Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s all disaster movies, in honor of Independence Day (the holiday and the movie) and also in light of the real-life disaster movie happening outside our windows.
From its inception, Hollywood has leaped at the opportunity to depict real-life tragedy and destruction. The first movie about the sinking of the Titanic, for example, starred an actual survivor, playing a fictionalized version of herself, and was released less than a month after the ship went down. That film is, sadly, now lost, but there have been numerous cinematic accounts of the disaster in the century since—perhaps you’ve seen one of them.
Oddly, though, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which occurred just as cinema was being formalized as entertainment, has been all but ignored by filmmakers, even though the disaster killed thousands and almost completely leveled the city. It’s not as if there’s no potential demand either—the one notable movie built around the quake, W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco, was the highest-grossing film of 1936 ($5.3 million then, the equivalent of about $100 million today) and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Indeed, in many ways, this combination of shameless melodrama and high-tech disaster flick created the template that James Cameron would later employ: Come for the romance; stay for the carnage.
San Francisco wastes no time conflating those two genres, opening with text that mourns the loss of a city described as “splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent.” Set in the Barbary Coast—San Francisco’s red-light district, located in an area that today encompasses parts of Chinatown, North Beach, and Jackson Square—the film spends its first 90 minutes chronicling an epic battle between highbrow and lowbrow, the sacred and the profane. Gifted soprano Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) wants nothing more than to become an opera star, and quickly gets discovered by a conductor at the famed Tivoli Opera House (which, ironically, had moved to a new location in 1903 because the original building was considered a fire trap). Trouble is, she’s just signed an exclusive contract with Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), the proprietor of a sleazy Barbary Coast dance hall. Blackie’s best friend since childhood—now a tough-guy priest, played by Spencer Tracy—calls him “as unscrupulous with women as he is ruthless with men.” Mary falls hard for the cad, and actually faints when Blackie initially offers her $75 per week (about $1,380 today) to headline his joint. But she still yearns to be respectable, both personally and professionally.
Odds are that San Francisco would have been fairly successful even had this tug-of-war taken place in 1903 or 1905. Gable and MacDonald were two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with the public especially eager to hear the latter warble; in addition to performing the title song (written for the film, played after every 49ers touchdown and field goal to this day) and selections from Faust and La Traviata, MacDonald here introduces “Would You?”—now better remembered as the duet for which Kathy Selden dubs Lina Lamont’s vocals in Singin’ In The Rain. And there’s plenty of memorable friction between the two lovers, heightened by Gable’s unique ability to appear fundamentally sympathetic even as he mostly behaves like a smug asshole. (That Blackie has a priest constantly vouching for his fundamental decency helps, though friction eventually develops between them too.)
Still, the movie announces right up front that it’s building to April 18, 1906, and all hell does indeed break loose about 94 minutes in. Earthquakes are inconvenient, from a cinematic standpoint, in that they’re of such short duration; the 1906 quake provided San Francisco’s screenwriters with an additional hassle, having taken place at 5:12 a.m., when most of the city was asleep. (That’s probably why subsequent films like Earthquake and San Andreas invented their Richter-toppers.) A variety-show competition, the Chickens’ Ball (which did take place in the Barbary Coast at that time, if perhaps not on that date and continuing into that ungodly hour), is used to keep the characters awake until buildings constructed prior to U.S. earthquake codes start toppling like Jenga towers. Although the quaking itself occupies less than two minutes of screen time (a slight cheat, as the actual quake lasted 42 seconds; there are also an improbable number of people on the street), second-unit director John Hoffman’s rapid-fire montage of the immediate casualties is startlingly brutal, especially for the era. This is a movie that’s not afraid to show a cute little girl looking upward in alarm and then cut to a shot of falling bricks that presumably crush her into a fine paste. Countless extras get pulverized by masonry in almost subliminal images, intercut with the remarkably convincing destruction of miniatures. Most of the damage to San Francisco was caused by the resulting fires, through which an injured Blackie stumbles while searching for Mary. As in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the resolution of multiple unrelated dramatic issues via natural disaster feels a bit simplistic, but San Francisco remains a fascinating early example of Hollywood’s lust for rubble.