Saturday, August 30, 2008

What a beautiful disaster

The title of this post is taken from the final line of Second Chance, which I recommended a few weeks back. However, it's also a fitting title for my next recommendation, airing on TCM on August 31 at 6:00 AM ET: San Francisco.

Clark Gable stars as Blackie Norton, the bad-boy owner of a nightclub/saloon in 1906 San Francisco. Into the city comes wannabe opera singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). She's not able to get a job doing her preferred singing right away, so instead she's given a job at Norton's club as the featured star, through the intercession of Blackie's childhood friend who is now a Catholic priest, Fr. Mullin (Spencer Tracy). The next bit of the plot is obvious: Blackie falls in love with Mary, despite the fact that he's all wrong for her. The next two bits of the plot are also fairly predictable: there's a love triangle, in that the much higher-class impresario Jack Burley (played by Jack Holt) "discovers" Mary, and wants to get her a job doing opera, even though it will take her away from Blackie. Also, Fr. Mullin is continually playing on Blackie's conscience to try to get him to do the right thing, even if it means letting Mary go.

The story is set in the San Francisco of 1906, so we know what's about to make a cameo appearance, even if the characters don't: the Great Earthquake of 1906. And when it does, it's fairly spectacular, at least by 1936 standards. MGM was the biggest and best of the Hollywood studios at the time, and clearly spared no expense in putting together the special effects in portraying the earthquake. Despite this, there's still something wrong with the earthquake. Don't get me wrong; it's very well done. However, the earthquake just looks too glitzy. Hollywood simply wasn't able to portray squalid conditions of the past accurately during the studio era, unlike more recent period pieces.

Still, it's only a minor quibble. San Francisco is an excellent movie with good acting all around, well-styled singing by MacDonald (if you like that sort of singing), and special effects that are fun to watch. It's also available on DVD, so if you don't feel like getting up early to watch it tomorrow, you can watch it any time you like.

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