San Francisco (1936)

<strong class="MovieTitle">San Francisco</strong> (1936)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) One of my working hypotheses in my Grand Unified Theory of Hollywood is that everything was invented during the 1930s, and we’ve been running variations on a theme ever since. San Francisco is another validation of that statement, as it credibly sets up the template that later disaster movies would follow closely. Set during the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco features no less than Clark Gable as an atheistic saloon owner and gambler. Then popular singer Jeanette MacDonald is the love interest, while Spencer Tracy has an early role as a Catholic priest fit to act as the protagonist’s conscience. Much of the early film is spent showcasing the city as it existed at the turn of the century and setting up the dramatic conflicts that will be settled definitively by the earthquake. For modern viewers, there’s also another kind of suspense: How, exactly, are the filmmakers going to portray the impending disaster on-screen? Is it going to look effective to our modern CGI-jaded eyes? That question is answered convincingly two thirds of the way through with an utterly thrilling sequence in which real-world sets are split apart. It’s a long and still-impressive moment in the movie as characters scream, building crumble and even the era’s limitations in special effects technology can’t quite diminish the importance of the moment. Once the disaster is over, it’s no surprise if our atheistic character had found God and his love interest, affirming San Francisco’s Phoenix-like endurance. The slightly historical nature of the film, looking backwards twenty years, actually gives it an interesting weight that the speculative disaster films of the 1970s can’t quite match. While primitive by today’s SFX standards, I found San Francisco surprisingly enjoyable when it gets on with the show, and prescient as to how it creates a template for an entire subgenre to follow.

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