Sunday, January 27, 2013


Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I got to see all of the popular disaster movies of the day from Earthquake (1974) to Dante’s Peak (1997). With the special effects and CGI of modern movies, it is pretty easy to create a disaster movie. However, in my opinion one of the first disaster movies was San Francisco (1936). The movie has been listed as a musical as well as a drama, but I consider it a disaster movie. For 1936 the special effects are pretty good, and like many modern disaster movies there are central characters that seem to over come terrible hardships.

Based on the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the film was the top grossing movie of that year, stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy. The then very popular singing of MacDonald helped make this film a hit, coming on the heels of her other 1936 blockbuster, Rose Marie. The Internet Movie Database reports that famous silent film directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim contributed to the screenplay without screen credit. Griffith also helped direct the famous earthquake sequence.

The earthquake montage sequence was created by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich. The Barbary Coast barroom set was built on a special platform that rocked and shook to simulate the historical temblor. (Similar sets were built for the 1974 disaster film Earthquake).

There are two versions of the ending. The original release features a stylish montage of then-current (1936) scenes of a bustling San Francisco, including Market Street and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. When the film was re-released in 1948, it was thought these scenes were dated and the film fades out on a single long shot of the modern business district. However, the TV and 16mm versions of the film seen in the 1950s and 60s were struck from the original version which includes the montage. The current DVD and cable version features the shorter, 1948 version.

Gable and Tracy also made two other films together, Test Pilot and Boom Town, before Tracy eventually insisted on the same top billing clause in his MGM contract that Gable had enjoyed, effectively ending the American cinema's most famous screen team. Gable had played a similar character also named "Blackie" two years earlier in the smash hit gangster epic Manhattan Melodrama, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Even though many movie books and critics consider the film a musical, it really only contained the title song in the film. The title song may be the best-remembered part of the film. It was composed by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It is sung by Jeanette MacDonald a half-dozen times in the film, and becomes an anthem for the survivors of the earthquake. It has now a popular sentimental sing-along at public events such as the city's annual earthquake commemoration. Early in the film the song "The Darktown Strutters Ball" can be heard; this is a historically inaccurate inclusion, since the song was written in 1917. During the two operatic scenes in the film, MacDonald sang excerpts from Charles Gounod's Faust and Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata.

While I was impressed with the screen compatibility of Clark Gable, Jeannette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy, to me the true star of the film was the earthquake itself. The finale of the earthquake which is what we are waiting for. And what a spectacle it is!! It is very well done in those days before sophisticated special effects; with tumbling buildings, crashing walls and the inevitable fire. There are a couple of poignant scenes when the firefighters must blow up buildings and homes to control the fire thus destroying lifetimes of work and memories.

The ending is a little bit over the top as those who have lost their families and all that they own, joyously sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and march up the hill to view the destruction (I'm not sure I would be that upbeat)......but it is still effective. The fade to the modern day (1936) San Francisco is just the right ending note. Before the earthquake, you see people stressing over trivial things, and then after the earthquake people realize what is important in life. History repeats itself from earthquakes to the terrorism on September 11, 2001. Society faces hardships and continues on. I think that San Francisco in 1936 was one of the first movies that showed this kind of a disaster that hits humanity every generation. It may have been the first disaster films but it won't be the last...


  1. I've never seen this movie, but not for lack of trying. Now, after reading your post, I'm really keen to see it, especially the earthquake scene(s).

  2. I haven't seen this for years. Now, having lived through one cataclysmic SF earthquake ('89), I'm interested to revisit how "the Big One" was depicted by Hollywood. Coincidentally, have recently been catching up on Golden Age disaster films, "In Old Chicago," "The Rains Came"...

  3. "San Francisco," 1936 is one of the all time greats from the MGM studios. Romance, religion, friendships gone wrong and music! Special effects not to be touched since "King Kong" in 1933. Love it!