As I sit here writing this, I’m snowed in, my asthma’s acting up, and our cat is quickly losing patience with me. On the plus side, however, this weather has given me an opportunity to watch some more of the old best picture nominees that I had saved up on my DVR.
For instance, I just finished watching the 1936 best picture nominee, San Francisco.
San Francisco was one of the first disaster films, a film that follows a group of characters as they attempt to survive the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the town of San Francisco. And it has to be said that, nearly 80 years after the film was first released, the climatic earthquake remains effective and scary. San Francisco, of course, was made long before there was any such thing as CGI. Many of the film’s sets were built on special platforms that were designed to shake back and forth, just like in an actual earthquake. When you see walls and buildings collapsing in San Francisco, you know that those walls are breaking apart and collapsing for real and the extras running for their life are literally doing just that. After the earthquake, Clark Gable, as the film’s hero, walks through the ruins of San Francisco with the haunted look of a true survivor. Gable was such a confident actor that it’s still jarring to see him looking overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, before you get to that spectacular earthquake, you have to sit through the rest of the film. It’s a massive understatement to say that the pre-earthquake portion of San Francisco drags. Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a notorious gambler and saloon keeper. Blackie may be a rogue but he’s a rogue with a heart of gold. His childhood friend, Father Tim (Spencer Tracy), wants Blackie to run for the board of supervisors. Blackie, however, is more interested in Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), the newest singer at his club.
From the minute she first appears to the very end of the film, Jeanette MacDonald is singing. Even when she’s not at the center of the scene, you can often hear her singing in the background. And, after a little while, you just want her to stop singing. But, whenever that happens, she tries to act and you realize that the only thing more boring than Jeanette MacDonald singing is Jeanette MacDonald acting.
Anyway, the film goes through all of the expected melodrama. Blackie wants to reform. Blackie decides not to reform. Father Tim believes that there’s good in Blackie. Father Tim gives up on Blackie. Father Tim decides to give Blackie another chance. Mary loves Blackie. Mary fears Blackie. Mary leaves Blackie. Mary comes back to Blackie. Mary leaves Blackie again. Mary sings. And sings and sings and sings…
But then, just when you’re about to fall asleep, the city starts to shake and all is forgotten in the wake of a natural disaster. Even earthquakes serve a purpose…
San Francisco was a huge box office success. It was nominated for best picture. Somehow, Spencer Tracy received a nomination for best actor, despite the fact that he’s really not that impressive in the film. (His role is primarily a supporting one and he’s consistently overshadowed by Gable.) The only Oscar that San Francisco won was for best sound recording and it must be said that, after all these years, the earthquake still sounds terrifying.
As for the film itself, I’d suggest skipping ahead to the earthquake. That, after all, is the main reason anyone would be watching the film and, by skipping ahead, you’re spared having to sit through an hour and a half of Jeanette MacDonald singing.