' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: San Francisco

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: San Francisco

D.W. Griffith’s 1936 opus “San Francisco” opens on New Year’s Eve, the streets of The Wickedest City In America flush with revelers and strewn with confetti, and this is entirely appropriate. After all, what is the New Year but a chance at a New Beginning? Ah, and because is this December 31, 1905 that means unsuspecting San Francisco is in the direct, deadly sights of Mother Nature – namely, the great earthquake scheduled to hit in four month’s time that will inevitably function as the crux of the film – which will present the dawn of a Second New Beginning.


Mary Blake (Jeanette McDonald), a penniless classical singer from Benson, Colorado, seeks a new beginning as the clock strikes midnight. She finds it in the form of the unfortunately named Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a hard-charging but debonair proprietor of the Paradise Club, a saloon situated in the Barbary Coast, a hive of gambling and debauchery. Mary, though, with her pretty soprano seems a tad too wholesome for such sinful surroundings, and as much is made clear by Father Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy). He is your rare Roman Catholic priest with a wicked pop in his fist which he demonstrates by knocking Blackie to the boxing canvas in an early scene. Turns out Father Tim and Blackie go way back. Father Tim wants him to fear God, Blackie fears no man or deity, yet still possesses a conscious as shown by his generous contributions to the church he refuses to his attend.

Of course, his conscience isn’t airtight and he signs poor Mary to a stringent contract. She gets out of the contract when Jack Burley of snobbish Nob Hill offers her the opportunity to be a performer at the luxurious Tivoli Opera House. She accepts. Blackie wants her back. Burley doesn’t want to give her up. She wants to stay with Burley. After all, Burley has just proposed marriage and she has accepted. Eventually, though, she finds her way back to Blackie. She and Blackie agree to be married. But when Father Tim shows up and sees Blackie has dressed his “fiancé” in a costume that would make Kim Kardashian blush, he whisks her away from Blackie and takes her back to the sensible surroundings of Burley. ‘Round and ‘round they go, where will they stop? Nobody knows. Well, actually the audience knows. It will stop at exactly 5:13 AM April 18, 1906.

The re-creation of the quake is justifiably famous and still spectacular, all done, of course, with models and specially built sets. What makes it so discomfortingly memorable, though, is the absence of a musical score, instead settling on an incessant low roar that increases the unease by bounds, and the quick-cut editing which brings the terror at us in such a way as to make it feel never-ending. And while I can only speculate, I imagine that is how anyone might feel in the throes of such an event.


The love triangle is curious because generates no heat. This is because the love triangle is less about love than business. Mary Blake is just sort of a piece of property that keeps getting traded back and forth. Throughout the film there are plenty of references – both by Father Tim and others – of San Francisco’s wicked, wicked ways and this, it seems, is one of them, using this hapless Coloradoan for their own personal gain and her allowing them to use her so she can see her name in lights.

This is what makes "San Francisco" a little like a black & white MGM "Magnolia." The earthquake is the frogs, wiping the slate clean, triggering a necessary rebirth. I don't recall seeing a character holding up a sign in the background of the Paradise Club reading "Isaiah 29:6" - "The Lord Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire" - but maybe I just missed it.

This film's as old fashioned as they come, yet still sorta scary. It makes you wonder if maybe Mother Nature isn't necessarily "unpredictable", but a weapon wielded by those on high to put us in our place.

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