Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy. Dir: W.S. Van Dyke.
San Francisco was my first Clark Gable movie. Also my first Spencer Tracy movie. And my first Jeanette MacDonald movie, though I had been listening to her on record as long as I’d been alive at that point (I was probably 8), so I was keenly interested in watching the movie because of her.
As is often the case, I can’t figure out where to begin, so I’ll just write all stream-of-consciousnessy. Because that’s a real phrase.
The plot: Gable is named “Blackie” (again) and has a nightclub and then a classically trained singer/homeless person (MacDonald) walks in needing a job, so he hires her, because that’s the kind of guy he is. His best friend when he was a kid is now a Roman Catholic priest played by Spencer Tracy, of all people. Lots of things happen and then there’s an earthquake and then a couple of things happen and then it’s over.
I am putting off my favorite thing about the movie until the end of this post.
The first thing that comes to mind in all of this is that, according to things I’ve read, the only person who is anything like his character is Gable. Neither Tracy nor MacDonald were especially virtuous in real life. But that’s just the things that I’m thinking when I’m watching the movie. Now I will say more things about the movie itself.
Still not time for my favorite thing about it.
I love big costume dramas and there are big costumes in this drama. The entire production is gorgeous. You see, the movie is about some people who were affected by THE San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. That seems like a super long time ago, and to us, it is, but when the movie was made, it was only 30 years earlier. I would be interested to know about how survivors reacted to the movie, but I can’t find any articles about it. So I’m left ignorant and sad. Not the first time.
Still wondering what my favorite thing about the movie is? Keep waiting.
The gentleman who directed the film is W.S. Van Dyke, but his nickname was “One Take Woody”. Here is a list of reasons why that was his nickname: a) his first name was Woodbridge. b) Woody is short for Woodbridge. c) he endeavored always to do everything in one take. In fact, the filming of “The Thin Man” only took 16 days for this very reason. His films were good and he often shot under budget, so he was well-loved at MGM. Some of his other films include “Tarzan the Ape Man” and “Marie Antoinette”. He was a genius.
Here’s something interesting about Jeanette MacDonald. Well, sort of about her. Her older sister was Grandma Addams on The Addams Family tv series.
All right. I’ll talk about my favorite thing about this movie. The special effects. They’re absolutely amazing. So what if you can see someone’s hand push a set piece down at one point. The earthquake sequence is nothing short of astounding, epecially when you consider what they had to work with in 1936. Moving walls, splitting ground, fires, the fact that people were out partying after 5 am when the quake happened… I have to say there is a definite crescendo to it all too. The last 20 minutes of the film are some of the best 20 minutes in cinematic history. And then the end part makes me cry joyful tears.
If I had to choose the order of these activities- watching San Francisco, watching Earthquake (1974) in Sensurround, and poking my eye out with a wooden spoon, I would put them in this order: 1) Watching San Francisco, 2) poking my eye out with a wooden spoon, 3) watching Earthquake (1974) in Sensurround. San Francisco is the absolute best earthquake movie ever made, and they’ve had 77 years to outdo it.