I pretty much thought I had San Francisco figured out before I even started the film; it was about the 1906 earthquake, so it was bound to be either a straight-laced drama or a progenitor of the action-disaster films of the 70s. Well, then I started it, and I was fairly soon not too sure of what exactly the film really was. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure this out as the film went on, as well as generally following along with the characters and the plot, but I just couldn’t pin this down to a few key words or labels. Then the earthquake happened, and everything kinda fell by the wayside, except for that which really mattered to the characters. Then, in a weird moment, it clicked in my head, and the film made a lot more sense than it had been making up to then.
Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a nightclub owner in San Fran who stumbles upon a young and nearly penniless singer named Mary Blake, played by Jeanette MacDonald, and hires her for his club. She soon becomes popular, particularly with opera house owner Jack Burley, who happens into Norton’s club and recognizes the classical training in Blake’s voice. Ms. Blake soon becomes torn between affections for both Norton and Burley, and her indecision between which man to be with and which place of employment to sing with comes to a head when the earthquake finally arrives. Now, all I knew about this going into it was that it was about the earthquake, and Wikipedia’s labeling the film as a musical-drama, which seemed incongruous at first, but really, Wikipedia’s label is probably the closest thing that comes to describing San Francisco the film; there’s music and songs, but the film isn’t really a musical, and the dramatic scenes are really the heart and soul of the picture. It was actually so much about the plot and the characters that I actually forgot about the earthquake being in the film until it finally did happen, which I believe says more about how well the film does work with what it has, mostly thanks to W.S. Van Dyke and the screenwriters. Make no mistake, the earthquake sequence is absolutely spectacular, mostly because of how practical the effects are, but the film isn’t really about the earthquake; it instead merely uses the quake as a backdrop for the events transpiring between the characters, which I thought was a very smart decision, and makes both halves of the film work equally well.
Here’s what I really liked about the film, and it took me until the end of the picture for this to make itself known to me; I’d been struggling with trying to figure out what the film was about, and I’d been following along with the characters and their interactions well enough, and then the earthquake hit, and everything I’d been trying to figure out just kinda disappeared. The quake is such a massive event, almost a literal deus ex machina, that when it comes, all the drama between the characters, and about who wants to end up with who, all of a sudden didn’t matter anymore; everybody just wanted everybody to be okay, and safe, and everyone came together in the wake of the disaster, literally singing together and expressing wishes to build an even greater San Francisco than existed before. All that mattered was that those that each character loved were all right, which is exactly how I’d imagine it really was in San Francisco on that fateful morning in 1906, and that I think is why this film works as well as it does. Van Dyke has himself another winner here, and it’s a very inconspicuous winner, not seeming like much until it’s all over and done with, and that’s exactly the way the film should be.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10