San Francisco (1936)

A Barbary Coast saloonkeeper and a Nob Hill impresario are rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer, both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco.

San Francisco is a 1936 musicaldrama directed by Woody Van Dyke, based on the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The film, which was the top-grossing movie of that year,stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy. The then very popular singing of MacDonald helped make this film a hit, coming on the heels of her other 1936 blockbuster, Rose Marie. Famous silent film directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim worked on the film without credit. Griffith directed some of the mob scenes while von Stroheim contributed to the screenplay.



The earthquake montage sequence was created by 2nd unit director and montage expert John Hoffman. The Barbary Coast barroom set was built on a special platform that rocked and shook to simulate the historical temblor. (Similar sets were built for the 1974 disaster film Earthquake.)

There are two versions of the ending. The original release features a stylish montage of then-current (1936) scenes of a bustling San Francisco, including Market Street and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. When the film was re-released in 1948, it was thought these scenes were dated and the film fades out on a single long shot of the modern business district. However, the TV and 16mm versions of the film seen in the 1950s and 60s were struck from the original version which includes the montage. The current DVD and cable version features the shorter, 1948 version.


Gable and Tracy also made two other films together, Test Pilot and Boom Town, before Tracy eventually insisted on the same top billing clause in his MGM contract that Gable had enjoyed, effectively ending one of the American cinema’s most famous screen teams.

Gable had played an extremely similar character also named “Blackie” two years earlier in the smash hit gangster epic Manhattan Melodrama, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Very good classic

22 January 2001 | by jhaggardjr (Chicago, Illinois) – See all my reviews

“San Francisco” is a very good classic picture. It’s in many ways kind of similar to “In Old Chicago”, which came out a year after this film. Both films have love stories, both have beautiful sets, and both climax with a disaster that really did take place in their respective cities. “San Francisco” takes place in the mid-1900s. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are two of the thousands of people living in the city that was tragically rocked by the massive earthquake of 1906. Like “In Old Chicago”, the disaster recreation here is impressive. The film tends to drag a little from time-to-time, but that’s only a minor quarrel to an otherwise classy movie. All-in-all, I was pretty entertained by “San Francisco”.


A stunning film, especially for the 1930’s

Author: Ashley Kent ( from Seattle, Wa. USA
25 October 2000

This movie has it all: good history, great acting, superb special effects, a Stellar cast (Gable, Tracy, and McDonald, all top stars at the time), and a great story line. You get so wrapped up in the lives of these people that you even forget that there’s an earthquake a’ comin’, until it HITS, and right in the middle of the human drama… Remember the first time you saw it? The timing was SO good that I’m sure most audience members felt the same confusion and sense of impending doom that the characters on-screen were experiencing at the same time. It’s a real jaw-dropper


In addition, there’s a string of occurrences in this film which often go overlooked by all of the above: the INCREDIBLE singing of Jeanette McDonald, which punctuates the film at several key moments. When she sings, on demand, “Love Me and the World is Mine”, the audience, just like Blackie Norton, can’t help but be stunned by her voice, seeing that this woman has a set of PIPES! Whether it’s opera, hymns, or the title song, her singing is the thread that ties all the parts of this film together, and, considering sound recording in 1936, it’s stunning. Next time you visit this film, make a note to yourself: focus on her singing. She had an amazing talent that no one in film has matched, before or since. Her singing alone makes this film worth the price of admission.

So, rent the film and enjoy one of the greats… can’t wait until it comes out on DVD.


Splendid, Engaging Romantic Drama From The Thirties Endures.

Author: jpdoherty from Ireland
9 December 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Alongside “Gone With The Wind” MGM’s SAN FRANCISCO (1936) is without doubt the finest romantic drama to emanate from Hollywood in the thirties. A movie that had everything going for it – a splendid story and script, a superb star in Clark Gable, a beautiful actress with an arresting singing voice in Jeanette MacDonald, wonderful songs and an earthquake sequence that will not only knock your socks off but can stand up proudly beside anything that computer graphics can conjure up today. The picture also was the most sensational profit making movie of 1936 speeding past “The Great Ziegfeld” from the same year. Produced for the studio by John Emerson and Bernard Hyman it was directed with great punch and attention to detail by W.S.Van Duke. The Perfectly handled screenplay was written by Anita Loos from a story by Robert Hopkins and the crisp monochrome cinematography was by Oliver T. Marsh.


It is 1905 in San Fransico and Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) runs “The Paradise” a not too respectable night club on the rowdy Barbary Coast. A girl Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) arrives in the city from the country looking for a job singing. She approaches Norton who interviews her and is very taken by both her beauty and her prowess as a singer. He hires her and in the following weeks they fall in love but Blackie comes up against some competition from Jack Burly (Jack Holt) the wealthy owner of the Tivoli opera house. Burly falls for Mary too and wants to buy out her contract from Norton to have her sing in the opera. But Norton refuses and is not for turning. However after an altercation with Blackie she walks out on him and goes to the Tivoli where she becomes a singing sensation. Still in love with Blackie she however sees no future with him and just as she becomes engaged to Burly a tremendous earthquake wreaks havoc on the great city. The picture ends with the death of thousands of citizens including Jack Burly and an injured Blackie searching through every bit of rubble for Mary before eventually finding her alive and well and leading the survivors singing the hymn “Nearer My God To Thee” in a makeshift camp outside the destroyed city.


Performances are top notch throughout the movie. Gable is terrific as the flamboyant Blackie Norton. His role looking every bit like a dry run for his Rhett Butler three years later. Excellent too is the inviting and quite lovely Jeanette MacDonald. The vivacious lady is simply electric! She just lights up the screen and delights us with her mellifluous singing voice in renditions of arias from Gounod’s FAUST, Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA, Nacio Herb Brown’s lovely WOULD YOU and the rousing title song SAN FRANCISCO written by Polish composer Bronislau Kaper who was just starting out on his illustrious film music career at MGM. The song would become a hit and remains to this day the city’s favoured anthem. Of course the real star of the picture is the special effects with the climactic earthquake sequence. Designed and implemented by Russian montage expert Slavko Vorkapach it remains an amazing achievement for thirties cinema which can still manage to excite and frighten today with just as much impact as anything in modern film.


It is almost inconceivable that a seventy five year old movie can remain such a firm favourite which it steadfastly has maintained over the years. The film was nominated for four Acadamy Awards (winning one for sound recording), has a beautiful screenplay, is wonderfully directed and besides the lovely songs from the attractive Miss MacDonald contains some moments of real charm especially the scenes with the two principles. SAN FRANCISCO is a great and fascinating film from vintage Hollywood and looks like it will continue to be one of the most fondly remembered movies of all time.

Hold onto your seats!

Author: Brian Pelton from Seattle, Wa.
3 November 1998

SAN FRANCISCO is a major Hollywood production from the 1930’s, From the Boldness of the opening credits, along with a rousing rendition of the tune by the same name, the viewer suspects that they are going to witness a special movie event.

The plot is a rather forthright formula story of a tug-of-war romance between bad boy Clark Gable (Blackie Nortion, saloon owner) and mama’s boy Jack Holt (Jack Burley, scion of a well-to -do family) for the affections of singer Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake, beautiful, virginal). It’s also a story of good vs. evil, the good portrayed by Spencer Tracy as a Catholic Priest.

But it’s the hard-hitting script and it’s crisp dialogue, the recreation of a turn-of-the-Century San Francisco, the great acting, the music, and the fabulous Earthquake sequences that make this show the classic that it is.

SAN FRANCISCO is a tale of contrasts. On one hand the Barbary Coast with it’s bars and bordellos, yet on the other hand we have a city of the fine arts, opera, and the Nob Hill elite. We have the rich, the spendthrifts, and also the poor who seek shelter in the Mission Houses.


The acting of Clark Gable cannot go unmentioned. His Blackie Norton is the most mockingly amoral character, proud of his lack of religious faith….. relying only on himself. Yet as Father Mullin (Tracy) says at one point in the movie, “Do you know who gave the chapel that organ we’ve been dedicating tonight? The most scoffing, unbelieving, and godless soul in all San Francisco, ..Blackie Norton. Cost him over $4,000……Don’t tell him I told you. Blackie’s like that, ashamed of his good deeds as most men are ashamed of their bad.”

The famous 1906 Earthquake is a real show-stopper. Entire sets were hoisted on hydraulic lifts and rockers, and literally shaken down. VERY REALISTIC. I would have reservations about showing this picture to kids under 10 years of age. They may develop a neurotic fear of earthquakes following this one.


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