San Francisco (1936)



Director:     W.S. Van Dyke.

Starring:     Clark Gable (Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (Father Mullin), Jack Holt (Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (Mat), Shirley Ross (Trixie), Margaret Irving (Della Bailey), Harold Huber ('Babe'), Edgar Kennedy (Sheriff), Al Shean (Professor), William Ricciardi (Signor Baldini), Kenneth Harlan ('Chick'), Roger Imhof ('Alaska'), Charles Judels (Tony).

love triangle set against the San Francisco earth quake


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

The infamous San Francisco earthquake occurred at 5:13 a.m., April 18, 1906. 

Its New Year's Eve, December 31, 1905.  Everyone shouts "Happy New Year!"  Among the revelers are the somewhat shady Blackie Norton, owner of the club Paradise, and Della (the local madam).  Blackie knows "everybody worth knowing".  There is a fire on the Barbary coast in the Bristol and the fire department saves two children.  Blackie went with one of the fire engines to see the fire.  Coming back to his club, Blackie passes by a young woman named Mary Blake looking for work as a singer.  Later she comes into the Paradise looking for work.  She explains to the head bouncer that her place just burned down in the fire, the one that Blackie had just watched.  He takes her to see Blackie.  She's a singer so Blackie tells her to start singing.  She does and her voice blows them away.  Blackie offers her $75 dollars a week and Mary promptly faints. 

When she recovers Mary tells Blackie that she is from Benson, Colorado near Denver.  She has only been in San Francisco a short time.  Her dad was a preacher who died four years ago.  Blackie likes her and tries to kiss her, but this really upsets her.  She is so upset that she starts to leave.  But Blackie just figures she has a beau back home in Benson.  He gives her some money for a ticket for her beau to come out to San Francisco.  When Blackie leaves she locks all the doors. 

Blackie is in the gym sparring with another man.  The fellow knocks Blackie down.  Blackie complains that the guy always knocks him down.  The fellow goes to change his clothes and when he returns we see that he is a Catholic priest named Father Tim Mullin. 

Some business associates come in and Blackie starts talking to them about Bristol burning down.  But the men didn't come to discuss that matter, but to ask Blackie to run for supervisor of San Francisco.  They feel he is the only man able to get decent fire codes for the city.  Blackie is interested.

A couple of swells from the Nob Hill crowd, Jack Burley and Signor Baldini, come in to speak with Blackie, trying to discourage him from running for supervisor.  While they are discussing the matter, the band leader of the Paradise tells Signor Baldini that their new singer Mary Blake is marvelous.  The men listen to Mary as she sings.  The two swells are very impressed.  Burley wants her for his opera house.  When they talk with Mary they find out that she has had a lot of experience with the opera.  Blackie feels his treasure is threatened and he tells Burley that she is under a two year contract.  Burley wants to buy out her contract, but Blackie refuses.

Blackie takes Mary over to meet Father Mulligan.  She sings with the boys' choir.  The Father is very impressed.  He asks her what she thinks about Blackie.  She says she is a bit afraid of him.  Father says that San Francisco is known as the wickedest, most corrupt city in the world, but tough-talking Blackie gave his church their new organ.  He says he would like to enlist Mary's help in turning Blackie away from evil to good.  He praises Blackie for having a code of no lying or cheating and no taking advantage of those weaker than him. 

A political rally for Blackie is held.  He gets a very good introduction from a politician who says that Blackie can get San Francisco some decent fire laws.  Blackie slugs a fellow who taunted him while he was speaking and complains about "those swells on Nob Hill". 

A woman named Trixie really likes Blackie and is upset when he only dances with Mary Blake.  Burley persists in trying to get Mary away from Blackie.  So Blackie tells Burley if she wants to leave me, you can have her contract for nothing.  But Blackie really wants to keep her.  There is a social event called the Chicken's Ball where they present a prize of $10,000 dollars to whomever puts on a performance that can be considered the most artistic achievement and he thinks Mary will win the money for him.  Blackie tells Mary that he is crazy about her.  She looks scared.  He tells her:  "I'm waiting four you to say I'm all right the way I am."  He kisses her.  Blackie is so happy that he gives his entire crew free champagne to celebrate.  Trixie glares at Mary. 

Blackie does not see Mary around.  Father Mullin tells him that he put her in a cab.  Mary is taking him up on his offer to let her leave if she wanted out of the contract.  The Father says that the Paradise is no place for her.  He adds:  "She'll be safe with Burley.  You see, she doesn't love him."  But at the opera house Burley tells Mary that he loves her and wants her to marry him.  On her big opening night Blackie comes to the opera.  He tells Burley that he is going to enforce Mary's contract and stop her during the performance.  He has brought a sheriff who will do the stopping.  Burley excuses himself and gets on the phone.  He calls a judge to get a restraining order to stop Blackie, but that might come too late.  So he offers Blackie $15,000 dollars for Mary's contract.  Blackie refuses. 

Blackie goes in to watch the performance.  Everyone seems to love her singing and they give her a loud applause.  Blackie is having second thoughts now that he sees how much of a success she is.  The sheriff gets up to shut the show down.  Blackie tells him to sit back down.  Burley, sweating, breathes a sigh of relief.  The sheriff sneaks out to go down to stop the performance.  After awhile Blackie realizes the sheriff is gone.  He chases after the man who is now arguing with a stage hand.  Blackie slugs the sheriff and tears up the enforcement document. 

Mary is the toast of the town.  Blackie waits for her back stage.  He tells her:  "You were all right tonight, kid.  . . . I was proud of you tonight."  Mary asks Blackie:  "Don't you love me?  . . . Will you marry me, Blackie?"  Father Tim comes in followed by Burley.  Burley is none too happy to hear the news of the engagement.  Blackie takes Mary down to the Paradise to perform the song "San Francisco".  Father Mullin goes to the Paradise to check on Blackie and Mary.  Blackie tells Mary that he wants to wait for marriage until after the election.  Father Mullin becomes very angry when he sees Mary in her gaudy performance outfit.  He scolds Blackie for "showing her off like this to the mob".  He adds:  "I'm not going to let you do this, Blackie.  You're not going to exploit this girl. . . . You're not going to marry her."  Now Blackie gets mad.  He slugs the Father causing his mouth to bleed.   Mary is shocked by Blackie's behavior.  When Blackie tells her to get out there on stage she refuses and leaves.  Blackie shouts to her:  "You leave now, you're never coming back."

Blackie has got big problems.  Burley uses his political power and connections to have the police start harassing the Paradise.  The police start tearing up his joint. 

Burley takes Mary to meet his mother.  Mary is a little bashful because Mrs. Burley is part of San Francisco's aristocracy.  Mrs. Burley, however, is very down to earth.  She says she came to San Francisco in '51 when the ratio of males to females was 150 to 1.  She fell in love with a man like Blackie: selfish and a sinful scoundrel.  But she gave him up "because he was killing my soul".  She married Mr. Burley and had a son and became contented. 

At the Paradise the police come in and charge Blackie with serving liquor without a license.  Blackie's people object that they have a license, but the police tell them that the license has been revoked.  Burley arranged the whole thing so Blackie would not be able to get the prize at the Chicken's Ball.  Blackie has not been able to make any money since the police started raiding the Paradise.  And now Blackie's political backers are backing out.  They say that the dispute between Blackie and Burley and his kind has become personal with Blackie.  To make matters worse, Blackie sees Mary's picture in the newspaper telling of her engagement to Burley. 

Mary does not want to go with Burley to the Chicken's Ball.  She does not want to run into Blackie.  Burley tells her that it's alright; he knows that Blackie will not be there.  (Little does he know that Blackie made a deal with the head of police to turn himself in the next morning.)  At the ball Della sees Burley and Mary.  She goes over to their table to tell Mary what she thinks of her.  She refers to Burley as the "town's number one rodent" and that they have padlocked the Paradise.  Della says that's what Blackie gets for taking Mary Blake out of the gutter.  All his staff has been thrown in jail and are being held without bail.  And Blackie faces the possibility of a year in prison.  Della leaves.  Mary is very upset at what she has heard. 

The host of the night says they have come to the last performance, but that no one has shown up for the Paradise.  Mary stands up and says that she will be representing the Paradise for Mr. Norton.  Burley tells her that he forbids her to do it.  Mary ignores him.  She soon has the entire audience singing along with her.  She easily wins the prize.  The audience gives her a huge ovation.  Blackie shows up, still mad at Mary.  He comes up on stage to tell everyone that he never told "this woman" she could represent him.  He throws the prize money onto the stage floor.  Mary is totally deflated at Blackie's reaction. 

The resulting confusion is ended with the start of a great rumbling.  It's an earthquake.  Mary looks over at Blackie to see a wall collapse on him.  She is extremely upset and shouts "Blackie!  Blackie!" as Burley picks her up to take her outside.  Many people are crushed by falling walls and falling statues and other items.  Blackie is able to get himself out from under the collapsed wall.  He frees a restaurant worker from the debris over him.  Blackie starts to be moved emotionally by the happiness he sees when families are reunited.  It seems he is starting to realize that maybe he has been missing out on something very important.  Blackie finds Burley dead under some debris.  He starts to look for Mary. 

There is suddenly more rumbling.  Live electrical wires start falling onto the road.  The fire departments find that the water main has been broken and they can't get any water to fight the fires. Blackie watches as San Francisco burns.  He continues his search for Mary.  He passes by the body of a man with a sign on him:  "Shot for looting."  Blackie goes from place to place with no luck.  They are now dynamiting the city to create a kind of fire break to stop the spread of the fire.  He goes up to Mrs. Burley's mansion.  He sees her leaving the mansion and she asks about her son.  She knows from his evasion of the question that her son is dead.   As they leave, the mansion is dynamited and falls into a heap.

Blackie starts checking out soup kitchens in his search for Mary.  Then he decides to look for Father Mullin in the hope that he might know where Mary is.  He finds him nursing the wounded.  Father Mulligan says:  "You haven't found Mary yet, have you?"  He asks a few questions of Blackie to see his current state of mind.  When he is satisfied he tells Blackie that he knows where Mary is.  He takes Blackie over to where Mary is.  She is singing with the others "Nearer my God to Thee". 

Seeing Mary singing, Blackie asks Father how the can say thanks to God for Mary's survival.  Father says:  "Just say what's in your heart."  He kneels down to pray.  Mary sees Blackie kneeling in prayer and she rushes to him.  They embrace and keep looking at each other.  Right at this moment of reunion someone shouts:  "The fire's out!"  Everyone becomes ecstatic.  The whole group start walking back toward the city singing another religious hymn.  Walking along with Blackie Mary sings along with the crowd.


Pretty good movie.  I kept wondering, however, when the earthquake was going to show up.  There are a lot of twists and turns in the love triangle between Blackie, Mary Blake and Burley.  At times I was mad at Mary for leaving Blackie without really trying to work things out with him.  All three people involved in the triangle have their flaws, which makes for a better movie.  It takes an earthquake to knock some sense into some people and it finally does make an appearance.  But that ending was just way too schmaltzy for me.  That could have been toned down, but those were different days back in the world of movie making in 1936.     Clark Gable and Jeanette McDonald were very good as well as Jack Holt as opera owner Burley. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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