Clark Gable supposedly didn’t get along with Jeannette MacDonald while the two filmed “San Francisco,” the great MGM film from 1936. Despite their lack of chemistry off the set, their relationship in the film seems believable and effective. In San Francisco, Gable plays a saloon owner on the Barbary Coast named Blackie Norton. In those loose times around 1900, Norton buys and sells influence and fights the big shots living in the Nob Hill mansions. All kinds of vice happens at his club, which is named the “Paradise Cafe.”
MacDonald shows up in full innocence as Mary Blake, a girl from Colorado who sings opera. Blackie gives her a job, and she begins performing for his rowdy crowd. Slowly but surely, Blackie begins to respect her talent, beauty and spirit. He signs her to a 2-year contract, which becomes a problem when the local opera impresario, Jack Burley (Jack Holt), attempts to sign Mary to his Tivoli Opera Company. Mary must decide whether to honor her contract or jump to the opera. She also falls in love with Blackie, an incongruous event that drives the plot of the movie. The enormously powerful Burley, a Nob Hill baron, falls in love with Mary as well. Spenser Tracy’s Father Mullin looks after her too, only because, as Blackie’s best friend, the good priest wants to shield Mary from Blackie’s darker side.
Adding to the busy plot, Blackie’s neighbors get him to run for the city council so he can improve the fire laws on the Barbary Coast. This pits him against Burley again, and Burley holds most of the cards. Screenwriter Anita Loos adds yet another wrinkle when the Barbary Coast denizens sponsor a song contest, which could go well for Blackie if Mary decides to sing. I credit director Woody Van Dyke for keeping all these elements together in a coherent story, especially since the everything gets upended in the climactic earthquake scenes at the end.
I am very happy to report that the great singer Jeannette MacDonald sings “San Francisco” in the movie in a naturalistic style. I often wished she would abandon the operatic style but it’s almost always there and you can’t argue with her immense talent. I just prefer the cabaret style for certain songs. The film also shows her doing “Faust” at the opera house, so we get to see her versatility. Gable doesn’t sing at all, but since he is his usual powerful and brash self, a song or two from him would have been too much.