“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, ”SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, ”SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for ”SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – ”SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.

“THE THIN MAN” (1934) Review

“THE THIN MAN” (1934) Review

Between 1934 and 1947, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released at least six movies based upon the characters created by detective novelist, Dashiell Hammett. The first and one of the two best was 1934’s ”THE THIN MAN”, based upon Hammet’s novel, also released in 1934. 

Produced by Hunt Stromberg and directed by W.S. Van Dyke, ”THE THIN MAN” is a murder mystery about a former detective named Nick Charles and his wealthy wife, Nora, who investigate the disappearance of an old friend of Nick’s named Clyde Wynant. When the latter’s mistress is found murdered, Wynant becomes the police’s prime suspect. Wynant’s daughter, Dorothy, asks Nick to not only find her missing father, but discover the identity of the real murderer.

William Powell and Myrna Loy first appeared in a movie with Clark Gable called ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Not only did that movie proved to be a hit, it also begat a very famous Hollywood screen couple. Producer Hunt Stromberg liked what he saw and decided to pair the two as Nick and Nora Charles, the witty and sophisticated married couple from Hammet’s mystery novel. Powell and Loy not only portrayed Nick and Nora simply as a loving husband and wife, but also two friends who clearly enjoyed each other’s company. And more so than in ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”, Powell and Loy were magic together. The two ended up working on twelve other films together. And even in mediocre fare like the later THIN MAN, they sizzled with a wit and charm that made them one of the best Hollywood screen teams in history.

Stromberg also included in the cast, the Irish-born ingénue Maureen O’Sullivan (from the ”TARZAN” fame) as the missing Clyde Wynant’s daughter, Dorothy; Nat Pendleton in his first of two THIN MAN movies as New York Police detective, Lieutenant Guild; Minna Gombell as Wynant’s greedy ex-wife, Mimi Wynant Jorgensen; future Hollywood legend Cesar Romero as Mimi’s gigolo husband, Chris Jorgenson; Porter Hall as Wynant’s attorney Herbert MacCauley; Natalie Moorhead as Wynant’s mistress, Julia Wolf; Edward Brophy as Julia’s gangster friend, Joe Morelli; as Harold Huber as the stool-pigeon Arthur Nunnheim; and Edward Ellis as the missing Clyde Wynant. As much as I try, I could not spot a bad performance from any of them. I was especially impressed by O’Sullivan’s performance as the seemingly normal Dorothy who seemed stuck in the middle of an eccentric and/or amoral family.

Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a married couple that also happened to be contract screenwriters at MGM, wrote the screenplay. They also received Academy Award nominations for their adaptation of Hammet’s novel and I have to say that they deserved the nomination. ”THE THIN MAN’ is a witty and rich story filled with memorable characters and an intriguing mystery that was neither too complicated or insulted the moviegoers’ intelligence. Even more interesting is the fact that ”THE THIN MAN” would prove to be one of the last Pre-Code movies that would be released before the onslaught the Hays Code enforcement on July 31, 1934. ”THE THIN MAN” was released in theaters on May 23, 1934. Hackett and Goodrich’s screenplay was filled with risqué dialogue and situations that made it clear that ”THE THIN MAN” was a Pre-Code film.

And director W.S. (“Woody”) Van Dyke did justice with not only a talented cast, but also with Hackett and Goodrich’s script. During his tenure as a contract director for MGM, Van Dyke had a nickname – “One Take Woody”. Van Dyke usually shot his scenes in one take, which guaranteed that he would complete his assignment on time. MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer loved him for this. Although Van Dyke was never known as one of Hollywood’s more gifted directors, he had a reputation for coaxing natural performances from his stars. This was very apparent in his direction of ”THIN MAN”. There is not a bad performance within the entire cast. Even better, he managed to keep the story rolling with a first-rate pacing – something that is very difficult to do for murder mysteries.

Some eight to nine months after its release, ”THE THIN MAN” collected Academy Award nominations – Best Director (Van Dyke), Best Actor (Powell), (Best Adapted Screenplay) Hackett and Goodrich, and Best Picture. Unfortunately for MGM, the movie was shut out by Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedy, ”IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT”. Well . . . even if the movie had failed to collect one Academy Award, I believe that it is still one of the best movies that was released during the 1930s.

”THE THIN MAN” was such a success that it spawned five sequels. Aside from 1936’s ”ANOTHER THIN MAN”, which proved to be just as good; the other four sequels turned out to be a ghost of its original success. If you want to see William Powell and Myrna Loy in action as Nick and Nora Charles, I suggest that you stick with this film and its 1936 sequel.