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Gable stars – with the 1906 earthquake – in “San Francisco”

Updated: Jun 24, 2022


Clark Gable stars as nightclub owner Blackie Norton, and soprano Jeanette MacDonald as his songbird performer Mary Blake.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


Blu-ray; 1936; Not Rated

Best extra: “Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome” documentary

THE UNLIKELY pairing of Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald succeeds in making the love story/religious sermon/disaster movie (pretty much in that order) a curiosity at the very least.

It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke. The screenplay was written by Anita Loos, Robert E. Hopkins and (according to IMDB) an uncredited Herman G. Mankiewicz, from all of whom we might expect a better story. At best, “San Francisco” is a hoot and a holler, with Gable doing his dashing, bad boy thing; MacDonald doing her typical fair virginal maiden with the golden tonsils thing; and Spencer Tracy being the priestly (literally) voice of morality and, well, religion.

Set in 1906, just before the legendary earthquake leveled San Francisco, the film opens with Blackie Norton (Gable) and Father Tim Mullen (Tracy) sparring in a gym. The surprise reveal of Mullen’s backward collar comes after he flattens his old friend which, we learn, is what always happens. Blackie owns a popular nightclub, and he’s also running for political office so he can have a say in protecting businesses on the Barbary Coast, including his saloon.

(1&2) A fire breaks out in the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. Blackie Norton owner of the Paradise Cafe helps with the rescue. (3&4) Dancers at the Paradise Cafe, as Blackie welcomes guests.


When Mary Blake (MacDonald), a pretty young singer desperate for a job, shows up and gives Blackie an impromptu audition, he hires her and – surprise! – she’s a huge hit. Blackie and Mary fall in love and, after she proposes to him, plan to get married. Needless to say, flies soon appear in that ointment. Mary learns how selfish and cruel Blackie can be. Meanwhile, Mullen becomes determined not to let the devout Mary marry an atheist like his old buddy. She leaves Blackie, and a long segment follows in which she becomes an opera star and succumbs to an extravagant courtship by a real estate baron (Jack Holt), who lives in a castle.

We know, of course, that Mary can’t end up with the rich guy, but it’s going to take a massive earthquake and a rather silly religious epiphany to bring our co-stars back together. Sigh.


The black and white imagery (1.37:1 aspect ratio) on this Warner Brothers Archive Collection Blu-ray looks wonderful. It’s sourced from a 2K master from nitrate preservation elements. With a warm film grain, excellent contrast and detail, this extravaganza doesn’t let us down. The effects of the earthquake scenes are remarkable considering the year they were made – with a few exceptions in which it’s obvious they’ve used miniatures - and have tremendous impact. They deliver a good many thrills.

The HD audio restoration is also very fine, with realistic sound effects, especially well done during the earthquake and aftermath, which won an Academy Award for best sound. The musical numbers (and there are plenty) are all clean and well-balanced, with dialogue always intelligible. Subtitles are provided.

(1&2) Mary Blake auditions for Blackie. (3) Spencer Tracey plays Father Mullen, a childhood friend of Blackie. (4) After he hears Mary singing in Blackie’s club, the owner of an opera house tells her he thinks she belongs on his stage.



Viewers get a fine Warner Night at the Movies with two entertaining 1940 vintage travelogues (standard-def) on San Francisco and “Treasure Island,” about the artificial island in the Bay where a temporary, colorfully-lit village had been built for the 1939-40 Golden Gate Exposition; a brief alternate ending of the film; and a delightfully mind-blowing 1936 color cartoon called “Bottles.”

Originally aired on TNT in 1996, the “Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome” documentary is hosted by Liam Neeson and reveals some interesting facts about the movie star who was known for his rare modesty.

Gable made 66 movies and won an Academy Award for Best Actor (“It Happened One Night”), and shone in roles that varied from sexy rake to hilarious physical comic. His true-life story was as dramatic as any film. Those interviewed include Gable’s friends and co-stars Carroll Baker, Robert Wagner, Eli Wallach, Robert Stack, as well as two of Gable’s children.

One of them, Judy Lewis, was never acknowledged by him and was “adopted” by her mother, actress Loretta Young at a time when having a baby out of wedlock could ruin a film career. Lewis didn’t learn who her real father was until she was 31. Gable’s son, John Clark Gable, never met his dad since he was born six months after the actor’s death.

The documentary looks at Gable’s marriage to the love of his life, Carol Lombard, cut short when she died in a plane crash in 1942, while flying back from an overseas war bond-selling tour.

Gable served in the Air Force during the war and returned a decorated hero. He had a passionate affair with Grace Kelly, whom he met during the filming of “Mogambo” and, in 1954, married Kay Williams. Gable died in 1960 at the age of 69, soon after he finished shooting Arthur Miller’s “The Misfits,” with Marilyn Monroe. According to Gable’s wishes, Williams arranged for his body to be buried at L.A.’s Forest Lawn cemetery beside Carol Lombard.

— Peggy Earle

(1) After she quits the nightclub, Mary wows audiences at the opera. (2) She meets Jack Burley (Jack Holt), the real estate mogul who soon wants to marry her. (3) Backstage after a performance, Mary must decide between Blackie or Jack. (4) Mary has a triumphant curtain call at the Tivoli Opera House.


April 18, 1906 - San Francisco Earthquake

(1) An impressive special effects, in which Blackie rescues someone from a crevasse. (2) Blackie frantically searches for Mary amid the chaos and rubble. (3) Father Mullen leads Blackie to Mary at an earthquake refugee camp near the Golden Gate Bridge. (4) The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city’s 400,000 residents homeless. (5) The lovers reunite at last.


Movie Opening



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