By Louis Markos
At the core of San Francisco (1936; W. S. Van Dyke), as at the core of so many film classics, is a love triangle. Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), the innocent, devout daughter of a country parson, has come to the Barbary Coast in hopes of becoming a singer. As the story progresses, she finds herself torn between Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), the rough-and-tumble owner of San Francisco’s infamous Paradise saloon, and Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a rich society man from the snobby, sophisticated Nob Hill.
This love triangle, however, is complicated by a second one that the film layers on top of the first. Blackie has long been best friends with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracey), though he has never really understood why his one-time drinking and brawling partner found religion and became a priest. As Mary struggles to choose between Blackie and Burley, she must also choose between her heart, which belongs to the heathen Blackie, and her soul, which belongs to the Christian faith of Father Tim.
On the surface, it would seem that Blackie is a simple villain and Mary should and must resolve her dual love triangle by rejecting him in favor of Burley and Tim. But life is rarely that simple. Blackie, played with overwhelming masculine charm by MGM’s reigning king, is more than a man: he is a summation of all the good and evil in human nature, particularly all the good and evil of that glorious, pre-1906 San Francisco that the opening title card of the film describes as “splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent.” And, behind that, all the good and evil of Hollywood’s Golden Age!
As Gable was the King of Hollywood, so Blackie is the King of the Barbary Coast. The San Francisco of Blackie, like the Los Angeles of Gable, is, in many ways, Sin City, the Babylon of the West. According to Tim, San Francisco is “the wickedest, most corrupt, most godless city in America,” and yet, it has such heart, such generosity, such untapped potential for honor and nobility. Blackie, Tim tells Mary, is “as ashamed of his good deeds as other people are of their sins,” a statement backed up by the revelation that Blackie anonymously donated $4000 to build an organ for Tim’s church.
Don’t be fooled. Blackie is a dangerous man whom one must be careful not to cross. He is, Tim warns Mary, “as unscrupulous with women as he is ruthless with men.” He grew up on the streets, and he knows how to survive. He is not against religion, but he dismisses it as just another racket to pull in the suckers. Nietzsche light, we might say, except for the fact that there is a door that opens on to Blackie’s well-protected soul. That door is music, and Mary possesses the key. Tim, who has been trying, unsuccessfully, for the last twenty years to reform his friend, wonders if Mary and her music might not succeed where he has failed.
Blackie has always lived by a code. He may be ruthless when it comes to protecting his Paradise, but he has never lied, cheated, or been really underhanded. Though he uses emotional pressure to keep Mary singing in his saloon, he does offer to let her out of her contract with no strings attached if she truly wants to be free. It’s finally Burley who thinks that he can buy and own Mary, who hides a Mephistophelian mind under his veneer of charm, who works with the opera, not because the music lifts his soul, but because it gives him the respectability, social clout, and power he lusts for.
Blackie, in contrast, embodies the old proverb that music calms the savage beast. At first he thinks that opera, like religion, is just another racket, and insists that Mary stick to the jazzy, honky-tonk music of the Paradise. The kid from the streets feels threatened by the highbrow music of Nob Hill and closes his ears to it. Then he hears Mary singing at Burley’s opera house, and a new, more expansive world opens before him. Burley, like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus, remains closed to the holiness of the Temple of Art he has built to stroke his ego, while Blackie, like the prostitutes and tax collectors who flocked to the carpenter from Nazareth, perceives in Mary’s singing a goodness, truth, and beauty he has never known.
It was San Francisco, and other movies like it, that helped teach me to look deeper, as Jesus did when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). While the outside world saw only a pathetic outcast who had been married five times and was now living with a sixth man, Jesus saw a daughter of God yearning for love, acceptance, and intimacy. That is why, rather than simply condemn her, he offers to give her living water that she might quench her God-given thirst in a manner that is neither sinful nor self-destructive.
As surprising as it may seem to modern readers, MGM’s big, splashy, expensive epic is, at its heart, a conversion story. But that conversion will be hard won. At one point in the picture, Mary has a conversation with Burley’s mother (Jessie Ralph). Mrs. Burley, as it turns out, was a washerwoman before she married the man who ushered her into the Nob Hill aristocracy. That marriage pulled her out of poverty and gave her the chance to be a pillar in her community, but it almost didn’t happen. Like Mary, she had once been in love with “a selfish, sinful, adorable scoundrel” like Blackie. But she turned him down in the end, for, as she confesses sadly, he was killing her soul.
Mary knows that Mrs. Burley is correct, that if she marries Blackie, he will drag her down to his level. Tim warns her of this as well, a warning that takes on flesh when Tim tries to convince Mary to leave her job at the Paradise and Blackie punches him in the nose. No, Mary cannot give herself to this man and retain her faith, her calling, and her self-identity. And so Burley will get the girl, even after Mary has caught a glimpse of his dark side.
And then it happens. What happens? If you were reading carefully above, you will have noted that San Francisco takes place in 1906, the year of the great earthquake.
I grew up in the 1970s when theaters across America were overrun with disaster movies. From Airport to The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake to The Towering Inferno, these visceral films promised viewers an all-star ensemble cast whose lives and loves all intertwine during a freak natural disaster. San Francisco arguably marks the premier embodiment of this questionable genre, but with two important differences. First, rather than give us a smorgasbord of cardboard characters in clichéd situations, San Francisco focuses in tightly on a small group of characters for whom we care deeply. Second, and this rises up out of the first, we become so engrossed in the relationships between those characters that, when the disaster comes, we have completely forgotten it was coming.
That forgetting happens to me every time I watch the movie: not just because I am living the loves and struggles of Blackie and Tim, Mary and Burley, but because the earthquake rises up out of the plot rather than being tacked on to it as a way of increasing box office revenues. Blackie, Burley, and the Barbary Coast are on a collision course with the apocalypse, and when it comes, all of their lives are changed utterly. The two opposing worlds of San Francisco and Nob Hill are equally affected by the earthquake, as fire and destruction rage across the coast. Both will be bombed to stop the spread of the fire; both will be incorporated into the new city that will be built out of the old.
As Blackie watches people searching desperately for their family members, he realizes how deeply and truly he loves Mary. The first time he sees a man praying, he yells at him to “stop that drivel,” but as the chaos and the pressing human need overwhelm him, he begins to sense his own need for God. He, the King of the Barbary Coast, is as helpless as the people around him. As he watches one of his friends die, he hears him confess that “it took an earthquake to get me.” He also meets Mrs. Burley, who weeps but who has resigned herself to the loss of her son and her home, both of which have fallen victim to the quake.
Just when he is about to give up all hope of finding Mary, Blackie looks up to discover her singing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” (the same hymn that the orchestra of the Titanic played as the ship sank into the ocean). Humbled and grateful, he tells Tim that he wants to thank God but does not know how. Tim tells him to just say what’s in his heart. Blackie kneels and speaks, even though the words feel strange and uncomfortable on his lips: “thank you God, thank you; I really mean it.” As he does so, Mary turns and sees him. The sight fills her with joy, and the two are reunited in a marriage of true minds that can now weather any storm.
As Blackie, Mary, and Tim march forward with the other survivors, they sing “Glory, Glory Alleluia,” an apocalyptic song from the Civil War that looks ahead to the return of the Messiah. Suddenly, in the midst of their song, the news reaches them that the fire has been put out. San Francisco will not suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorra; she will rise again, will be born anew out of the ashes like the mythical phoenix.
Every time I watch that closing scene, each time with moist eyes and an exultant heart, I am reminded that Jesus did not preach the good news until John the Baptist came and preached the bad news. No one, after all, goes looking for a savior unless he thinks he needs to be saved from something. Most of us, I’ve come to realize over the years, are like Blackie. We think that we have it all figured out, that we are self-reliant and don’t need anyone’s charity. Religion is ok in its place, but it really is for the suckers, the losers who can’t take care of themselves.
And then the personal earthquake hits, and we realize that all that self-reliance stuff is an illusion. The road to Easter Sunday runs straight through Good Friday; to rise again, one must first die to the old life of sin and shame, fear and regret. Only when I watched the film a second time did I notice the cross stitch in Father Tim’s room, the one that reads “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” the very words Jesus spoke before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
The earthquake robs Blackie of his beloved Paradise, but it wins him Mary, she whom the Church Fathers often referred to as the second Eve. Paradise lost and regained; a man and a city reborn out of the ashes of their own despair. Not a bad message for a “secular” Hollywood blockbuster! Truly the kind of movie they don’t make any more.
Louis Markos (PhD, U of Michigan), Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 18 books include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Atheism on Trial, and two children’s novels, The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy, in which his kids become part of Greek mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey. Visit his webpage (www.Loumarkos.com) and amazon author page (www.amazon.com/Louis-Markos).