San Francisco (1936)




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The MGM historical "spectacular" San Francisco was allegedly based on a three-sentence synopsis, submitted verbally to producer B.F. Zeidman by studio troubleshooter Bob Hopkins. The story begins on the Barbary Coast on New Year's Eve, 1906, as rakish but likeable political boss Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) hires demure young singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) to perform at his rowdy Paradise gambling house. Local priest Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie's best friend, disapproves of the exploitation of the lovely Mary, feeling that she's suited for classier surroundings. Jack Hurley (Jack Holt), Nob Hill socialite and Blackie's political rival, agrees with Father Mullin and offers the girl the opportunity to sing with the San Francisco Opera. Blackie, who's fallen in love with Mary but won't admit it to himself, jealously holds on to her contract, forcing Mary to walk out on him. For the rest of the film, Mary is torn between the "respectable" lifestyle offered her by Hurley and the baser creature comforts provided by Blackie. It looks for a while that Hurley has won out, but fate takes a hand in the form of the devastating San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906 (a special effects tour de force for art directors Arnold Gillespie and his uncredited associate James Basevi). Hurley is killed in the holocaust, while Blackie, desperately searching for Mary in the rubble, at long last finds religion and prays to God for his sweetheart's salvation. At the end, an unidentified bit player shouts defiantly "We'll build a new San Francisco!" -- and by golly, they do! The Hollywood censors were not so much bothered by the sexual subtext of San Francisco or its harrowing earthquake finale as they were by a scene in which Father Mullin is knocked down by an unrepentant Blackie. To "purify" this potentially blasphemous sequence, screenwriter Anita Loos quickly added an earlier scene in which Mullin and Blackie, both dressed in turtleneck sweaters, genially duke it out at an exercise gym, whereupon the priest cold-cocks Blackie with the greatest of ease. By establishing that Mullin could have punched out Blackie, but chooses not to in the controversial later scene, not only allows that scene to pass, but also strengthened the priest's character. San Francisco proved to be one of MGM's biggest hits, remaining in almost constant reissue for the next three decades.
Classics , Drama , Romance
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Clark Gable
as Blackie Norton
Spencer Tracy
as Father Tim Mullin
Jeanette MacDonald
as Mary Blake
Jack Holt
as Jack Burley
Jessie Ralph
as Maisey Burley
Ted Healy
as Matt
Dennis O'Keefe
as New Year's Celebrant
Russell Simpson
as Red Kelly
Warren Hymer
as Hazeltine
Oscar Apfel
as Members of Founders' Club
Pat O'Malley
as Fireman
Beatrice Roberts
as Forrestal Guest
King Baggot
as Earthquake Extra
Irving Bacon
as Picnicker
Tom Dugan
as Drunk
Shirley Ross
as Trixie
Jean Acker
as Earthquake Extra
Rhea Mitchell
as Earthquake Extra
Rosemary Theby
as Earthquake Extra
Spec O'Donnell
as Man Praying
G. Pat Collins
as Bartender
Edgar Kennedy
as Sheriff Jim
Margaret Irving
as Della Bailey
Gertrude Astor
as Drunk's Girl
Richard Carle
as Members of Founders' Club
John Kelly
as Kelly
Carl Stockdale
as Salvation Army Man
Sidney Bracey
as Burley's Butler
Vernon Dent
as Fat Man
Ralph Lewis
as Members of Founders' Club
Tom McGuire
as Bartender
Harry Strang
as Soldier
Wilbur Mack
as Bartender
Harry Myers
as Reveler
Bert Roach
as Freddy Duane
Cy Kendall
as Headwaiter
Jack Baxley
as Kinko
William Newell
as Man in Breadline
Edward Hearn
as Parishioner
Edward Earle
as Bit Man
Roger Imhof
as Alaska
Bud Geary
as Man Restraining Blackie after Quake
George Guhl
as Bit Man
Tommy Bupp
as Bill
Chester Gan
as Jowl Lee
Bob McKenzie
as Messenger
Frank Mayo
as Dealer
Don Rowan
as Coast Type
Flora Finch
as Earthquake Extra
Al Shean
as Professor
Belle Mitchell
as Mary's Maid
Jim Farley
as Charlie
Frank Sheridan
as Members of Founders' Club
Bruce Mitchell
as Heckler
Donald Hall
as Earthquake Extra
Maude Allen
as Elderly Woman
Charles Sullivan
as Fire Spectator
Sherry Hall
as Well-Wisher
Sam Ash
as Orchestra Leader
George Magrill
as A Marine
Tudor Williams
as Mephistopheles
W.J. O'Brien
as Waiter
Bill O'Brien
as Waiter
Anthony Jowitt
as Society Man
Fritzi Brunette
as Earthquake Extra
James Macklin
as Young Man
Naomi Childers
as Opera Spectator in Burley Box
John Pearson
as Stooge
Nyas Berry
as Dancer
Orrin Burke
as Pompous Man
Helene Chadwick
as Earthquake Extra
Otho Wright
as Fireman
John 'Skins' Miller
as Man on Stretcher
Mae Digges
as Dancer
Fred M. Fagan
as Waiter
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Critic Reviews for San Francisco

All Critics (8)

Achieves something that has evaded disaster movies since as long as they've existed: it depicts its disaster in an engrossing, spectacular way, while also making sure that we're not just exulting in mass death.

Full Review… | June 3, 2015
Antagony & Ecstasy

A huge blockbuster, this MGM melodrama is mostly known for its ten-minute recreation of the 1906 Earthquake, but it also has an emotionally engaging story and is extremely well-acted by Gable, Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald, who sings the famous song.

Full Review… | July 1, 2007

..a big, brawling, boisterous, sentimental, touching, inspiring, thoroughly entertaining motion picture.

Full Review… | June 14, 2006
Movie Metropolis

Dated but classy MGM spectacular.

May 4, 2006

Gable, Tracy, McDonald singing - and an earthquake. Who could ask for anything more? A typical MGM extravaganza.

July 23, 2004
Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN)

Quote not available.

Full Review… | January 2, 2012
Jigsaw Lounge

Audience Reviews for San Francisco

San Francisco has the firepower (or should that be the earthquake power) of a very strong lineup. It was the 30s version of the blockbuster and similar to modern blockbusters, the script is a little thin and sensationalist.

John Ballantine
John Ballantine

Super Reviewer

This is a pretty remarkable achievement as far as disaster films are concerned. It actually has an engaging story that doesn't necessarily revolve around the Great Quake of 1906, yet it feels urgent and ominous as the events that you watch all lead up to that inevitable climax. Also, the special effects are pretty amazing considering that this film was made a mere 30 years after the real-life events it's depicting. Definitely worth a watch!

Rico Zamora
Rico Zamora

Super Reviewer


Classic MGM spectacle is highlighted by remarkable re-enactment of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. What's more, this romantic drama includes an engaging story as well. Young, classically-trained singer is plucked from obscurity and becomes a success. Complications arise when she is also offered a chance to sing with the Opera, in decidedly classier surroundings. Grand, but dated period film was a huge blockbuster in its day and it's easy to see why. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Mark Hobin
Mark Hobin

Super Reviewer

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