San Francisco (1936)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Disaster Film, Period Film, Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - Jun 26, 1936 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 115 min.  |   Countries - Italy, United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Hans J. Wollstein

"I never will forget how that brave Jeanette just stood there in the ruins and sang and SANG!" belted Judy Garland in one of her memorable television specials. Garland had the audience in stitches, but Jeanette MacDonald took it well, it was said, and why shouldn't she have? San Francisco had removed her from the wooden Nelson Eddy and right into the arms of Clark Gable, with Spencer Tracy as her guardian angel, of sorts, to boot. MGM had assigned the dependable W.S. Van Dyke to direct this the company's second blockbuster of 1936. Nominated for both The Great Ziegfeld and San Francisco, Van Dyke ended up competing against himself at the Academy Awards, eventually losing to Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Perhaps that was fair enough. If Mr. Deeds stands as a testament to Capra's genius (and writer Robert Riskin's), both San Francisco and The Great Ziegfeld remain crowning achievements of the studio system, MGM-style. Quite a few writers worked on the screenplay to San Francisco, including Herman J. Mankiewicz and Anita Loos, but only the latter earned an onscreen credit. While Van Dyke obviously stood for the major portion of the direction, everyone from special effects designer James Basevi to, reportedly, D.W. Griffith had a hand in there, the latter often credited with helming MacDonald's rousing pre-earthquake rendition of Gus Kahn, Bronislau Kaper, and Walter Jurman's famous title song. Had there been an award for Best Special Effects in 1936, Basevi would almost certainly have won, San Francisco's earthshaking tremors remain far more effective than such later "spectacles" as Earthquake (1974), Panavision and Sensurround notwithstanding. Then again, maybe not -- nominated for Academy Awards in four categories, San Francisco lost in all of them, including Spencer Tracy as Best Actor, an honor which instead went to Paul Muni of The Story of Louis Pasteur. Forty-eight years later, the title song lost a bid to replace "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" as the city's official anthem.