I Never Will Forget Jeanette MacDonald…or SAN FRANCISCO (1936)


This post is written in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. A full day of Jeanette MacDonald films will air on TCM on August 27. SAN FRANCISCO (1936) will be airing at 8:00 pm EST.

Whenever Judy Garland ever sang “San Francisco,” she began with a short verse about the immortal Jeanette MacDonald and her 1936 hit movie by the same name. Garland’s chemistry with her audience really comes across in this clip from a performance at the London Palladium. She begins her song with, “This lady [MacDonald] has never talked to me since I did this. I don’t know why….” This isn’t entirely true – apparently MacDonald didn’t mind the joke, “as long as it’s Judy!”I regret to say that I’ve never seen any Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movies, thought I’ve always wanted to see ROSE-MARIE (1936), NAUGHTY MARIETTA (1935), and MAYTIME (1937). It’s funny that the only Jeanette MacDonald film that I’ve seen should happen to also star possibly my least favorite actor, Clark Gable (don’t kill me!).

Gable, Jack Holt, Tracy, and MacDonald in SAN FRANCISCO

SAN FRANCISCO is about young singer Mary Blake (MacDonald) who goes west to find success. She meets Blackie Norton (Gable), a saloon owner and local politician, who hires her to work in his dance hall. Although Mary would rather pursue a more serious career in opera, she is too hungry to turn down a good job. Blackie falls in love with her and proposes, but tensions come to the surface when Mary is hired by the Tivoli Opera House and leaves Blackie’s gambling hall for the legitimate stage. Blackie’s childhood friend, Father Tim (Spencer Tracy), tries to reconcile the couple, but to no avail. Just as you think things couldn’t get worse, the entire city of San Francisco is shaken by the massive 1906 earthquake. Blackie tears through the city, dodging falling and burning buildings, searching for Mary.

MacDonald and Gable relaxing on set

When I first saw this film as a kid, it tore at my heartstrings. It’s every so terribly romantic and extremely dramatic and epically passionate. The earthquake scenes are very well filmed, and I can remember them haunting me for a long time after I watched the movie. Although the San Francisco earthquake was a real event, writer Anita Loos does a fantastic job weaving in a credible fictional love story. She and director Woody Van Dyke bring the heart of humanity to an historical event, especially with the touching back story of Mrs. Burley and her family mansion which must be dynamited to prevent the fire spreading.

Mrs. Burley watches the city burn

Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, and even Clark Gable give really good performances in this film. Although the romanticizing of the history might be a bit melodramatic for some, I simply can’t get enough – I could watch this movie a million times and still cry my eyes out when MacDonald sings “Nearer My God to Thee.


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