents a nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a burning love in the poorly fire-coded Barbary Coast of San Francisco. A beautiful opera singer is given a break and finds herself in the bosom of showgirl life, under the thumb of nightclub owner, and falling in love.

San Francisco (1936)

Directed by: Woody Van Dyke

Starring: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt, and Clark Gable’s Ears

Most disaster movies start with an introduction to the characters in an attempt to make us care about them before dropping a forest fire, tornado (never thought about Wizard of Oz as a disaster film before, eh?), earthquake, or some other terrifying destructive force into their laps. San Francisco may be the only disaster film that waits to show the disaster at the very end.

For those wondering, that’s not a spoiler. The movie calls its shot by pointing to the bleachers in the opening written narration. It also opens with a massive building fire in the heat of New Year’s Eve celebration. In a way, it’s safe to say that tragedy bookends the film, but the more personal brand of tragedy tends to happen throughout its run time, too.

Clark Gable plays Blackie – a character who has to be seen to be believed. He’s an asshole, but he’s a special, unique asshole who says things that shouldn’t be said. Sure, that sounds like most assholes, but it’s the types of things that Blackie delivers unto the masses or unto the woman he claims to love that sets him apart in the pantheon of despicable humans. Of course, he’s the heroic focus.

Blackie runs a popular night club, but he has a marketer’s mind. When the gorgeous Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) tells him that she’s a singer looking for work, he asks to see her legs. When she tells him her name, he notes how catchy it is. For Blackie, Mary is a commodity, so it’s only until someone else is interested in her (Tivoli Opera House runner Jack Burley (played with equal parts smarm and mustache wax by Jack Holt)) that he steps up his sexual harassment to uncomfortable measures. And gets the girl. And then loses her.

In some movies from the past, there are cultural differences (like, say, putting a lock of hair under a pillow to show romance) to consider when watching the characters interact, but even those aren’t a good defense for why Blackie is so creepy. He just is. He doesn’t understand romance. He’s forceful, abrupt and rude. He cages Mary through ultimatums and thinks only of himself. Basically, he stands as a scion of non-romantic romantic leads.

Jeanette MacDonald on the other hand is a being of pure romance and innocence. She fends off Blackie’s initial advances (and continues to do so), but she also shows him loyalty since he plucked her from homelessness (her apartment building is the one on fire in the opening) to give her an opportunity to sing. In truth, she connects more with Blackie’s best friend Father Tim (played with a softness rarely seen by Spencer Tracy). Still, it’s important to keep in mind that Blackie is the one who sent her to Father Tim’s church to start singing in the choir for night mass. Somewhere under there, is a heart of gold that’s been covered in ash.

It’s Mary’s voice that acts as the catalyst for almost everything trans formative and pure in the story. MacDonald was a classically trained opera singer which made her an interesting asset for movie studios. In a time where dubbing actresses was as common as not crediting the actual singer, MacDonald did it all herself. In the movie, no matter what conflict is facing which characters, Mary’s singing cuts right through it. It’s the one constant that acts as anchor in a confusing love triangle.

Like China Town and There Will Be Blood, San Francisco is also a movie about a thing. A thing of great importance. A thing of great desire. There’s mild political intrigue when a committee gets Blackie to run for a position that will give him the power to change fire codes and make life safer for the tramps and scabs down on the coast. With elites (specifically his adversary in the quest for Mary’s love, Jack Burley) threatening Blackie, it seems like those fire codes are the water or oil of the story, but the thing most desired turns out to be Mary. She is what the town and Blackie need to turn everything around. Well, her, and the devastating earthquake that wiped the city off the map in 1906.

It’s an incredibly fun movie with just the right amount of complexity to be satisfying. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Gable. The supporting cast (whatever that means) is a powerhouse of talent both vocally and emotively. Director W.S. Van Dyke also makes every shot count amongst a production design that’s rich and vibrant with the sweat and fog of the setting.

It lost to The Great Ziegfeld the year it was nominated for Best Picture (alongside 9 other films), and the reason is lost to history, but it might have something to do with Ziegfeld being a highly entertaining movie that happens to focus on a beloved entertainer that Academy voters were well acquainted with.

That loss doesn’t matter, because its brilliance and entertainment exists to this day waiting to be discovered – the only disaster film that makes you wait an hour and a half to see the disaster.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.