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Monday, December 18, 2023

Canon Fire #8


Among the One-Hundred: San Francisco (1936)

Was lying awake at the Beverly Garland Hotel in North Hollywood on January 17, 1994, at 4:30 am when earth beneath suddenly shook and it seemed some thing had picked up the structure entire and shook it for fifteen or so seconds. Wide awake I was anyway, so none of jolt was missed, and yes this was unmistakably an earthquake. First thought: What would Blackie Norton do? I leapt up to put on fewest clothes allowable and made hasty way to what seemed a safest retreat, the vacant end of Garland’s parking lot remote enough for buildings not to fall upon me, but what of fissures sure to open and swallow humans whole? Best I keep eyes affixed to ground and await grand mal the fate for us all. Thirty minutes was enough to figure doom as not imminent, so back inside and corridors littered with former child stars (we were there for an autograph/memorabilia show). Cheery day was spent driving deserted streets of L.A., then returning to news reports of mass hysteria to grip a city under nature’s siege. This then was when/where I came to realize televised reportage was/is lies. Before fiction became truth was time to get out of this town, and quick. We wangled a red eye that night and I was never happier to get shed of any place. Why recite the incident? Guess because for years of wishing I could be Blackie Norton, all of a sudden I was him, minus rescuing folk falling into quake-cracks, then falling upon knees to say “Thanks God … I really mean it!”

Frisco's Market Street But Days Before the Earthquake and Fire

San Francisco was the first big all-talking disaster movie. There had been silents to show earth move, but this was earthquaking on a scale film till then dared not attempt, MGM’s gift to thirty years since April 1906 when fissures nearly swallowed a great city whole, with fire to do the destructive rest. A favorite for me yes, from 1974 and a bootleg print to campus-play and hopefully tie in with Poseidon and Infernos filling seats elsewhere. Loveable rascal George Ashwell took the 16mm off me as partial trade toward The Searchers a year later or maybe I’d have it yet. Came to realize that many of my Canon 100 were just titles to first enter collecting’s door, no sentiment equal to that for favorites I got to own and watch at will. San Francisco was another with narrative compelling enough that you almost forget the quake is coming, thus surprise, if delight, when suddenly walls are falling upon Clark Gable and company. He's Blackie, quintessence of all that was Gable, an atheist to make sound argument for all atheists till nature sets him right. It wasn’t common for godless characters to lead, or for religion, or lack of it, to be a dominant issue. A friend in college watched my print and deplored Blackie kneeling-in-prayer for a finish. He went to divinity school after we graduated and became a Navy chaplain. Them that doth protest too much, as the wise Bard said. San Francisco was first of priest parts for Spencer Tracy. He would do these often as Chaney Jr. did the Wolf Man. Tracy’s Father Tim Mullin demonstrates man-chops by punching Blackie out at play-sparring, this early in San Francisco and a scene that will rhyme to dramatic effect later.

W.S Van Dyke Directs Jeanette MacDonald

Writing was by Anita Loos, whose proudest work for films this was. She would stay up late in old age to watch it on NY television. Story was brainchild of Robert Hopkins, a studio gadfly who’d come up with one after other story premises expressed in a mere sentence, those in his wake wondering why they never thought of it. He and Loos had grown up in Frisco, still thought the spot home, preferred it to pretend grandeur that was Los Angeles. Loos spoke of this in a nice afterward for her 1978-published screenplay of San Francisco. The project began with Thalberg --- actually it was Jeanette MacDonald to push hardest. She had heard Hopkins’ pitch and thought it ideal for her and Gable. Nice to hear when an actress got a venture through thickets; you figure she must have had brass to make an eventual blockbuster happen, and I wonder how much thanks or credit she got for San Francisco. Gable supposedly didn’t want his part for figuring to merely sit staring while MacDonald sang, a legitimate concern, so thanks be to Gable being under contract and obliged to be Blackie, plus other roles he at first disdained (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, GWTW). What lore there is from San Francisco is way past tense, just tales retold from books themselves writ long ago, researchers long denied access to MGM production files that would give more detailed accounts. There is happily the picture itself, available on Blu-Ray. San Francisco was the most profitable in-house film MGM had during the thirties (runner-up: Boy’s Town), customized from a start to satisfy the boxoffice by whatever means possible.

Here and Below: Photos Taken in the Wake of the Quake

Vaude vets, traveling players, making landfall at Metro by 1936, would remember the Quake. Thirty years for them was mere wink of an eye. Many of the current industry walked in Frisco rubble. Director Mervyn LeRoy, soon to (re)join MGM, was an S.F. boy when it happened, gave account in his memoir. John Barrymore was grown, but boyish still, potted though earth shook below him, still in evening clothes from night before revels, just like Blackie in the movie. George O’Brien was raised in Frisco, his father the city’s police chief. Caruso had sung “Carmen” the night before, saw carnage from his luxury hotel window. Jack London also was a witness and wrote of it. San Francisco in 1936 was not far removed from events, as though we did a docu on what went down in 1993 (floods in the Midwest that killed fifty, but will an all-star feature be made of it?). There was drama in a city levelled, more so a modern city. You Tube has a wonderful tour of Frisco downtown a mere four days before the disaster, eleven minutes that has been stabilized, remastered, colorized, a mosaic of old film spruced up. We see that indeed San Fran was modern, footage shot from inside a streetcar going slowly down Market Street, a priceless view of life being lived on eve of catastrophe. There are motorcars, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclers, all operating on instinct and largely free of cops herding traffic. This is near enough to life today for one-hundred-twenty years to seem less far off. I half expect to pass Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club or see “Mary Blake” (MacDonald’s character) cross the street.

Quake creation by Metro was handiwork of Slavko Vorkapich, of Croatia, later France, ultimately the US. He did experimental films that got attention, also montages. For Leo to entrust him with their earthquake was bold, Slavko staging like nobody in mainstream features, his quick-cuts as much a startle as the melee itself. I recall in ’74, first time seeing SF w/arrival of the print, being less entranced by tricky technique than sustained shots where streets opened beneath Blackie/Gable and he has to pull out a civilian falling in. This must really have wowed patronage in 1936. Fire and explosion that follow temblors have much of mattes and process work, but still impress for scale alone, a then-public much more conversant re the event than any of us now. They likely would have known or at least met ones who were there. History tells of horror the movie addresses, if with discretion. We learn of looters shot on sight, as screen-depicted by one of them dead and strapped to a post with a sign around his neck. People hopelessly trapped would beg to be finished off by rifles to quell misery, lots of them accommodated. Rats got at those pinned underground. I love dark history. Then as in Galveston were fingers cut off corpses to collect rings, summary dealing with such outrage the same. Three to thirty-five hundred died, apx. eighty-percent of the city destroyed. San Francisco gets at despair of victims rather like Gone With the Wind later with Atlanta victims, and I wonder if Selznick looked to Metro for inspiration. Direction was W.S. Van Dyke, who as a small child lived in Frisco and worked with his mother in variety. Silent stars on their uppers show up as extras or bits. Chances are Van Dyke knew or had worked with them all.

San Francisco
in fact celebrated filmic past and artisans dated back to when SF structures gave way much as had employment for industry starters. “Realizing the pioneer work performed by the earlier stars in the film industry, instructions were recently passed on to directors, producers, and casting officials by Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that the screen’s pioneers were to be given preference in casting important roles in MGM productions.” San Francisco was credited as alone for “bringing to the screen more famous screen personages than have ever been presented before in one picture.” Some like King Baggot and Rhea Mitchell went back to a 1918 serial Van Dyke directed; imagine his reunion with them here. Also Flora Finch of co-starring fame with John Bunny … frankly too many names to mention, a more-less list at IMDB and other places. Outstanding of the post-celebrated lot was D.W. Griffith, invited to spend a day on the set and to direct a brief scene, former pupil Van Dyke ceding his megaphone to the once-master. Much publicity was reward for the gesture, Griffith used to being exploited by press, little work to result, but he likely knew that going in. Someone had asked Thalberg why they wouldn’t hire DWG to helm features anymore, “It just … wouldn’t work out” a terse reply to convey volumes. Griffith arrived to find a director’s chair with his name upon canvas (we could wonder if they let him take it home). He was said to have gotten deep into the moment, intense rehearsal and coaching as in yore, plus a retake he thought necessary. Full set applause was expected reward, then “so long” and thanks for coming. No, this was not a cruel business even if at times it seemed so. Leo as easily could have left these relics at home and alone. Observe lion output well through a Classic Era and beyond for old-timers constantly given jobs.

Cynicism becomes Blackie Norton as it did most of Clark Gable’s prewar characters, him forever the man who knew motives of other men, and as much women's, for selfish device all were. Never bitter over simple truth as he saw it, Gable characters navigated a Depression on strict survival of fittest terms and never finished last, except if he did murder like in Manhattan Melodrama (where he was another Blackie), or otherwise squared himself with the state as in Hold Your Man and No Man of Her Own. San Francisco puts Gable before higher authority that is God himself, to which Blackie, indeed any Gable creation, must submit. Rules chiseled deep on Code tablets made Gable, in fact any too-singular man (like also Cagney at Warners), submit meek, if at tail ends of narrative, so patrons put wise by word-of-mouth could leave the theatre at bowing point and spare themselves seeing idols give in, or onscreen die. One could only “be” Clark Gable by surviving all his adventures, at the least keeping attitude intact. Gable as knowing truth of life and bending it to his will was food of China Seas, Mutiny on the Bounty, in-the-know to extreme in Too Hot to Handle, the deity again his opponent for Strange Cargo, pulling scams in Honky Tonk, another candidate for walking out on a third act. “Peter Warne” in It Happened One Night brought Gable deserved Best Actor plaudit for supplying Claudette Colbert, and us, much welcome instruct for dodging Depression potholes, Gable the ideal companion to navigate reality’s bumpy road. His credo was ideal to the thirties, less so after a war Gable helped win but found himself less relevant for doing so. Maybe it was so many men and women now knowing the score that made Gable’s persona less needed to instruct. Many noted how he “changed” after the conflict, certainly his vehicles did. Lucky for the venerable star to by then have accumulated such reservoir of good will as to sustain a career to its finish, if a premature one, but could Gable have fit at all in dread onrush that was the sixties?

The Golden Gate bridge was nearing completion, in fact did complete, as San Francisco made eleven-month run across a more-than-receptive marketplace, that the general play-off period for major releases past first-runs to eventual fade in small towns and grind placement. San Francisco was a must-see for being first to place viewership inside a disaster, to feel carnage as it happened, a come-to-life tableau like what the St. Louis fair did for Galveston in 1904. San Francisco was in short, the picture you had to see in 1936-37. L.B. Mayer declared it best after an initial screening: “Now that’s what I call a prestige picture!” Concept of a great city restoring itself mirrored America as a still-struggling whole, though light, if faint, was visible from most tunnels, and fun of seeing others in worse straits could not be underestimated. San Francisco was also time-out for sentimental journey to a Barbary Coast, rogues living to suit themselves, a fighting priest, times we’d like reliving save the Earthquake. San Francisco was like 1933’s The Bowery if less rude. Still there are shocks not from earth moving, but dialogue you'd not expect to stay in. Blackie’s coming on to Mary is at first resisted, a posture new to him. “You don’t have to stall me, honey,” he says, figuring MacDonald/Mary for soiled dove off pavements, “I guess you got some john on the street, is that it?” That last surprised far back as first viewing, for even then I knew a “john” related to prostitution … in fact defined as a client or customer of a prostitute, which Blackie assumes Mary is. I checked the script as credited to Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins, where the line reads, “I guess you’ve got some john on the string, haven’t you?” Did Gable paraphrase, or was there rewrite on the set? “Street” and “string” convey different meaning if slight. Just the fact “john” was spoke at all in a Code release makes me wonder if overseers understood gravity of the word. Hopkins “unearthed” what was referred to as early century slang for pressbook purpose, “some John on the string” said to mean “new boyfriend.” (note capitol “J” as if to suggest an individual named “John”). I suspect he knew better and just made that up to rinse off a gamey line snuck in for this occasion to otherwise well-policed content.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Gable looks more like John Carroll in that color photo. As for TV news being lies, I quote a former colleague who used to work at NBC News. "Their number one job," she said, "is to scare you."

12:22 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Another bit of history: For years and perhaps decades, the official death toll was aggressively lowballed, to help lure back skittish capital.

Years ago, a slightly eccentric friend called to report she was watching "San Francisco" on TCM. I asked if they'd got to the earthquake yet and she blew up at me. She said I'd given away a big surprise twist, although it's a bit boggling to think anybody EVER went into that movie not expecting it.

A lifelong Bay Area resident, I still remember the 1989 quake. One consequence is that, to this day, I lay out all my clothes for quick dressing in the morning. That includes underwear and socks, plus pants with everything in pockets. I'm also disinclined to spend time in tall buildings anywhere.

For a long time the Universal Studio Tour included a quake scene set in a San Francisco BART station. Struck me as mean spirited somehow, as Universal's "Earthquake" epic was set in Los Angeles. Hitting tourists to LA with a realistic LA quake was likely deemed bad for business.

Fox eventually responded with "In Old Chicago", casting Tyrone Power as a Blackie type whose mother, the widow O'Leary, owns a cow ...

When the Nazis finally completed their big propaganda movie about the Titanic, it couldn't be shown in Berlin. By that time the city was being bombed, and a movie that ended with mass panic and death wasn't something you wanted in a crowded theater. Also, the whole point of the film was to blame carnage on the people in charge.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Neat symmetry of your 30 year memory and the chronological distance between the great San Francisco earthquake and the MGM version. My first visit to LA involved a stay at the old Beverly Garland in fall of '95.

I'm afraid I've always preferred the 20th Century Fox imitation IN OLD CHICAGO, but hold SAN FRANCISCO close to the heart for purely sentimental reasons: this is the movie my father, my mother and most of my mother's siblings and cousins chose to watch at a family reunion years past. This warhorse won over the elders just as it had decades earlier, the seniors all declaring it was just great, timeless, terrific etc. (the younger generations, as I recall - not so much. They held their tongues but were more amused by the geezers' reactions.) Anyhow, this was the last time so many of these relatives were all together, the closest such reunions henceforth were funerals for the missing!

5:01 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

To my mind, the most impressive of 30’s Hollywood’s disaster simulation movies is Fox’s “The Rains Came”, set in India. I think for sheer jaw-dropping impact its recreations of earthquake, flood and the ensuing destruction outdo what’s on display in both “San Francisco” and “In Old Chicago”. I believe 1939 was the year the Academy first instituted an annual Special Visual Effects award and “Rains” – not surprisingly – took it. Certainly the stunning effects were key to the film’s popularity. But the story, portrayed by a top cast including Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy, was pretty good too. Also featured was the usually endearing Nigel Bruce as a decidedly nasty type.

8:38 PM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

These days San Francisco seems to considered a terrific film, with better-than-CGI special effects, a compelling story and terrific performances, especially by Gable. The bluray helps it immensely.

However it does seem as if the film was looked upon as campy and outdated, a mere 25 years after its release, based on the laughter to that derisive prologue written for Judy Garland to sing prior to launching into San Francisco at her legendary and recorded Carnegie Hall concert of 1961.

Judy absolutely (and unfairly,IMO) ridicules the then-still living Jeanette MacDonald, who "just stood there in the ruins and sang- ah ah ah and saaaaang." Did great star Jeanette snub the up and coming adolescent Garland? Whatever the reason, Jeanette's performance - and even her usually maligned singing deserved better treatment.

9:13 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

For me, the great exchange is near the end when Gable tells Tracy he wants to pray but doesn't know how. I think Father Spencer says something to the effect of, just say what's in your heart. So Blackie looks up and says, "Thanks, God. I really mean it." The closing shot of 1906 ruins dissolving into modern-day LA ranks with great endings, much like the end of UNION PACIFIC, when the two steam engines touch, followed by an iris wipe of a modern Streamliner speeding past us.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

'Frisco Jenny' also has a nifty depiction of the earthquake, and it is integral to that film's plot; but that film continues the story of its central character right into the present day - that is to say, to 1932.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

FRISCO JENNY is a dandy William Wellman flick! And, yes, they get the earthquake out of the way pretty early in the running time. But this one has a very memorable ending.

7:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers memories SAN FRANCISCO evokes:

The passing of time is, in a sense, entirely subjective. What seems to us to be arcane or quaint about some period now past, especially as it may have been depicted not so long after, may have been seemingly just a moment before for another generation. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 would have been just thirty years before the release of the movie, “San Francisco.” As you’ve noted, it would have been within the living memory of many of those who made the movie and would watch it in the theaters. What would be the equivalent for those of us living in the present time, with its own tumult and challenges? The events on September 11, 2001? Or will we look back on the January 6th incident as being a harbinger of vast changes we could not have been anticipated then?

Each generation leaves its memories to the next and the next after that, and so on. One of the more regrettable expressions of our time is “my truth is,” as though truth is mutable in some way. It is not, yet those aspects of it that we recognize and acknowledge can change with the passing of time and the vagaries of memory.“San Francisco,” moving picture that it is, is also a snapshot of what a generation remembered, and what they remembered is what seemed important to them. In this, we find an indomitable spirit that derived hope from past struggles in which it was revealed, triumphant. Whether such a spirit will pervade our memories of what is going on now is another question entirely.

7:48 AM  

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