Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

San Francisco (1936)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

San Francisco (1936)

In director W.S. Van Dyke's dramatic disaster film (it was the first big budget disaster film), it was most noted for its lavish, big-star production and period drama, and its spectacular special effects:

  • set on San Francisco's Barbary Coast in 1906 at the turn of the century, the arrogant Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) owned the bawdy gambling hall and beer garden known as Blackie's Paradise Cafe-Saloon
  • Blackie hired down-and-out, classically-trained singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), the daughter of a Midwestern country minister, to sing in his cabaret establishment, and soon after fell in love with her
  • one of Blackie's boyhood friends, Catholic priest Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) of St. Anne's Mission, had followed a different path in life - a contrast was clearly set up between a devoutly-religious figure and a crooked athiest; Father Mullin was introduced in a boxing match against Blackie and successfully knocked down his opponent
  • at the same time, Mary was soon discovered and in great demand by Maestro Signor Baldini (William Ricciardi) and other operators of the city's Tivoli Opera House, including its owner - wealthy Nob Hill socialite-patrician Jack Burley (Jack Holt); a rivalry developed for Mary's opera singing talents and romantic attentions, but she was in a solid two-year contract with Blackie in his nightclub
  • knowing that her reputation would be sullied if she stayed with Blackie, although she loved him, Mary finally quit and left Blackie, and was about to perform in her debut concert at the Tivoli Opera House; Blackie threatened to serve an injunction to prevent her from singing in the opera house (due to his contract with her), but when he heard her singing, he changed his mind; in her dressing room after the opera's finale, Mary proposed to Blackie (he responded that his acceptance of marriage required her return to the Paradise)
  • Mary was faced with a dilemma - if she married Blackie, she wouldn't be able to broaden her career in opera at the Tivoli; although Mary was in love with Blackie and briefly returned to the Paradise with him, she ultimately left Blackie's place, turned down marriage to him, and decided to accept a more respectable proposal of marriage to his rival - Nob Hill aristocrat and political operative Jack Burley
  • due to Burley's connections with city officials and the police department, he was able to bring pressures to bear on the Paradise to close it down - it was raided, its liquor license was revoked, and its workers were arrested
  • on the night of the raid, at the city's annual "Chicken Ball" (on the late evening of April 17, 1906), each of the Barbary Coast's clubs was in competition for the grand prize (usually won by Blackie's club) in a crowded music hall; to support the Paradise Saloon (without Blackie's approval), and knowing that it was facing pressures to close, Mary sang a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of "San Francisco" and won the top honors; however, Blackie angrily refused the prize money of $10,000 - he tossed the prize cup and gold coins to the stage floor, and angrily told a humiliated and surprised Mary that she shouldn't have supported the club
  • the next morning at 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, at the start of the film's conclusion, the city of San Francisco was shaken to its foundations by underground rumblings - it was the start of a stunningly realistic 20-minute earthquake and fire sequence with spectacular special effects (including the splitting apart of the earth, broken watermains and sparking electrical wires, and toppling buildings, plus the fiery aftermath)
  • Blackie began a search through the rubble at Nob Hill for Mary, and happened to see the corpse of Jack Burley; at a temporary Salvation Army refugee camp set up in a large grassy park for the homeless, Blackie and Father Mullin heard Mary's voice - she was alive on a hillside and singing the hymn: "Nearer My God to Thee"
  • on his knees after surviving the devastating quake, Blackie confessed his thanks to God for also saving Mary; as she walked toward him and they were reunited, shouts from the crowd announced that "the fire's out" in the devastated city; some even cried out: "We'll build a new San Francisco"
  • with the throngs of people, Blackie and Mary began to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they marched arm-in-arm from the park to return to the city
  • a dissolve from the ruined city transitioned to a view of the reconstructed city, accompanied by the reprised sound of the title song: "San Francisco"

Mary Singing "San Francisco"

The Sequence of The Devastating Earthquake

On a Hillside, Mary Sang with the Crowd: "Nearer My God to Thee"

Reunited and Hearing: "The fire's out" - They Joined in to Sing: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Marching Back to the City While Singing

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