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San Francisco Movie Review

gable tracy macdonald burley

1936 – W.S. Van Dyke –

Somehow scriptwriter Anita Loos brought together the hodgepodge of many story elements and blended them effectively as a backdrop for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The film features saloons, opera, boxing, politics, religion, and romance. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy play boyhood pals, one of whom becomes a priest (Tracy) while the other ends up owning a gambling joint and dance hall on the Barbary Coast. Gable, as Blackie Norton, prides himself on his ability to cater to a different type of “suckers” than those who attend the mission run by Tracy. Jeanette MacDonald plays a minister's daughter whose singing talent gets her a job at the Paradise, the saloon run by Gable, as well as offers to sing at Tracy's mission and at the opera house run by Jack Burley (Jack Holt). Gable and Holt soon becomes rivals not only for MacDonald's services as a singer but also for her love.

The film is a great example of the good, polished (if often artificial) moviemaking of the studio era. It is fun to watch Gable playing a character who enjoys his audacity as much as Blackie does and to see Tracy in the role that made him a star. MacDonald's singing is majestic, and the earthquake and aftershock sequences still look good. But three or four moments break out of this conventional development and really come to life. Two such scenes are the great defining speeches Anita Loos wrote for the two leads. Tracy talks to MacDonald at the mission about the godlessness of San Francisco, his long friendship with Blackie (“nothing in the world, no one in the world is all bad”), and his own decision to enter the priesthood. Tracy voices these lofty feelings with an offhandedness that is completely genuine; you know how deeply he believes what he says because of his simple, self-effacing delivery. Later, Gable expounds to MacDonald his own rogue's theology: “What I believe in is not up in the air; it's in here and in here,” he says, touching his head and his heart.

But the best example appears in the scene when the opera impresario Burley comes to the Paradise to buy MacDonald's contract. Gable tells him that he can have it for free if she chooses to leave. When they call her in and pose the offer, she asks “Mr. Norton” if he wants to sell her contract. Gable says, “no,” and she elects to stay at the Paradise even though Burley keeps bidding higher. Watch for the closeup of MacDonald's face when Gable mentions that he had offered her contract for nothing if she had wanted to go. She rivets her gaze on Gable, understanding this as his expression of affection, and after a pause calls him “Blackie” for the first time. The honesty of that look is as impressive in its own way as all the toppling buildings and smoking rubble in the 20-minute earthquake sequence.

Cast: Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Tim Mullen), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (Mat), Shirley Ross (Trixie), Margaret Irving (Della Bailey), Harold Huber (Babe), Edgar Kennedy (Sheriff), Al Shean (Professor), William Ricciardi (Signor Baldini), Kenneth Harlan (Chick), Roger Imhof (Alaska), Charles Judels (Tony), Russell Simpson (Red Kelly), Bert Roach (Freddie Duane), Warren B. Hymer (Hazeltine), Sam Ash (orchestra leader) Screenwriter: Anita Loos Cinematographer: Oliver T. Marsh Composer: Edward Ward Producer: John Emerson for MGM, Bernard H. Hyman Running Time: 115 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards 1936: Sound; Nominations: Picture, Actor (Spencer Tracy), Director (W.S. Van Dyke), Story Box Office: $2.7M (by 1940; the film was MGM's top grosser for 1936).

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