There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).
What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.
Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.
Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.
An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.
Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.
That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.
Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.
He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.
Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.
I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?
If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?
Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.
Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.