“SAN FRANCISCO – guardian of the Golden Gate – stands today a queen among sea ports – industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was — splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent – that perished suddenly with a cry still heard in the hearts of those who knew her, at exactly…

Five-thirteen A.M.
April 18, 1906

Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) owns a saloon, the Paradise Club, in the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco. Despite many attempts by his old friend Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy), a Roman Catholic priest, to push him toward reform, Blackie keeps up his lifestyle of gambling, atheism and debauchery.

Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is new to town, a transplant from Benson, Colorado who is a talented and classically trained singer. She’s down on her luck, with no job and having just lost her apartment to a fire.

Mary is desperate for work, and Blackie decides to hire her. She soon becomes a star and the main attraction at the Paradise Club, but The Professor (Al Shean), the club’s piano player, predicts that with a voice like hers she won’t be staying “on the Coast” for long.

(Image via Lady Lavinia 1932)
(Image via Lady Lavinia 1932)

As their personal and professional lives become increasingly complicated, time marches toward April 18, 1906, the fateful date from the film’s introductory text (quoted above).

San Francisco was directed by W. S. Van Dyke, reportedly with some assistance by D. W. Griffith. This film marked the first of three films starring the Gable/Tracy screen team; It was followed by Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940).

My first thought upon beginning San Francisco was, “Is Clark Gable reprising his role from Manhattan Melodrama, but in a different town?” His name is Blackie, he’s got the good-influence best friend (this time a man of the cloth played by Spencer Tracy rather than a lawyer played by William Powell). The Blackie of San Francisco is a bit more interesting than the Blackie of Manhattan Melodrama since he ends up running for political office and has aspirations and motives separate from the dirty ol’ world of gambling, but the characters are still quite similar!

(Image via Film Affinity)
(Image via Film Affinity)

Unfortunately this film doesn’t quite measure up to Manhattan Melodrama, which I consider a favorite from Gable’s filmography.

The songs are nicely delivered by MacDonald who was, of course, an incredibly talented vocalist. The performances are solid. The story has a decent level of drama to keep the viewer interested, but the plot isn’t quite as riveting or complex as I expected it to be.

The film doesn’t really reach its full potential for emotional impact and drama until the final 30 minutes, which begin with the shocking (and very nicely-staged, considering the special effects technology available at the time) earthquake montage scene.

This strong half-hour to end the film elevated it greatly for me, and made it well worth watching. I only wish that the film’s entire run time had been so powerful. The score: 3.5/5