San Francisco (1936) is a four-star film at Turner Classic Movies. It stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy, and is set in the months leading up to the 1906 earthquake. IMDB says it is about “A Barbary Coast saloonkeeper and a Nob Hill impresario [who] are rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer …”
It would be more accurate to say that the saloonkeeper (Gable) and impresario (Jack Holt) sexually harass and assault the singer (MacDonald) until she agrees to marry one or the other in order to get some relief and be allowed to work, all while a tough-guy priest (Tracy) issues stern warnings about the states of their souls.
“You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt city, most Godless city in America,” Tracy says. “Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end’s going to be.”
As with most melodramas, the end is that most of the wicked get punished. To be fair, the innocent are punished too, since the film wishes to stay true to the historical quake. Everybody gets punished.
Everybody except Clark Gable, that is. Heedless at the loss of his nightclub, he walks through the rubble until his tux is in tatters, drops to his knees to pray, and is rewarded with finding MacDonald alive in a refugee camp. She professes her love. With a cast of hundreds they march over a hill to view their ruined Sodom, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as if it were a Soviet mass song. Gable’s character will no doubt regain his fortune and now “has” the woman he “loves.”
Here is the moment they meet at the start of the film:
Gable: Well sister, what’s your racket?
MacDonald: I’m a singer!
Gable: Let’s see your legs!
MacDonald: I said, I’m a singer!
A few minutes later, he takes her to a private chamber in his nightclub and grabs at her. She squirms, but he likes that, you see. “You’re all right, honey,” he says. He changes into a smoking jacket, returns, grabs her again, tries to kiss her, and denies every claim she makes to innocence (and so safety). She explains she is the daughter of a deceased country parson and new to the city.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” she says.
“Why, sure, sure, I believe you,” he says. “You’re all right, Mary…. You got all the makings, kid. Why, you’re going to do great.”
He grabs again. She tries to flee.
“What’s the matter?” he says, restraining her. “Where are you going? […] You don’t have to stall me, honey. …I wrote that old spiel you just pulled—parson father, sacrificing mother, the whole thing, years ago. I guess you got some John on the string.”
“Please let me go,” she cries.
This is a guy we are already meant to understand has a heart of gold (he has donated an organ to the church, after all; get it?). Gable the actor’s reputation and image, which he carefully controlled, insisted his character be seen as a charming rogue, a bad boy. (Doris Day, on Gable himself: “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be—it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.”)
The film seems to believe his character has a shortcoming, is all, nothing a 7.9 earthquake cannot fix: He is not the relationship type. If he treats all women like the prostitutes he employs, it is because his milieu is rough, and to succeed in it he has had to be “all man … and then some” (Life magazine on Gable). His understanding is a bit narrow, his sophistication merely gilded; he needs a good woman to show him more refined ways. That is the problem, as far as the film is concerned, not that he is a sociopath and creeper.
San Francisco was written by Anita Loos, a fascinating person who wrote the novel and musical book for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. If you remember, that is about a woman who enjoys sugar relationships. Much of San Francisco plays like the reverse of that situation. Gable wants to set up MacDonald in return for sex, as does Holt. She resists but is given no real option. This is blurred slightly by mention of love and marriage, but both are unearned.
The most telling scene in the film then—because it is not infused with sentimentality or a desire to be funny—is when Hoyt’s old mother (played by the redoubtable Jessie Ralph) calls MacDonald to her, to find out why she won’t marry her son.
“You and I are gonna speak the truth to each other,” she tells MacDonald, not unkindly.
“I’m an old lady,” she says, “and I’ve been through a lot in my life. I came to San Francisco in the winter of ’51, in a sailing vessel around the Horn. When I got here, there were 150 males to one female. And if I do say it, I wasn’t so hard to look at. I started business in a shack near Portsmouth Square doing washing. Do you know how long me business lasted? About 45 minutes. They busted me tub to smithereens, and there was a free-for-all fight between five of the big swells of the town to see which one would take me to lunch. So, you see, I got to know men. I knew all kinds in them early days … I’ve had my Blackie Norton [Clark Gable], too.”
She met and eventually married her husband, implying it was out of fatigue and for her own protection. She wants MacDonald to marry her son for the same reasons.
“Burley was a good, solid man,” she says. “He never got used to wearing his coat till the day he died. But he built me this mansion, and every cuspidor of the place was 18-carat gold.” (She fills the line with irony.) “And there came a time when I was glad I married him … because he loved me.”
He loved me. It is an honest statement, horrifying in its implications for this woman’s long life. She takes solace in eventually being left alone sexually.
“After a while,” she says, “Jack was born, and I had me peace.”