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Starring: Clark Gable, Jeannette McDonald, Spencer Tracy
Screenplay: Robert E. Hopkins, Anita Loos, D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim (both uncredited)
Director: Woody Van Dyke, D.W. Griffith (uncredited)
San Francisco is a musical drama starring Gable as Blackie Norton, a dynamic, unscrupulous nightclub owner and gambler in the wild, godless San Fran of 1906, who employes wet-behind-the-ears, chaste Mary Blake (MacDonald) when he hears her sweet pipes. Mary is religious and has dreams of an opera career, and Blackie does his best to woo her and get her under contract. He’s taken by her, but controlling people is what he does.
Childhood friend, now priest, Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), tries first to warn Mary about Blackie, then comes on stronger when the two plan to marry. There are complications, even an earthquake reportedly staged by an uncredited D.W. Griffith, until Blackie finds God, discovering Mary has survived the great fire raging through the city. An unusually multiracial group of citizens joins hands and vow to rebuild the city.
This is not really my cup of meat, though Gable is charismatic and MacDonald pleasant enough. I take it her career was based mainly on her voice, which is a warbling, trilling thing in a style not heard for 50 years. It’s not even really operatic, though I guess it’s closer to that than anything else. She’s not bad to look at, not a bad actress, but no great shakes. Tracy was the reason I watched this, and he was somehow nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, losing to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur, the riveting drama about heating milk. It’s strange because it’s clearly a supporting role. Tracy is good in what may be the first of several priest roles, but hardly award material. There were five other nominations, for Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Story), Best Assistant Director, and it won for Best Sound Recording. Most of these categories are either eliminated or renamed today. For an old, formulaic film with a little of everything (romance, melodrama, musical), it’s well-done, but hardly memorable.