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San Francisco (1936 film)

San Francisco
Original Film Poster
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, D. W. Griffith
Produced by John Emerson
Bernard H. Hyman
Written by Robert E. Hopkins
Anita Loos
Starring Clark Gable
Jeanette MacDonald
Spencer Tracy
Jack Holt
Jessie Ralph
Ted Healy
Music by Walter Jurmann
Bronislaw Kaper
Edward Ward
Cinematography Oliver T. Marsh
Edited by Tom Held
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates June 26, 1936 (1936-06-26)
Running time 115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,300,000[1][2]
Box office $2,868,000 (Domestic earnings)[1]
$2,405,000 (Foreign earnings)[1]

San Francisco is a 1936 musical-drama 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,[3] 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. The Internet Movie Database reports that famous silent film directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim contributed to the screenplay without screen credit. Griffith also helped direct the famous earthquake sequence.[4]


  • Plot summary 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Music 4
  • Box Office 5
  • Academy Awards 6
  • Other awards 7
  • References 8
  • Footnotes 9
  • External links 10

Plot summary

"Blackie" Norton (Clark Gable), a saloonkeeper and gambler in the notorious Barbary Coast, owns the Paradise Club on Pacific Street. He hires a promising but impoverished classically trained singer from Benson, Colorado named Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who becomes a star attraction at the Paradise. The piano player at the club, dubbed "The Professor" (Al Shean) can tell Mary has a professionally trained voice. Mat (Ted Healy), Blackie's good friend at the Paradise, wisely predicts that Mary is not going to stay on the "Coast."

Blackie's childhood friend, Nob Hill scion Jack Burley (Jack Holt). Blackie wants to stop Mary singing at the Tivoli, and although he arrives the night of her premiere with a process server to shut down the show, when he hears her sing he decides not to stop the opera. After her performance Blackie visits Mary in her dressing room and realizing she still loves him, Mary asks him to marry her. Blackie agrees but their reunion is soon interrupted by Burley, who had earlier proclaimed his love for Mary and proposed to her. Blackie, seeing Burley as competition for Mary's affections, is happy to tell him of their intent to marry. However, as Blackie gloatingly tells Burley of their plans it becomes clear that Blackie intends to take Mary away from the Tivoli and put her back on stage at the Paradise. Burley appeals to Mary but Blackie presents Mary with an ultimatum by asking if she wants to marry him or stay at the Tivoli.

Mary's choice becomes apparent by her return to the Paradise. Backstage, before the opening night of her return performance, she asks Blackie if they can set the date for their wedding. Blackie agrees but wants to postpone getting married until after the election. Father Tim soon pays them a visit and angered by Mary's skimpy costume, defies Blackie to put her on the stage in front of the rowdy Paradise audience. Mary, observing Blackie's reaction to Father Tim's statements, decides to leave with the priest after Blackie strikes him in the face.

Mary goes back to Burley and eventually meets his mother (Jessie Ralph) at her Nob Hill mansion. She tells Mary that she started out as Massie, the washerwoman in 1850 on Portsmouth Square and that although she also once had a "Blackie" in her life she chose to marry the elder Burley. This cements Mary's decision to accept Burley's proposal of marriage.

On order of Burley, on April 17, 1906 the San Francisco Police Department padlocks the Paradise. Blackie, distraught about the future of his club, ends up at the city's annual Chickens Ball[5] where Mary and Burley are in attendance. That night Mary, after learning of the club's padlocking, sings the song Theme from San Francisco and wins the Chickens Ball competition for the Paradise, but Blackie angrily refuses the prize money, stating that Mary had no right to sing on behalf of his club. Before an embarrassed Mary can leave the ball with Burley, at 5:13 a.m. April 18, 1906, the earthquake hits the city. Widespread devastation and loss of life occurs as buildings are destroyed and fires rage out of control. Firemen are ill equipped to fight the fires due to broken water mains.

As Blackie wanders the city searching for Mary he comes upon his good friend Mat, who was injured at the destroyed Hall of Justice on Washington Street. A nurse tells Blackie that Mat will not survive. Before he dies, Mat tells Blackie he was wrong about his feelings toward Mary; Blackie then walks to Nob Hill where he sees Mrs. Burley who senses her son has died (Blackie did indeed see the dead Burley). She leaves the area as US Army troops from the Presidio prepare to blow up the mansions to create firebreaks.

Blackie later meets Father Tim who takes him to Golden Gate Park, where a tent encampment has been established. It's there that Blackie hears Mary's voice lifted in song with those in mourning. After seeing Mary, Blackie falls to his knees and gives his heartfelt thanks to God for sparing Mary's life. Mary sees Blackie praying and as she walks toward him word spreads through camp that "The fire's out!" As people shout about building a new San Francisco, Blackie and Mary join the crowd (a surprisingly multi-racial group, given the era of the film) as they leave Golden Gate Park marching arm-in-arm, singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The film ends as the smoldering ruins dissolve into the "modern" San Francisco of the mid 1930s. The scenes of the city in the 1930s when shown near April 18th on San Francisco Bay Area television stations has substituted stock news footage of the City in the modern era.



Lobby card

The earthquake montage sequence was created by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich. 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.[6]

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.


The title song may be the best-remembered part of the film. It was composed by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It is sung by Jeanette MacDonald a half-dozen times in the film, and becomes an anthem for the survivors of the earthquake. It has now become a popular sentimental sing-along at public events such as the city's annual earthquake commemoration, as well as one of two official city songs, along with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco".[7]

Early in the film the song "The Darktown Strutters Ball" can be heard; this is a historically inaccurate inclusion, since the song was written in 1917.

During the two operatic scenes in the film, MacDonald sang excerpts from Charles Gounod's Faust and Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata.

Box Office

According to MGM records the film earned $5,273,000 and made a profit of $2,237,000.[2]

Academy Awards

The film won one Academy Award and was nominated for five more.[8]
Award Result Winner
Outstanding Production Nominated MGM (John Emerson and Bernard H. Hyman)
Winner was Hunt Stromberg (MGM) - The Great Ziegfeld
Best Director Nominated W. S. Van Dyke
Winner was Frank Capra - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Best Actor Nominated Spencer Tracy
Winner was Paul Muni - The Story of Louis Pasteur
Best Writing (Original Story) Nominated Robert Hopkins
Winner was Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney - The Story of Louis Pasteur
Best Assistant Director Nominated Joseph M. Newman
Winner was Jack Sullivan - The Charge of the Light Brigade
Best Sound Recording Won Douglas Shearer

Other awards

Year Award Result Category Recipient
1936 Photoplay Awards Won Medal of Honor John Emerson and Bernard H. Hyman


  • Elisabeth Buxbaum: Veronika, der Lenz ist da. Walter Jurmann – Ein Musiker zwischen den Welten und Zeiten. Mit einem Werkverzeichnis von Alexander Sieghardt. Edition Steinbauer, Wien 2006, ISBN 3-902494-18-2


  1. ^ a b c Turk, Edward Baron "Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald" (University of California Press, 1998)
  2. ^ a b The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  3. ^ Reid, John (2004). Award-Winning Films of the 1930s. p. 129.  
  4. ^ Rich, Sharon; Eddy, Jon (1994). Sweethearts: The Timeless Love Affair--on-screen and Off--between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Donald I. Fine. p. 165.  
  5. ^ A Brief History of the Chickens Ball
  6. ^ IMDB contributor's comment,
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The 9th Academy Awards (1936) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-08. 

External links

  • San Francisco at the Internet Movie Database
  • San Francisco at Rotten Tomatoes
  • San Francisco at AllMovie
  • San Francisco at Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy: A Tribute
  • San Francisco at Virtual History
  • San Francisco showing at the Regal Stonehouse Glos 1937
  • San Francisco Brief Synopsis at Turner Classic Movies Archives Database
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