Tuesday, July 17, 2012

San Francisco (1936)

Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Starring: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy

Honors: Academy Award for Best Sound

Is it a love story within a disaster film, or a disaster picture buried within a love story? Either way San Francisco would be the highest thought of pictures of 1936, as well as the year’s top grossing picture. MGM and director W. S. Van Dyke takes you back to how it felt to live in the city on California’s golden coast in earlier 1906. At this time the city by the bay still had remnants for the Wild West as the American population was still slowly moving across the great continent, right before the city’s greatest tragedy bestowed great destruction to this young and energetic city. Here we watch as a romance blooms between two individuals in this yet untamed frontier.

San Francisco is a musical drama about a saloon owner and a singer who fall in love in the wake of the tragic earthquake that shattered the city in 1906. “Blackie” Norton (Clark Gable), a well liked yet crooked saloon owner and gambler, welcomes a new singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette McDonald), to his stable of performers. Despite his slick and rough demeanor, Blackie is shown to have a soft spot in his heart, as manifested by his good childhood friend Father Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy), which aids in the spark of a romance between Blackie and Mary. When it is discovered that Mary’s voice is talented enough for the opera house instead of the rowdy saloon stage, Blackie’s more crooked ways come back to light, setting a rift within the romance. In the wake of the emotional break up comes the great tragedy of an earthquake that literally brings down the city to ruins. Here in the sight and sounds of destruction Blackie realizes his true feeling towards Mary, breaking him a tough, self-guided atheist of a man as searches desperately searches far and wide for Mary, even falling to his knees in prayer until the two are once again reunited.

If there was such a thing as a “block buster” in the mid 1930s (for the record there was not, especially compared to the numbers seen decades later) San Francisco would fall under that category for its time. Produced by Hollywood’s most illustrious studio, with one of the highest thought of directors, staring perhaps the largest male actor of the time, and bringing to the silver screen a monumental event in a way that captures the great drama of a moment in time fresh in the minds of a portion of the population, this picture was one of the big features of the year. With special effects, effective shooting and editing, the great earthquake was recreated in a manner that was not quite seen before, reenacting a great tragedy that would feel very real to audiences. With a spectacle such as that, it would be no wonder that San Francisco would be top box office draw of the year 1936.

As in many cases with MGM, the period wardrobe and set pieces are wonderfully lavish in comparison to other production by any other studio. What really sets this picture apart is the direction and leadership on the film by director W. S. Van Dyke. A filmmaker well liked and admired by most all that worked with him, he would be one of the most well respected men in the business. He would tend create shots in one take, pleasing produces in cutting back on production time, and allowed adlibbing by actors to help create a more natural feeling story. Perhaps his greatest attribute that made him so loved was his loyalty to those he had worked with, often bring people of his past who were down on their luck in on production, more or less to help provide income for his old friends. He often hires old great actors to work as extras for the pay, but in this case he hired one of his old mentor’s D. W. Griffith, a revolutionary director that helped shape filmmaking with pictures like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, to aid in directing some scenes. To Griffith’s unaccredited work, he helped Van Dyke on few segments for sure.

The most dramatic scene of the picture, the energetic montage of the earthquake itself, would be directed by Serbian American cinematographer Slavko Vorkapic. His work was vast, but overall vastly overlooked. He was known for his work in montages in general, in such films as Viva Villa and David Copperfield. He would become identified as the master of the dramatic montage throughout the industry. San Francisco’s earthquake in itself would be considered by many to be one of the finest special effects sequences ever put to film.

Not to be overlooked by the special effects in this picture was the star cast of Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald, and Spencer Tracy. Gable was the cream of the crop at this time, one of the best known names to cross the theater marquee. His power as an actor, both in performance and pull on set can be manifested in this picture as in a few cases Gable would insist on having himself shot a certain way as to protect his image. This can be manifested in the prayer scene where he is filmed from behind, fearing his face would not be believable, almost silly. This proved more effective than filming from the front anyways. McDonald would be known for her beautiful singing voice, and here reunites with Van Dyke as director. She is very much the emotional center of the picture as she watches Blackie struggles with his proud self, creating the change in the man. Spencer Tracy was no one to scoff at, recently snatched away from Fox by MGM, the studio was looking to for him to become one the industry’s biggest named actors. His work had been very god before, and here linked his name with another great in Gable, MGM was looking to expand on his growing name.

The picture would produce a theme that would become an unofficial anthem for the city. The song is title simply “The Theme of San Francisco” and would be song a handful of times by Jeanette McDonald throughout the feature. Painting a picture with its lyrics of the beautiful and drawing power of the city, Franciscans would embrace the song, especially those that experienced the earthquake itself. The song still stands a powerful sacred song for those that call the city their home.

Through history the only real change to the picture would be the very ending. The original release would have a fade from the singing Franciscan crowd devastated by the earthquake to the views of 1936 San Francisco, with visions of the then erecting Golden Gate bridge and Market Street. In a rerelease in the mid-1940s the shots would be replaced with a simple shot of the thriving city’s business district. In time the later shot would remain, as views of a Golden Gate bridge in construction dated the picture a little.

Beyond being the highest grossing feature of the year, San Francisco was a picture highly thought of when award season came around. At the Academy Awards the picture would bolster six nominations: for writing, assistant director, sound recording, actor (Gable), director, and even best picture. With aid of the dramatic earthquake scene the feature took home the statue for best sound recording, but would fail to bring home other awards. San Francisco stands very well with the test of time as a top quality picture to be enjoyed by contemporary audiences decades after the film’s time. The picture is not just a story to be enjoyed, but in a way is a fictionalized capsule of what people remembered that time as being like, when San Francisco, the city, was still a bit of the Wild West in the early twentieth century.

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