“San Francisco” (1936) WB/MGM

The first significant disaster movie with credible special effects turns out to be a classic movie in several senses of the words.

Clark Gable stars as the charismatic bad boy Blackie, a Barbary Coast saloon owner in 1906. Spencer Tracy plays his serious childhood chum who’s become a priest and never tires of trying to convert Blackie to more moral ways. (Tracy’s 1st Oscar nomination.)

Jeanette MacDonald portrays an opera singer, torn between singing for her favorite man Blackie and for the city’s opera hall run by her conservative fiance played by Jack Holt. There are no less than four triangle relationships in the film including the above. Blackie and the priest also vie for the fate of MacDonald’s character. The opera manager’s mother also vies for MacDonald to marry her son. And a chorus girl is also pitted against MacDonald to win Blackie.

The film has olde cornball wise-guy one-liners, some opera singing by MacDonald and a few versions of “San Francisco”, the title song. It also has many realistic conflicts, several interesting minor characters, and many historic-looking sets.

In fact, there’s so much going for this film that you almost forget the suspenseful earthquake which steals viewers’ attention for the home stretch. A.W.S. Van Dyke accurately recreates the famous disaster with many realistic scenes and effects. I particularly like the scene in which the camera follows and tracks the two male stars as they walk into a large campground where survivors have gathered.

The ending is powerful and strangely hopeful and the DVD offers two endings to consider. There are also some nice extras to complete the package.

San Francisco is surprisingly entertaining with much to divert a viewer before, during, and after the earthquake. And many of the special effects are historically accurate and oddly affecting. Highly recommended.

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