San Francisco (1936): Oscar-Winning Blockbuster, Starring Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Janet MacDonald

This popular MGM production featured the most spectacular earthquake ever recorded on screen, which occupies close to 10 minutes of screen time.

The recreation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is a classic, but unlike most movies with special effects climaxes, the rest of the saga is also nice and enjoyable due to a solid script by Anita Loos, an emotionally engaging love story, and the likable performances of the all-star cast.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, the tough Barbary Coast saloon owner who hires aspiring opera singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) as a performer, after a fire drives her into the streets. Blackie, who’s running for City Supervisor, is backed by local colleagues. He’s trying to get a fire ordinance to abolish the Coast’s fire-trap buildings, but John Barley (Jack Holt), a major Coast landlord and polished aristocrat, bucks him tooth and nail.

When Burley dines at the infamous Paradise caf and sees Mary on stage, he becomes smitten with her. His companion Baldini (William Ricciardi) of the Tivoli Opera House says her golden voice should be for “the immortal music.” They meet Mary and offer her an audition, but Blackie refuses to release her from her contract. Though attracted to him, Mary runs away.

Burley arranges Mary’s debut at the Opera and she becomes engaged to him. When she learns that Burley is out to destroy Blackie, she tries to warn him, but he rebukes her and tells her he never wants to see her again. No need to tell the rest of the plot, except to mention that the great earthquake strikes hard, spreading all over the city, and that the characters turns spiritual if not religious. Upon watching Mary singing a hymn to some scared refugees, Blackie too finds belief in God.

Spencer Tracy steals the show as Father Tim Mullin, a non-nonsense priest who, though an old buddy of Blackie’s, is determined to clean up the Coast.

The strong supporting cast includes, along with Jack Holt, Ted Healy, Jessie Ralph, and Al Shean. Reportedly, director W. S. Van Dyke assigned the legendary D. W. Griffith to direct one of the crowd sequences.

Although the special effects Oscar was not introduced until three years later, the award to Shearer, the third of the five he won) and the nomination of assistant director Newman are clearly for their work on the movie’s most famous act.

“San Francisco” is still an enjoyable melodrama with music. The title song by Gus Kahn, Bronislav Kaper, and W. Jurman, which strangely failed to be nominated for the Best Song Oscar, later became the official song of San Francisco.

The most sensational profit-maker of the year, “San Francisco” became one of MGM’s all-time blockbusters, even more successful than the Oscar-winning musical, “The Great Ziegfeld.”

Oscar Alert

Oscar nominations: 6

Picture, produced by John Emerson and Bernard H. Hyman
Actor: Spencer Tracy
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Original story: Robert Hopkins
Assistant director: Joseph Newman
Sound recording: Douglas Shearer

Oscar Awards: 1

Sound recording

Oscar Context

The Best Picture Oscar went to MGM’s musical, “The Great Ziegfeld.” This was the first Best Actor nomination for Spencer Tracy, who lost to Paul Muni in “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which also won for the story by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney. Frank Capra won Best Director for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Jack Sullivan won the Assistant Director Oscar for “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”