MGM Extravaganza Stars Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
“Other places only make me love you best!” sings immortal recording star and most beautiful soprano to emerge from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Jeanette MacDonald. To commemorate today’s 103rd Anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, The Castro Theatre will be screening Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1936 fanciful and treasure-filled epic, SAN FRANCISCO. The film will be preceded by a champagne toast and live Barbary Coast-type music from “Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club Band” featuring Jack Convery. The Doors will open at 6:45, with the concert beginning at 7:15. The film starts at 8:00.
Nominated for Best Picture and directed by W.S. Van Dyke, this silver-screen epic features a newly-mustachioed Clark Gable, the former lingerie queen turned opera singer Jeanette MacDonald, and as “Father Mullen”, Spencer Tracy (in his first appearance as a priest) securing a nomination for Best Actor. Not without surprise, given Miss MacDonald’s stunning vocals and the roar of The City being torn apart and blown to bits, the Oscar went to Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer) for Best Sound. The film’s most enduring contribution is its title song (created by Gus Kahn and Bronislau Kaper), eventually being declared the “Official Anthem of San Francisco”.
While tremendous efforts have made San Francisco the model of disaster-preparedness, we all know another 7.9 or worse is possible. The film’s director, W.S. Van Dyke – along with some backseat advice from epic silent film giant D. W. Griffith – created fabulous scenes of devastation and the day-to-day social consequences of search and recovery. The film will inspire a walking tour to what used to be called the Barbary Coast or over to Dupont Street (now known as Grant Avenue and how did that happen?), maybe a trip to the Main Library to see an original photo of the Mark Hopkins Mansion – destroyed in the fire (dynamited to smithereens in the film) and replaced by the hotel. The SF Fire Department offers free training – NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) – in order that everyone learn how to become self-sufficient for at least three days and by developing multi-functional teams cross-trained in basic emergency skills. In the meantime, here’s your chance to view opulent turn-of-the-century Hollywood set decorations by Cedric Gibbons, gowns by Adrian, hair by Sydney Guilaroff, and to hear Jeanette MacDonald deliver the City’s Anthem in all its original splendor.“We’ve got a court order that’s gonna choke off your nightingale in the middle of her first cantati.”
San Francisco is one of those films that eased its way into Cultural Phenomena. Admittedly, the look and feel of the film is extremely arch; it is intended to be a melodrama, extravagant as a soap opera, and in the same vein as the lofty classics of Walt Disney. It is then gilded with the voice of Jeanette MacDonald who bolstered her critical standings with scenes from the operas LA TRAVIATA and FAUST presented at the Tivoli Opera House (at the southwest corner of Eddy and Mason Streets).
In other words, it is not ordinary daily fare; it requires a willing engagement. On a large screen, San Francisco is a complete treat. It is not a failed attempt at realism nor is it an objective documentary. Should “The Big One” ever hit and if (as the oracles have warned) the Golden Gate sinks into the waters as did the lost continent of Atlantis – The City’s heart and soul and the driving determination of its people will be located within the reels of this film.
Although peppered with moral charges and religious meanderings, San Francisco is not a tale of Divine retribution. The overriding theme is that while outsiders may perceive The City as a Sodom and Gomorrah, those within understand that no one is left alone outside its gates – praying for hospitality. The story begins with cries of “Happy New Year” to 1906 from a crowd gathered in front of the Poodle Dog Restaurant – at the northeast corner of Mason and Eddy Streets, diagonally across from the elegant Tivoli Opera House over on the southwest corner – both of which will be destroyed come the wee hours of Wednesday morning, April 18th. One of the revelers announces that wine is flowing freely down at Lotta’s Fountain at Market and Kearney. Maybe he’s the same guy who later yells to the throngs of homeless encamped atop Alamo Square, “The fire is out!” Compacted within that span of time are all the elements necessary for a star-studded and profit-making extravaganza, the script pulsating from the pen Anita Loos.
“Let’s see your legs,” says Paradise Music Hall owner “Blackie Norton” (the very fetching Clark Gable). “I said I’m a singer!” replies Jeanette MacDonald (as “Mary Blake”, a parson’s daughter, freshly arrived to The City known for its wickedness and labeled as “Queen of the Coast”).
“C’mon, c’mon,” he says, “let’s see ‘em.” Mary raises her long skirt to mid-calf and her skeptical eye-brow to high noon. He leans and smirks. “A little thin for down here. What would you say to seventy-five a week?”
All at once Mary realizes her days in the choir stalls are over. She’s about to make it big as a Saloon singer, in a joint with a dealer and a pool table, where the swells from Nob Hill go slumming, and down the alley is the entrance to the Red Light District. She crashes to the floor.
“I guess she fainted,” says Blackie to Mat, a not-so-fetching, in-between-the-girlie-acts crooner.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Give me seventy-five bucks a week and I’ll drop dead!” [Fade-out:]
Brace yourself for the concluding scenes! With the announcement up at Alamo Square that the last burning ember has been dowsed, and with the rallying cry of “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” – the crowd bursts into the “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and begins marching toward a better view of the eastern skyline. Still dressed in the now ruined ostrich-plumed and beaded finery worn to “The Chickens’ Ball” from those few fate-filled-nights before – Jeanette, Clark and Spencer lead the crowd in its triumphal march. As with any true diva, Jeanette quickly seizes the opportunity and lets fly her silvery soprano way over the chanting crowd having now segued into “San Francisco”. With her voice rising higher and higher, so does The New City above its wreckage. [Fade out]
San Francisco – both script and song – was written for Jeanette MacDonald. She campaigned for Clark Gable to be her Leading Man. Smart girl. In its collective wisdom, our City Officials one day decreed that the song should forever rank as The Official Anthem (“I Left My Heart In San Francisco” came in as Official Song.). The film and Jeanette’s recording will survive the Test of Time and be adapted to every playback device ever to be invented and every one of our City’s future residents will come to know both it and her. Like The City itself, Jeanette MacDonald was a gorgeous and temperamental Diva. She will forever be San Francisco’s “First Lady”.
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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