[1936] San Francisco

I have a funny feeling that many if not all of the films from the 1930s will follow a similar pattern: a type-cast and suave leading man will confront himself and his peers in pursuit of a beautiful woman or a lofty dream – two sides of the same coin, if you will.

This man will have conflicts, both internal and external. He will be a rapscallion, but will show sensitive tendencies. His supporting cast of friends, acquaintances, enemies, nemeses, lovers and extras each will bring out a certain quality in him to move some semblance, or in the best cases, a very clear plot along from Point A to Point B and sometimes to point C or D. There will be a series of obstacles, some grand in nature, a few subtle, for this flawed hero to overcome to achieve his goal.

Nineteen thirty six’s San Francisco fits this mold with some minor edges. For this iteration, Clark Gable in pre-Gone With The Wind form pairs with Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt to form a lovers’ tango in 1905 San Francisco. The plot plays out thusly: MacDonald whisks into the Bay Area as a simple pastor’s daughter, Mary Blake, with a magical voice looking for work as an entertainer of sorts. After little to no luck for several weeks, Blake stumbles into Gable’s saloon/cabaret/bar The Paradise Club, where said club’s proprietor, Gable as “Blackie” Norton, hires her on the spot, because, see, Norton is a natural talent scout and an everyman’s man with an infallible “code.” The movie does a particularly good job in painting two of its leads within the first interaction:

Blackie Norton (Gable): Well sister, what’s your racket?

Mary Blake (MacDonald): I’m a singer!

Blackie Norton: Let’s see your legs!

Mary Blake: I said, I’m a singer!

Blackie Norton: Alright, let’s see your legs!

To further showcase Blackie’s unorthodox tendencies, Spencer Tracy fills the role of a childhood friend-turned-minister, Tim Mullin. Mullin immediately takes a liking to Blake – daughter of a pastor, singer in a church choir and god-fearing all the same. But Mullin plays a hovering moral ideologue and is often found prickling Blackie’s motives. His presence is more annoying than it is expository. We get no back story as to why Blackie has spurned religion, except that he just did. Too bad because it could have added depth to his bizarre, supercilious character.

Now enter Jack Holt as opera connoisseur Jack Burley: Blackie’s perfect and obvious foil. Where Blackie is crude, Burley is refined. Where Blackie is a dastardly fellow, Burley is a refined gentleman. What Blackie lacks in propriety he makes up for in passion and what Burley lacks in determined excitement he covers with a sensibility. Both these men vie for Mary Blake and both fall head-over-heels for her in an indeterminate period of time, which I’ll peg between three and eighteen months.I don’t buy it – the woman (an especially Jeanette MacDonald’s reading of the character) can sing belt, sure, but what else about her drives these men to blows and the deus ex “legal” action? She’s not particularly suited for either man. Blackie likes her because…she’s not his usual type? Burley likes her because…his mother does?

Neither character is particularly interesting and the plot is quite vague. But I recognize the freshness in 1936 of these motifs and especially the ending montage scene, which is the most interesting part of the movie and is as good of a climax as any to pinpoint. It’s this innovative filmmaking technique, displaying the ante- and aftermath of the devastating ‘quake that is estimated to have killed between 700 and 3000 people. The ‘quake montage helps to tie up a few points in the plot, but does nothing to demonstrate a shift in character for any of the characters. What we see for San Francisco’s denouement is Blackie with a vague and bleeding head injury wandering around the streets of the demolished hill of a town looking for the woman he thinks he loves. And he finds her and….that’s about it.

Reservations aside, I can’t really view this movie with unclouded eyes: this movie was made in 1936 depicting a relatively short period of time in 1905-1906. In my mind both these milieux are equally far from my own setting in 2013; to put it in perspective, only a handful of people are still alive in the whole world who witnessed or lived through the earthquake compared to the relatively aware audience, whose youngest eyewitness would have been a mere 30. I recognize the importance of this movie in the annals of history, but only time will tell if fans will react to Argo in a similar vein in 2080.

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