San Francisco (1936) and The Art of Disaster


Songbird Jeanette MacDonald falls for the charming rake Clark Gable in W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936)– the biggest grossing picture of the year.

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence’s Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, which today salutes soprano superstar Jeanette MacDonald.

Strictly entre nous: I’m not a fan of MacDonald.  I am a fan of opera, thank you very much indeed (I begged–and won–for my parents to take me to see Le Nozze di Figaro at the LA Opera at age 16) but I’d much rather listen to Irene Dunne’s falsetto’s than the fluttery MacDonald’s. (MacDonald’s voice is superior, but Dunne’s has personality.) MacDonald, however, is the leading lady in the 1936 melodrama San Francisco, alongside Clark Gable  and Spencer Tracy (big fans of both, for the record), and she delivers a solid performance. But that is not the point of this post. The point here is that San Francisco features a very famous disaster sequence that I have long admired, and have decided take a closer look at it here. The production, being an MGM production, is the high-gloss, spared-no-expense spectacle you would come to expect from the studio, but Woody Van Dyke’s direction keeps things snappy and tones down the melodrama… which is *textbook* melodrama: Chorus girl and aspiring opera singer is torn between her love of her art and her love of her man, set against the disaster of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake– and then, somewhere towards the third act, this decidedly MGM production becomes as realistic gritty as anything you might have seen over at Warner Bros. Only, the bad guy isn’t a machine-gun slinging Warner Bros gangster- its mother nature.

W.S. Van Dyke (left) watches as Jeanette MacDonald performs the film’s anthem, San Francisco.

Under the supervision of MGM’s head of special effects, and true master of the art, James Basevi, and edited together by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich, seven decades on it holds its own as one of the most powerful special effects sequences ever filmed. Its camera tricks are still rooted in the real world, and therefore tangible. Not the least bit cartoonish, Basevi and Vorkapic recreate one of the greatest disasters in American history by grounding monumental special effects with humanity. Sure, the effects trump the story (even Clark Gable himself hated the soppy lines) and to this day one of the common flaws in disaster flicks is that story is often an annoying necessity keeping us from what we paid our 15 bucks for (or, in 1936, 25 cents. Discuss.) but with effects like these the viewer scarcely feels cheated.

I’m not a film academic, but I have watched this particular sequence– rather compulsively– again, and again, and again over the years, and in my opinion it stands out, and stands the test of time, for two specific reasons.

The first being, the disaster sequence itself is not concerned at all with the film’s protaganists. From Basevi’s greatest special effects moments (The Good Earth, The Hurricane) straight up to today’s biggest effects extravaganzas, disaster sequences feel obligated to pivot around the main characters.  While Basevi’s films work, today it has become something of cookie-cutter conformity:

BANG, BANG! *close up of leading man* BANG BANG! *close up of leading woman* BOOOM! *tender moment between the two in which they reconcile their issues*

James Basevi (far right) with Salvador Dali (center…duh) during production of Spellbound, on which they collaborated on the famous dream-sequence.

San Francisco is a marvelous anomaly. The sequence is book-ended by the protagonists’ dysfunctional affair, but they play no real role in the event. MacDonald queues the sequence, then fades out, and when the sequence is over, Gable brings us back to the narrative. Therefore, freed from any loyalty to the narrative, what we get are two minutes that feel like a prototype of cinema verite.  We don’t know any of the faces in the disaster sequence, which makes in particularly real. The people we see are the victims, the unnamed masses of any disaster– natural or manmade– brief glimpses of fellow humankind in their last seconds of life and it succeeds in what disaster films have long since failed in doing: making us aware of our mortality.

The second reason Basevi and Vorkapich hit a home run here, is their shared vision: Basevi’s technical wizardy and vision, and Vorkapich’s keen talent of threading together images into powerful collage movement, sound, and light. Vorkapich makes full use of Basevi’s monumental effects: the city hall collapsing; the dance hall splitting in two; the streets of San Francisco buying itself in brick and mortar. But he balances it with startling, unexpected close-ups and the human figure. A little girl’s crying face fills the frame, and is cut quickly with the side of a brick building toppling down onto her.  Human movement blurs these frames, and behind them we see debris, mayhem, and dying bodies. It’s a mixed media canvas, and the composting of film trickery and photo-journalistic sensibilities results in something that is disturbing and uncommonly affecting.

What Basevi accomplished in 1936 might be archaic in today’s world of 48FPS and mind-bending virtual technology– but the more advanced technology becomes, the further it alienates itself from what Basevi achieved in spades in 1936: true, human reality.

(Side note: the Visual Effects category was not introduced to the Academy Awards until 1938, hence no Oscar for Basevi. The film did, however, win for Sound Recording.)

The Paradise Club deconstructs onto itself.

The city of San Francisco follows suit.

Basevi’s stunning effects shots are grounded by harrowing closeups of unknown, unnamed victims.

Vorkapich’s editing turns the disaster sequence into a cinema verite-esque, jumbled montage of movement, shadow, and sound.

Another example (perhaps the most terrifying) of Vorkapich’s fast cutting between innocent victim and the anger of mother nature.

The images of Vorkapich’s montage become avant garde, almost, symbolic snapshots of life, interrupted and utterly destroyed. The most affecting, in my opinion, the image in the top left corner: the fleeing blur of a man reveals a still body behind him.

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Today is James Cagney day on Turner Classic Movies and over at Sitting on a Backyard Fence, bloggers worldwide have rallied together to tip their hat to one of the biggest bad-asses ever to grace the screen.

I love bad-asses. No, not this newfangled generation’s overinflated sense of importance that has managed to give every Tom Dick or Harry the belief that, because of the number of Facebook friends they have or the number of people who follow them on Twitter that they are bad-asses.

No. You’re not. You know why?

James Cagney: The Ultimate Bad-Ass

Because THIS guy could knock the stuffing out of your designer-label-wearing LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME I’M SUCH A BAD ASS narcissistic kisser.

In my humble opinon, James Cagney is the ultimate bad-ass. And not for any one specific reason. Yes, his onscreen persona is often tough-as-nails. But, it’s also charming. Even when he’s the most sociopathic lunatic you’ve ever laid your eyes on… there’s still something undeniably likeable about him. He smashes grapefruits into women’s faces. And he’ll kill a man for his mama. On screen, Cagney is, indeed, capable of ANYTHING.His dangerous charm is part of what make Cagney’s best villains so deeply villainous, and what made him perfectly adept at playing lighter, romantic roles. While people might generally only think of Cagney as a “you dirty rat” mobster (a line that he actually never uttered onscreen), his range is terrific. You’ve got Angels With Dirty Faces, a film ending with one of the most unforgettably harrowing images ever filmed—Cagney’s demented, I’m-going-to-hell-and-I’m-proud-of-it close-up; a wholesome musical like Yankee Doodle Dandy with some of the best fancy footwork you’ll ever see; a charming romantic comedy like The Strawberry Blonde; a political comedy like One, Two, Three, with Cagney in a comic tour-de-force; and a sexy pre-code like Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy isn’t one of Cagney’s best known films, and it isn’t one of his best (it’s no White Heat, let’s just say that), but it’s one of my favorites because Cagney is a sparkling firecracker in this fast, fun, frivolous precode. Cagney is young—terrifically young—as this is one of his first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender.

Being a bad-ass, you see, is not synonymous with being an ass-hole. Big difference. One that, for me, is wonderfully illustrated in the much overlooked Blonde Crazy. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director whose roster includes some of the very best precodes, Blonde Crazy is a rather average melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wiseguy who thinks he can take the world with his brains… and Blondell’s legs. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey”, or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”, playing around with Blondell’s undergarments, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

And that goes for Cagney too.

Super sexy pre-code duo of James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931)

Joan Blondell shows Cagney what she thinks of him with a playful slap to the face.

Cagney plays around in Joan Blondell’s boudoir

Cagney notices a noticeable posterior…

Sexy Joan Blondell


A white-hot young Cagney

Blonde Crazy shuts with Cagney’s unforgettably cheeky line “If I had the wings of an angel, honnnney: over these prison walls I would flyyyyyy.”

Project Keaton: The Artist and Buster Keaton

Submitted to Project Keaton by NYC-based writer Will McKinley ,The Artist at the New York Film Festival: Evoking Memories of Buster Keaton  is a terrific look at the upcoming silent French film THE ARTIST and its surprising connection to the life and art of Buster Keaton.  ”Sunday afternoon, on the final day of the New York Film Festival, I saw Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. Sunday night on Turner Classic Movies, I watched Buster Keaton in Free and Easy. Although these two very different films were made more than 80 years apart, they actually have a lot in common…” Read Will’s full post here.

Film Fashion Frenzy: Cinema Fashion Shops of the 1930s

This post is in conjunction with today’s Fashion in Film Blogathon behing hosted by the lovely Angela at The Hollywood Revue!

Carole Lombard, 1937,

Scene: Main Street, USA. 1937. Boy and girl at the local theatre watching the new Carole Lombard comedy Nothing Sacred. Lots of laughter, lots of coddling. The sight of Lombard in a voluminous yet slinky black dress catches both of their attentions. The Boy: “My god,” he thinks, “look at those [insert female euphemism of choice].”  The Girl:  My god,” she thinks, “look at that dress!”

She wants it.

She needs it.

She is instantly convinced that owning it will make her fella think her [euphemisms] are every bit as noteworthy as Lombard’s.

And Hollywood, that eager opportunist, was ready to oblige.

Enter, stage left, a start-up by New York entrepreneur Bernard Waldman called Cinema Shops– a nationwide chain of retail outlets dedicated to bringing big-screen fashion to small town shops.

From the book Movies and Mass Culture by John Belston:

“In 1930, Waldman played the role of fashion middle-man for all major studios except Warner Bros. (Warners, always a loner, established its own Studio Styles stores in 1934). By the mid-1930s Waldman’s system genrally operated as follows: sketches and/or photographs of styles to be worn by specific actresses in specific films were sent from the studios to the bureau. The staff first evaluated these styles and calculated new trends. They then contracted with manufacturers to have the
styles produced in time for the film’s release. They next secured advertising
photos and other materials that would be sent to retail shops.”

By the late 1930s, motion pictures were the most powerful influential means of communication the world had ever known. Itsexponential effects were, as of yet still incalculable, but its tremors deeply felt on an international scale.

An MGM short subject from 1940 entitled Hollywood: Style Center of the World does a succinct succint job of capturing this movement at its zenith. Before descending into an MGM parade of studio propaganda, it captures the very spirit of this fascinating—and never to be repeated—time in popular culture.

Sweet little Mary gets a telephone call from her beau in uniform, Joe. He’s in town and wants a night out. But …

Mary needs a dress. So she drags Papa into the city and they both pause in front of the town’s Cinema Shop.

From Movies and Mass Culture: “Waldman’s concern also established the best known chain of fashion shops, Cinema Fashions.  Macy’s contracted for the first of these shops in 1930 and remained a leader in the Hollywood fashion field. By 1934 tehre were 298 oficial Cinema Fashions shops (only one permitted in each city).”

Mary sees …

Mary remembers …

Mary buys it. (Or rather, Papa does.)

Driving home its point is a montage of middle America fields of grain, waving against the superimposed image of a smartly dressed young lady. Now a country girl, the narrator assures, is every bit as fashionable as her Big City sisters.

And who do they have to thank? Hollywood.

For Hollywood is a factory town just like any other– be it Detroit or Milwaukee. Only the skilled laboreres in this town happen to be writers, musicians, actors and …artists.

Like this one.

Dilligently working with conte crayon and tablet to furnish the natural wonders of his studios’ latest find.

Oh yeah. And his name just so happens to be Adrian:

The inumerable movie fan magazines of the day seized upon this trend and made monthly fashion editorials (featuring, of course, screen starlets) a mainstay fixture. As the MGM short concludes, we get glimpses of factories working overtime to reproduce the fashions created by the black ink and pastel color of Adrian… his canvas creations becoming celluloid dreams-come-true as seen below:

Waterloo Bridge, 1940

Again, from Movies and Mass Culture: “The sale of these fashions was tremendously aided by the release of photos to newspapers, major magazines and dozens of fan magazines. … In monthly issues of each of these magazine, millions of readers saw Bette Davis, Joan Crawford in a series of roles unique to this period: as mannequins modeling clothes, furs, hats and accessories that they would wear in forthcoming films…”

Photoplay magazine introduced “Hollywood Fashions,” was Photoplay magazines effort into the cinema fashion foray. Photoplay’s by then routine fashion sprea featured styles identical to those being distributed that month to Photoplay’s “Hollywood fashions” outlets nationwide. Advertised under banners such as “Now at Modest Prices: Styles of the Stars!”

A Cinema Fashions Shop

The Screen Book magazine shots below illustrate the cinema fashion frenzy, with Anne Sheridan and Priscilla Lane modelling their latest film frocks:

Ann Sheridan

Shameless Plug: TCM's September Pre-Code Podcast

Turner Classic Movies logo.

As all you readers of the Pictorial are well aware, I’m something of a Turner Classic Movies junkie… As I know many of you are too! Which is why I’m just plain tickled pink over the fact that TCM recently asked my pal Will McKinley and I to participate in their September podcast.  Will lives in New York City and I’m based in L.A., but I just so happened to have a holiday planned in the Big Apple so we were able to, most happily, oblige!

TCM’s podcast host Scott McGee, a really lovely guy, sat down (virtually) with Will and I for a lovely long chat about the month’s programming. We touched on everything from Metropolis to The Red Shoes, but they decided to post our conversation about the pre-code classics Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake. It was a heck of a lot of fun, and one hell of a privilege, and I hope it’s as much fun to watch as it was to make:

Check it out here!

Shameless Plug: TCM’s September Pre-Code Podcast

Turner Classic Movies logo.

As all you readers of the Pictorial are well aware, I’m something of a Turner Classic Movies junkie… As I know many of you are too! Which is why I’m just plain tickled pink over the fact that TCM recently asked my pal Will McKinley and I to participate in their September podcast.  Will lives in New York City and I’m based in L.A., but I just so happened to have a holiday planned in the Big Apple so we were able to, most happily, oblige!

TCM’s podcast host Scott McGee, a really lovely guy, sat down (virtually) with Will and I for a lovely long chat about the month’s programming. We touched on everything from Metropolis to The Red Shoes, but they decided to post our conversation about the pre-code classics Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake. It was a heck of a lot of fun, and one hell of a privilege, and I hope it’s as much fun to watch as it was to make:

Check it out here!

Pre-Code Gams and Dams(els).

Marlene Dietrich... they're alllll Dietrich.



A whole lotta tomato.

Pick your hyperbole, the fact is that 1930s cinema were full of that most suggestive of appendages in a way never quite paralleled since.

Sure, they’re still everywhere because they’re still sexy. They’ve always been sexy– ever since skirts first hiked heavenward in the late 20s straight through to today. But never quite this sexy. Perhaps for the fact that the definition of “sexy” is dependent upon the word “suggestive.” Today, sex on film is hardly suggestive. It is blatant, forthright, overpowering, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

These shots? They leave everything to the imagination.

Wherein the real power lies…

This post is not meant to spark any sort of debate on feminism v. femininity v. sexism … although I’m always game for it.

And since the fundamental core of feminism is the freedom of female CHOICE, I choose to see the following images, not as sexual exploitation, but rather as strong, working women, embracing their newly won sexuality.

And, largely unknown to them, so deeply changing the game in the process.

Chorus girl gams in 42nd STREET

Thelma Todd

Clara Bow, cinema's original IT girl, in 1927.

Joan Blondell

Carole Lombard

Our Dancing Daughters-- Joan Crawford and Anita Page

Eleanor Powell, 1935

Ruby Keeler

Ginger sur la plage.

Joan- Oh Joan - Blondell

Sexy Harlow

Anita Page... in charge, no holds bars.

Myrna Loy

Barbara Stanwyck in LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, 1933

Toby Wing

Bette Davis, Santa Monica CA

Busby Berkeley's DAMES