“San Francisco” from 1936: Refined By Fire

Jeanette MacDonald -1937

Today is the first day of the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon here at PEPS. As soon as my sister, Rebekah, decided that she wanted to host a blogathon in honor of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, I knew that I wanted to write about San Francisco for it. Although Nelson Eddy is not in it, this movie is one of my favorite movies with Jeanette MacDonald. Aside from Broadway Serenade, a 1939 musical with Lew Ayres, this is the only solo movie of hers that I really like. I think that the casting, story, and acting are so sensational in this movie that one doesn’t even wish Nelson was in it. I don’t mean to say that I don’t love the way Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy act together. There is something magical about their pairing which you see with no other pairing of either. However, this movie was meant to be made during the part of 1936 when Nelson Eddy was doing a singing tour. Thus, Jeanette’s leading man was played by a completely different actor, Clark Gable. The role in this movie is perfect for him. He is excellent as Blackie Norton.


Instead of telling the story and then discussing my thoughts on the Code’s relation to this movie, as I usually do, I’m going to tell the story of San Francisco by discussing the compensating moral values which this movie displays. I’ll let them weave the plot and display its beautiful twists against the backdrop of the Code.

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The story begins on New Year’s Eve of 1905. San Francisco is filled with wild revelry. The rowdy crowd is almost deafening. The fountain which is overflowing with free champagne is a symbol of the immoral, worldly pleasure which reigns supreme in the city of the Golden Gate. In the middle of it all is Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), the bold, brash owner of one of the hottest joints on the Barbary Coast, the Paradise. This opening scene is very important for setting the scene for the story. This is San Francisco as it was at the beginning of 1906. W. S. Van Dyke, the director, didn’t have to show much to make his point. Without being blatant, he painted a very vibrant picture as the backdrop for the story which is about to unfold.

Fire engines clatter through the merriment of the New Year’s celebration, and Blackie jumps aboard one of them to find out where the fire is. He, like all the other residents and business owners on the Barbary Coast, is concerned that his club is afire. He goes along with the firefighters but is relieved to see that a boarding house is the burning building. He watches the last occupants of the building, two children, jump from the burning structure into a net. With that excitement over, he fights through the crowd toward the Paradise. Now we see another aspect of life in San Francisco, danger. Life is wild, conditions are dangerous, and people just don’t care. They are living for and in the moment, with absolutely no regard for what happens tomorrow. The motto of the Barbary Coast is truly “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

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Next, we see a well-dressed, tired-looking woman (Jeanette MacDonald) make her way into the Paradise. She looks very refined against the vulgar, loose setting of the raucous club. The dancers are wearing costumes which are rather scanty for 1906 and just scanty enough for 1936 to make a point. The customers are drunken and wild. We see a few vignettes which hint at the immorality which abounds in the city. When Blackie saw one female patron, he kissed her rather romantically. Then the young woman introduced him to her older husband, who was drunkenly whispering in the ear of another young woman. In this den of implied iniquity, the pretty, proper young lady seems rather out of place. Blackie’s gangsterish assistant, Babe (Harold Huber), comes up to her and starts flirting with her. She insists on seeing the proprietor, and Babe leads her through the crowded room as intoxicated men accost her, calling her “chicken.” When she reaches Blackie’s box, she introduces herself as Mary Blake. She says that she came to San Francisco to be a singer. She was living in the boarding house that burnt down; she needs a job. He asks to see her legs; although she repeats that she is a singer, he insists on seeing them. She sings along with the song the band is playing to prove the caliber of her voice. When he offers her $75 a week, she faints from shock and hunger.

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Blackie takes her to his room and feeds her. She tells him that she is a parson’s daughter from Colorado. Her father is now dead, but her mother helped her get enough money to come to San Francisco and become an opera singer. Naturally, he thinks that she’s making this story up and that some man really helped her come to San Francisco. When his implications offend her, she tries to leave. He convinces her to stay, offering her his living room for the night. She has no other place to stay, so she accepts his couch. His manner is a little flirtatious, but he respects her privacy. Just to show his good intentions, he leaves the key to his bedroom on the outside of the door. Before settling on the small, uncomfortable sofa, she fortifies her sleeping chamber by locking Blackie into his room. He laughs to himself before bidding his reflection in the mirror goodnight. Now we have been introduced to the primary conflict. Blackie represents San Francisco in all its irreligious glory. Mary represents the purity of other parts of America. She wants a job from Blackie and San Francisco, but she wants nothing but a business arrangement. Blackie, like San Francisco itself, wants Mary to be part of the city, but he doesn’t just want her to work there. He wants her to be absorbed into the city and the lifestyle that abounds there. Because of his own world, Blackie thinks that Mary’s story of her life is just a fairy tale of virtue; he thinks that everyone in the world must be like him and his friends. From the beginning, Mary makes it clear that she wants to work as a singer, but she has no intention of being absorbed by San Francisco or Blackie’s sort of life. The moral struggle begins.

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The next day, Blackie boxes with his childhood friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), a Catholic priest who suggests that Mary could have been telling the truth about herself. Father Mullin wins the fight when he knocks Blackie down with a swift punch. He goes to the locker room to change as some of the local businessmen approach Blackie about running for city supervisor so that the Barbary Coast can get some decent fire laws. At first Blackie is reluctant, but the other men finally convince him to join the fight, saying that they will back him financially. They are convinced that his pugnacious personality and popularity on the Coast will help him win the election. Father Tim says that he has tried to persuade them to improve the buildings’ safety for years, so maybe Blackie will be more successful.

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One evening, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Signor Baldini (William Ricciardi) stop by the Paradise. Mr. Burley, a wealthy Nob Hill property owner, came so that he could talk Blackie out of running, but Blackie won’t quit. Meanwhile, Signor Baldini, who is from the Tivoli Opera Company in the more refined part of San Francisco, is beginning to take notice of the pretty singer who is performing. Jack, who is a major donor to the opera company, is also impressed. He invites Mary to come to their table. When they find out that she has had classical training, the maestro and Jack invite her to come work at the Tivoli. She is honored, but Blackie reminds her that she has a two year contract with him. Before leaving, Jack promises Mary that she will have a job at the Tivoli anytime she is available. It is obvious that Jack is determined to keep Blackie from succeeding in his political career and that he will do anything to succeed with Mary, for the Tivoli and perhaps for himself, as well. Thus, we see the beginning of a love triangle.

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After they have left, Blackie tells Mary to go to his friend’s place and sing for him. She is shocked when he tells her that the “joint” where he wants her to sing is a church, since he is a real heathen. She goes to the church and sings a beautiful rendition of “The Holy City” with the accompaniment of a boys’ choir. Afterwords, she and Father Tim get acquainted. He tells her that Blackie bought him the organ that they were dedicating that evening, despite the fact that he is completely irreligious. Father Tim tells Mary about his childhood with Blackie; he eventually became serious about religion, but Blackie never understood. Despite his friend’s godlessness, the hopeful priest is convinced that there is more good than evil in Blackie Norton. He tells Mary his concerns about the immorality in San Francisco. He is glad that she plans to stay, since he thinks that she could help Blackie. Although Mary was obviously raised as a Protestant, since her father was a minister, she and Father Mullin become fast friends; they seem to be the only really devout, unselfish people who have joined the cast so far.

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As time passes, Blackie’s campaign gains strength. Meanwhile, his romance with Mary begins to hesitantly blossom. She visits with Father Tim frequently, since he is her dear friend. However, Mr. Burley hasn’t given up his hope of hiring Mary. He comes to the Paradise and offers Blackie large sums of money for her contract. Blackie says that he can have her contract for nothing if Mary wants to leave him. He asks her, but she says that she has to stay with Blackie. She is charmed when she learns that he was willing to let her leave if she wanted to. For the first time, we see that Mary cares for Blackie, even though she knows that she shouldn’t.

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Blackie takes Mary into his office and shows her the trophy he won at last year’s annual Chicken’s Ball for artistic achievement. He says that he plans to win it again this year with her talents. He starts trying to kiss her, but she moves away and resists him. He says that she’s afraid to really feel like a woman. He says that he believes in things he can see, like her beauty. He doesn’t believe in God; he just believes in his own powers and the pleasures of this earth. He kisses her. She is completely overpowered by him. This is the moment where we see her will crumbling under the force of his. Blackie is unwilling to change. If he and Mary are ever going to be sweethearts, he is going to crush the piety and virtue out of her. She can’t see that now; she is too taken with his charm.

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Blackie invites Mary to come upstairs with him and have some chop suey. On the way there, they go into the main room of the Paradise, where the entertainers are rehearsing. Blackie orders champagne for everyone to celebrate his new girl. Mary observes the behavior of the other employees, especially the lead chorus girl, Trixie (Shirley Ross), Blackie’s jealous former sweetheart. She quickly infers that Blackie ordered champagne for everyone not too long ago, when he made Trixie his new girl. Now the embittered Trixie observes that she has been replaced by Mary. Mary realizes that Blackie changes his girl as often as another man might change his brand of cigarette. She is just one in a long line of whimsical sweethearts. Soon, he will loose interest in her, too. Realizing Blackie’s true nature, she walks out. When he realizes that she isn’t there anymore, he thinks that she’s gone upstairs to prepare for lunch. When he goes out on the street, he meets Father Tim, who tells him that he just put Mary in a taxi. She is going to work for Jack Burley. Father Mullin hints that she wants to work for Mr. Burley because she isn’t in love with him as she is with Blackie. Blackie acts like he knew she was leaving, inviting Father Tim to join him for chop suey.

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Now, it is Mary’s opening night at the Tivoli Opera. She is going to sing Marguerite from Faust by Gounod. Before the performance, Jack asks her to marry him. Out in the lobby, he encounters Blackie and Babe, who have come with a process server to stop the show. Blackie claims that Mary is still under contract to him, since she said she didn’t want to leave when he gave her the option. He has ensured that all of Jack’s possible allies are out of town; Mr. Burley sees no way of stopping his ruthless competitor and the boorish process server. However, as Blackie and Babe watch the opera, they notice how beautiful it is. Blackie is moved by the loveliness of the music and Mary’s performance. He keeps postponing the process server’s actions. When he sees that the unmusical server has gone backstage to stop the show, he follows him and stops his mischief by punching him and knocking him out. He returns to his box to enjoy the rest of the show. Perhaps Blackie is developing a softer nature.

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After the opera, Blackie visits Mary’s dressing room. He compliments her on her performance. She asks him if he loves her, and he says he does as though it doesn’t even need to be said. She tells him about Jack’s proposal and asks him if he would marry her. He is surprised, but he agrees. Father Tim comes in to also congratulate her, and they announce their engagement. Blackie says that she finally harpooned him. Father Mullin is obviously frustrated with his friend’s lack of appreciation for Mary, saying, “A girl any man in San Francisco would give his right arm to marry, but she had to harpoon you.” He gives his blessing to the marriage, and he leaves. Then, Jack comes in. Mary tells him that she is going to marry Blackie. Even she is surprised, however, when Blackie tells her that the gang is waiting for her to sing “San Francisco” at the Paradise. He says that she has to make a choice between being an opera singer and marrying him. The tortuousness of this situation is written all over her face. Blackie is not going to consider her dreams; he wants his way in all things.

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Mary decides that love is more important than being an opera singer, so she is getting ready to perform at the Paradise. In her dressing room, she is wearing a tight black costume with shorts that are practically as short as a leotard. She is obviously embarrassed by this costume, but Blackie lecherously tells her she looks great in it. Mary discusses plans for their wedding, and Blackie is very casual about the upcoming marriage. He wants to have Mary as his girl and as his singer at the Paradise; since marriage is the only way to achieve that, he’s going to marry her. Unfortunately, Mary doesn’t seem to realize that he is only marrying her to get his way.

Then, Father Mullin comes in. His eyes are filled with simmering fury and horror when he sees Mary in the scanty costume. He tells Blackie that he’s not going to let him exploit Mary by showing her like that to the mob. Blackie doesn’t understand. He says that he’s making her queen of the Coast and that he’s marrying her. Father Mullin says that he can’t take a woman in marriage and sell her immortal soul. Mary says that she loves him, but Father Tim says that it isn’t love to let him bring her down to his level. Blackie mocks the priest’s references to God and the afterlife. When Father Tim says that he isn’t going to let Blackie marry Mary, Blackie punches him, making his head hit the wall behind him. Father Tim doesn’t strike back; he just looks at him with a blank, pathetic look as blood trickles from the side of his mouth. There is almost a look of regret in Blackie’s eyes, since he acted without thinking. Mary is horrified, angry, and almost unbelieving that Blackie would do such a thing. She finally realizes what sort of a man her fiance is. He tells her to go out and perform, but she silently takes off her gloves and headpiece, wraps her cape around her shoulders, and takes Father Tim’s hand. As she is about to walk out, Blackie warns her that she can never come back if she leaves now. She just glares at him before leaving with Father Mullin. She’s finally decided that she can no longer abide being with a man like him, even though she loves him. Just then, one of the employees tells Blackie that the Paradise is being raided. Officials are smashing the gambling tables, and the club is filled with chaos. Jack Burley is influencing the law to crack down on the anti-gambling law breakers, starting with his rival, Mr. Norton.

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Mary goes back to Jack. He takes her to meet his mother, old Maisie Burley, an Irish washerwoman who came to San Francisco fifty-five years ago. The kind old lady knows that Mary is in love with Blackie Norton, so she tells her about her own experiences. In her youth, she was in love with a man like Blackie Norton, “a selfish, sinful, adorable scoundrel.” Even as she talks about him, tears gather in her eyes. She gave him up because he was killing her soul. “Killing your soul,” Mary repeats, feeling moved by this statement. Maisie finally married the respectable Mr. Burley, and she had her peace. Mary says that she doesn’t think she is worthy of marrying Jack, since he’s part of San Francisco’s aristocracy. Maisie points out the mansion next door, where a wild party has been going on for two days and nights, saying that it’s the roughest joint in San Francisco. She says that it’s a shame that San Francisco is the wickedest city in America, since it contains the finest bunch of people who ever were in one spot. Unfortunately, the adventurousness that made them come to the wild West has them filled with devilry and blasphemy. She says that she wants Jack to have a good wife like Mary so that they can raise good children who will be a credit to San Francisco. Mary is very glad to have met the kind, wise old woman.


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On the night of the Chicken’s Ball, the Paradise is raided and shut down by the police because the liquor license has been revoked. Blackie asks the policeman if he can have a few hours to raise bail money for his performers so that they can compete at the Chicken’s Ball. He says that he can come to the station house at dawn. Meanwhile, Mary is singing at the opera for the final time, since she is going to retire to marry Jack Burley. It is obvious that she doesn’t love Jack and that she isn’t completely happy, but she knows that Blackie, like Mrs. Burley’s godless sweetheart, was killing her soul. Jack is throwing a banquet to honor Mary’s retirement, then they are going to go to the Chicken’s ball. Mary is concerned about seeing Blackie, but Jack assures her that he won’t be there.

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At the Chicken’s Ball, Blackie’s friend Della (Margaret Irving) goes to the table where Jack and Mary are sitting to tell them what she thinks of them. She tells Mary that Jack, whom she calls “this mouse,” had the Paradise closed down and all the entertainers arrested. Mary is shocked by this news. Soon after, Blackie comes to the ball and returns Della’s jewelry to her. She had given him some of her baubles to pawn for bail money, but he found out that there is no bail posted for his entertainers. Thus, he will be unable to compete for the gold prize at tonight’s ball. He leaves to see if there is anything else he can do.

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When the announcer says that the performers for the Paradise have not arrived, Mary stands up suddenly and says that she represents the Paradise. When Jack asks her what she’s doing, she just glares at him. She gets up on the stage and sings a rousing rendition of “San Francisco,” getting the whole audience to sing and dance along. When it comes time for the audience to vote for its favorite routine with applause, Mary’s representation of the Paradise beats all competition. Just as Mary is accepting the prize money for Blackie, he angrily enters the night club and storms onto the stage. He says that he didn’t authorize Mary’s representation of his club. Despite the fact that he needs the gold for his campaign fund, he throws the loving cup full of gold coins onto the floor, saying that he doesn’t need that kind of money. Mary is crushed. She gets her coat, and she and Jack start to walk out.

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The audience is confused and unsettled by Blackie’s refusal of the prize. The band begins to play a carefree tune. A low rumble can be heard in the background. As Mary asks Jack, “What was that?” the room begins to noticeably shake. In a moment, the whole building is collapsing. People are screaming, running, panicking, fainting, and hiding as the massive San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, strikes. Words cannot do justice to the amazing earthquake which W. S. Van Dyke created for this film. He used random shots of people, animals, and buildings to produce a completely overwhelming natural disaster on film. The effect is unbelievable. Film experts and viewers alike are still amazed by this catastrophic sequence. I don’t know exactly how long it is, but it seems like it lasts for a terribly long time. I think that adds to the terrifying effect. I’m sure a real cataclysm would seem infinitely longer than it really was.



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As soon as the earthquake has subsided, the survivors begin to stir and, if they are able to rise, look for their loved ones. Blackie climbs out of a pile of rubble and starts looking for Mary. His clothes are dusty and torn, but the only injury he has is a bleeding cut on the right side of his face. He sees people who have lost their loved ones and others who have found them, but he doesn’t see anything of Mary. Just as he is helping some people out from under some debris, the ground begins to shake again. A second earthquake is coming! This one is even stronger than the first. The ground itself opens up and swallows a few sinners. A woman who is on her knees praying remains safely on one side of the schism, no doubt because of her faith. Water begins to spout from the hole, since the water main has broken. The second earthquake eventually ends, and Blackie is still unharmed. This is not the end of the city’s tribulations, however. A live wire falls and ignites the gas line, starting a large fire which there is no water left to fight. Thus, the shaken and shattered city is engulfed in flames.

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Blackie searches high and low for Mary. He finds the body of an unlucky Jack Burley, which is accompanied by some feathers from Mary’s dress, but there is no sign of a living Mary or her unfortunate remains. As Blackie relentlessly searches, he wades through the wreckage of a broken city. People stand in lines waiting for food and watch their buildings being dynamited to stop the fire, still wearing their gay clothes from the unlucky night’s festivities. As Blackie fruitlessly scours the city, numerous people wish him God’s help in finding Mary. At first he ignores this, but it gradually begins to weigh on his soul.

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Finally, unshaven, unwashed, and unsuccessful in his search, Blackie goes to Father Mullin’s mission. It is far from intact; he finds out that Father Tim is doing rescue work nearby. He goes to the stable which has been converted into a hospital for the wounded and dying victims of God’s natural punishment. There, he finds Father Mullin tirelessly tending the needy. The priest sees his battered friend standing before him, and he clasps his penitent hand. Blackie squeezes his hand as a gesture of thanks and apology for the blow which he dealt him. Father Tim’s face shows complete forgiveness as he points out the wound on Blackie’s face. In the earlier scene at the Paradise, Blackie’s violence caused blood to stain Father Tim’s face. Father Mullin didn’t strike back. He hearkened to the Bible, in which God said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” The proof of God’s vengeance can be seen on Blackie’s own face, which is now stained with blood drawn by God’s hand. Father Tim knows that Blackie hasn’t found Mary yet. He says that he can’t want her for the Paradise now, since that’s gone. Blackie says that he wasn’t thinking of the Paradise. Father Mullin studies his face and seems to believe him. He says that he’s going to take him to Mary, who he assures him is alright.

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The priest leads the unbeliever through the throngs of victims outside who have congregated in and around tents which have been erected as medical clinics. On a hillside, a group of people are singing “Nearer My God To Thee” for the family members of the dead and dying. Among them is Mary. Her hair is undone, and her dress is somewhat tattered, but her face is as white and pure as her soul. Tears are in her eyes as she solemnly sings the hymn. There are tears in Blackie’s eyes too when he sees that Mary is alive and well. The awe of God’s mercy overcomes him. With tears rolling down his face, he says, “Tim, I want to thank God. What do I say?” Tim has a look of thankful happiness as he says, “Just say what’s in your heart, Blackie.” Blackie Norton, the most mocking and blasphemous man in San Francisco a few days earlier, kneels down on the grass and utters a simple, sincere prayer through grateful sobs with Mary’s singing as a background. “Thanks, God. Thanks,” he says. “I really mean it.” It took an earthquake and a fire, but San Francisco has finally come to its knees in fear of God. Blackie Norton, who represented its sinful revelry in the beginning of the movie, now represents its humbled gratitude and devotion.

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Mary’s eyes fall on Blackie, who is kneeling in prayer. A look of inexplicable joy comes over her face as she sees that the man she loves has not only been spared but has been redeemed. She walks toward him, and they happily embrace as Father Tim looks on. Just then, a boy runs through the crowd with the blessed news that the fire is out. The crowd erupts with cheers of praise and thanks and promises that San Francisco will be rebuilt better than it was before. No words can express what these people are feeling at that moment, so they don’t even try to talk. They sing to show their joy. As the crowd begins to gather and march up the hill, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung by more and more voices. Mary’s beautiful voice joins the triumphant choir’s strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as she, Blackie, and Father Mullin join the group as it marches up the hill. When they reach the summit with their feet and their voices, they look down on the ruined, smoking city. The camera shows the hopeful, grateful faces of the resilient Americans. God has humbled them and brought them to their knees, but they have not been destroyed. They have been purified and refined by fire. As the glorious rendition of the old hymn reaches its climax, a silhouette of the glowing San Francisco of 1936 rises out of the ashes of the destroyed 1906 city. Eventually, the picture fully changes to the new, glorious city. The End of one of the finest movies which MGM ever made.

Van Dyke Directing

W. S. Van Dyke is the man in the black suit on the platform.

I consider this to be one of the very best movies of the Code era. It’s a perfect Code film, and it is a phenomenal example of the sort of magic which happened when filmmakers and self-regulators worked together harmoniously. W. S. Van Dyke, who was known as “One-Take Woody” throughout the film industry, was a brilliant director who had a streak of larceny in him. He directed five of the eight movies which Jeanette MacDonald made with Nelson Eddy. In these movies, one can see Mr. Van Dyke’s talent as well as his slight tendency toward risqueity. In addition, he seemed to like a dash of slightly goofy humor, which I call the “Woody Touch.” I think that San Francisco was his best movie, mainly because it lacks both the risqueity and the goofiness which are frequently apparent in the movies he directed. In addition, it shows an amazing amount of restraint and delicacy. Let’s take a few moments to consider the possibly troublesome elements which he handled well.


Firstly, this movie is a story of a wicked city which is brought to its knees by the disastrous earthquake which changed the city forever. The prologue describes San Francisco of 1936 as “splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent.” However, a movie which was not carefully self-regulated by Joseph Breen could have easily gone beyond the limits of good taste in its depiction of the sensuousness and vulgarity of the city. Mr. Van Dyke used a technique of showing brief, undeveloped vignettes of different scenarios to paint a picture. He also used big crowd scenes with quick shots of different individuals to convey ideas. There is no doubt about the fact that San Francisco is an immoral city. However, he didn’t bash the audience over the head with its immorality. Instead, he let different characters such as Father Mullin and Mrs. Burley tell us that the city is the wickedest in America and perhaps the world. Thus, he could get the effect and the Production Code Administration Seal of Approval at the same time.

Second, this was the beginning of a time in which priests were depicted frequently in movies by young, leading men type actors. In the pre-Code years, ministers of religion were rarely important characters in movies. However, with the appointment of the Irish Catholic Joe Breen at the PCA and the growing strength of the Catholic Legion of Decency, the filmmakers had reason to depict Catholicism more in movies. At first, Spencer Tracy, who was also a Catholic, was reluctant to depict a clergyman; he eventually decided to respectfully play the role of Father Mullin, which won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It also changed his career completely, since it shifted his role type from “heavies” to likable leading men. This movie paved the way for later priest-centered movies like Boys Town from 1938 and Going My Way from 1944.

When the initial idea of the movie was being pitched to Mr. Breen, the filmmakers were concerned that he wouldn’t allow the scene where Blackie punches Father Tim. They were pleasantly surprised when Mr. Breen said that he saw no objection to it. He agreed with them that it was a very important element of the plot. A return of violence from Father Tim at that point was out of the question. As a Christian and a priest, he of all people should avoid violence. However, Mr. Breen didn’t want it to be implied that Blackie was the stronger, tougher, or more masculine of the two men. Thus, he suggested that a scene of a good-natured boxing match between Blackie and Father Tim be included earlier in the story. In this scene, as I mentioned earlier, Father Tim delivers a walloping punch and knocks Blackie to the mat. Blackie comments that he’s a sucker, since he keeps fighting with Father Mullin even though he’s been beating him for twenty years. Mr. Breen himself had the idea for that scene. This was very important in setting up the later scene in which Blackie punches Father Tim. The priest could certainly have fought back, but he knows that fighting doesn’t solve anything. By not seeking vengeance, he turns the other cheek, which is just what Mr. Breen wanted.

Blackie is a somewhat difficult character, yet he is also a vitally important one, since his behavior and attitudes throughout the movie reflect the general moral tone in San Francisco at the time. It was necessary to use him as a clear portrait of the scoffing atheist. To achieve this, the filmmakers characterized him as a blasphemous heathen who mocks God and religion. He calls the church a “trap,” hymns “hokey-pokey,” religion “hocus-pocus,” and church-goers “suckers.” He bitterly says that Father Tim deserted him for “a bunch of plaster of paris saints” and later mockingly refers to the priest as “his holiness.” This is a very pointed mockery of Christianity, especially Catholicism, yet Mr. Breen allowed it because it was necessary to show Blackie’s conversion at the end of the movie. Also, the whole movie was not mocking religion; one character was blasphemous, but others supported and defended Christianity. That aside, Blackie Norton is a clear example of the fact that the PCA would allow irreligious characters in appropriate instances.

The earthquake scene is remarkable not only for its realism and effectiveness but also for its restraint. It took real talent to display such a violent and devastating event without being gory, yet Mr. Van Dyke succeeded. He dwells longer on objects such as a piano, a statue, and a wheel than on the human beings who are being crushed by the falling buildings. We see brief clips and images which tell us that many people are dying. We also see a few corpses, but they are not depicted gorily. They are shown briefly and with their eyes respectfully closed. He managed to show an extremely violent event without showing any carnage. To me, that is so much more effective and artistic than showing a bunch of blood and bodies.

To make this story of an immoral city which is cleansed by a cathartic earthquake a perfect Code film, one more element was necessary, compensating moral values. This was Mr. Breen’s favorite phrase for elements which, when added to movies with difficult topics, redeem them. There are different types of compensating moral values, and they are hard to describe and define. However, San Francisco certainly has them, and I can describe what they are in this movie; they are characters which act as a voice of morality in a sea of ungodliness. There were three main types of characters which frequently provided and delivered compensating moral values, and they were pure, virtuous maidens, wise old Irish mothers, and Catholic priests. Of course, clergymen of other denominations and mothers who weren’t Irish could deliver them as well. Somehow, the filmmakers usually decided to go all the way and make characters Catholic and Irish to please Mr. Breen. (Just for the record, he really didn’t have to be buttered up like that to be reasonable and agreeable, but many filmmakers thought he did.) This movie contains all three of these character types. Mary is the virtuous maiden, Mrs. Burley is the wise Irish mother, and Father Tim is the noble priest. These characters give a strong feeling of righteousness and how far the city is from it. Eventually, Blackie Norton and San Francisco align with them, but those three characters provided the compensating moral values which redeemed the film until that point.

This movie has a little bit of everything. It has a great cast and wonderful acting. It has wonderful music in the form of popular songs like “San Francisco” and “Would You,” opera scenes from Faust, and hymns like “The Holy City” and “Nearer My God To Thee.” It has a dynamic story with constantly changing forms of conflict. It has great drama plus a little humor. It has tense moments and tender ones. It has beautiful black and white cinematography. It is an accurate depiction of a historic event. It has religious elements which are prudently not overwhelmingly Catholic; no ceremonies of the church are shown in detail, and all the hymns which are used are English ones which were used by many denominations. It features romance and dynamic friendship. It shows the struggle of good versus evil and the ability for anyone to change. It has an extremely patriotic feeling at the ending. I love the end of this movie, since it is so inspiring. When all the San Franciscans walk over the hill, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I feel almost moved to tears. This movie shows the wonderful spirit of America which can never be killed. No matter what tribulations plague this country, Americans always pick themselves up and start again. They rebuild things better than they were before. San Francisco captured all that to me. Certificate No. 2180 was one which was truly deserved; it helped to make this movie the masterpiece that it is.

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8 thoughts on ““San Francisco” from 1936: Refined By Fire

  1. Pingback: “Life with Father” from 1947: The Disappearing Exception | pure entertainment preservation society

    • Dear Paul,

      Thank you so much! Your sincere compliments mean a lot to me. I appreciate the fact that you enjoyed my article. I have wanted an opportunity to write about this marvelous Code film since I first saw it several months ago, and out blogathon gave me the right opportunity.

      We look forward to your article about “Maytime!”

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan


  2. Pingback: Ring the Assembly Bell! Here Comes the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon! | pure entertainment preservation society

  3. Pingback: Ring the Assembly Bell! The “Singing Sweethearts Blogathon” has Arrived! | pure entertainment preservation society

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