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.

The Misfits and the End of an Era

"Honey, we all got to go sometime, reason or no reason. Dyin's as natural as livin'. The man who's too afraid to die is too afraid to live." Clark Gable in The Misfits

Another public apology, this time to the marvelous Shadowplay blog– a longtime Pictorial favorite. I agreed to participate in their recent The Late Films Blogathon: a week long look at the final films of directors, actors and writers. A fascinating concept and I was psyched to participate and… absolutely bollocked it up. More than a week overdue, here’s my entry. Major apologies to Shadowplay– one of the best damn blogs on the web.

By 1961, the Hollywood Studio System had begun a slow rot from the inside out which would, by decade’s end, see to its total collapse thus ending the Golden Age of classical Hollywood. The Misfits, directed by John Huston and penned by Arthur Miller, is a fascinating relic from those years in flux that bewildered its audiences just as much as it bewildered the execs.  On paper, the words Clark Gable (the king), Marilyn Monroe (the queen) and Montgomery Clift (the rebel) looked like box office magic. The result is a mixed bag that would be Gable and Monroe’s final film, and one of Clift’s last.

So if you’ve not seen The Misfits, it is a semi-romantic drama revolving around a curious love quadrangle: Aging cowboy (Gable) falls for a beautiful but damaged divorcee (Monroe) and the two set up, uh, housekeeping in a cottage in the Nevada desert belonging to Gable’s friend (Eli Wallach) who also happens to have the hots for Monroe, but she seems to be more emotionally attached to their punch-drunk friend Perce (Clift). It’s an odd structure, perhaps due to the fact that there isn’t any, as Miller masquerades a deeply intimate, and highly modern, character study as a Western romance.

It was no secret that Miller wrote the screenplay for his wife. The role of Roslyn could have been played by anyone, sure, but perhaps no other performance would have been nearly as truthful. In The Misfits, Marilyn is not acting. She is Marilyn– exposed and naked and shivering in the scalding Nevada sun. There is a moment towards the end of the film when Monroe accompanies Gable, Wallach and Clift to go “mustang’n” as they call it (roping up herds of wild mustang), where Marilyn erupts in a way that is, to this day, unsettling. The emotionally fragile Monroe, who has been horrified by the ferocity required in Gable and Wallach’s trade, finally has a meltdown. She is a white dot in the Nevada desert, screaming “MURDERERS” with blood-curdling tremor. Clift, the one emotional connection she has in the film, senses she’s right and, usurping Gable’s leadership, sets them free.

Monroe hated the moment.” He could have written me anything, and he comes up with this. If that’s what he thinks of me, then I’m not for him and he’s not for me.”

The emotional instability and frustrated relationships on the screen absolutely mirror what was going on behind the scenes.

By the time filming began in the High Sierras, the Miller/Monroe marriage was over. The two weren’t on speaking terms, although for sake of keeping up appearances, they shared a suite on location. But the cast and crew on this hellish shoot found themselves inadvertently herded off like the mustangs, into separate camps: Camp Miller and Camp Monroe.

Monroe, never the easiest actress to work with, had by this time become so addicted to pills that it was almost impossible for her to work. She suffered from acute insomnia, taking up to four Nembutals a night, and still could not sleep. As result of her insomnia, and a drug-induced state of paranoia, Monroe caused extreme delays in shooting, shutting down production entirely on three separate occasions.

Marilyn on set (copyright Magnum photos)

Clift too had reached a crisis point in both his professional and personal life and, being an insomniac like Monroe, was similarly dependent on pills. His alcoholism had earned him a high-risk reputation that made the Misfits crew apprehensive. Producer Frank Taylor was kept on 24-hour call should Monroe or Clift have … an emergency.  “Monroe and Clift were psychic twins,” said Taylor. “They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.”

There in the midst of Monroe’s endless delays, Miller’s frantic rewrites, Huston’s laissez-faire directorial approach (he seemed more interested in the gambling casinos than anything else), and Clift’s drug problem, Clark Gable labored to remain a true professional.

In the film, Gable’s character is a Cowboy forced to face the fact that (to steal from Margaret Mitchell) his civilization is one that has gone with the wind. The same was true of Gable himself, on the Misfits set.

Gable was, after all, The King of Hollywood: a veteran of screen who had weathered personal tragedies and career highs and lows with resounding resilience. Gable was a pro from the Studios System era when actors were, beneath all the glamour, 9-5 blue collar workers: they were up at 5am, were expected to show up on time, know their lines, and the directors were to get the job done on time and on budget. And so, the 59 year old, now looking older than his years, found himself on a set more or less rooted in chaos. The troubled shoot’s endless delays plagued Gable, who would retreat in the off hours to work on his new car and race it around the desert. As Gable became increasingly dissatisfied with the project, he began to drank heavily. (To say that Gable held his liquor better than his costars is quite an understatement.)

Gable was also unnerved by the acting approach of his costars: Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach were all Method actors. Monroe’s close friend and acting coach happened to be Paula Strasberg who was a constant presence on the set. Gable came from a more… square shooting school of acting, perhaps best summed up by Jimmy Cagney: know your mark and know your lines. And still Gable tried his best not to complain, and more importantly, remain sympathetic to everyone, especially Monroe and Clift.

From Warren Harris’ Gable biography:  “Monroe finally tottered out in stiletto heels and a low cut white dress, marched straight over to Gable and apologized for the delay. Gable put his arms around her and said, You’re not late honey,” and took her by the hand and led her to a quiet corner for a private chat. Whatever Gable told her made her giggle and then laugh out loud. From then on they had a cordial working relationship.”

The King & Queen of Hollywood

One of the few times Gable did throw something of a fit (and for good reason) occurred only after having been pushed to the limit by Clift, whose scenes often required many retakes. Clift was ad-libbing with Gable in a scene and took to playfully punching Gable in the arm. Gable had arthritis. After repeatedly telling Clift to stop (which only made the at times mischievous Clift do it more) Gable lost it and, in the middle of the take, bellowed “FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, CUT THAT OUT!”

Clift burst into tears.

Shooting stopped.

One can only imagine the look of disbelief on Gable’s face as he turned to the crew and shouted “What in the fuck is the world coming to!”

Only weeks later, on November 6 1960, Gable suffered a massive heart attack and, ten days later, the King of Hollywood was dead.

Gable’s refreshingly honest self effacing personality, manifest from the earliest days of his stardom, proved true even in death with his request of a closed casket. “I don’t want a bunch of strangers staring down at my wrinkles and fat belly when I’m dead.” This straightforward quality mirrors an interview from the glory days of the 1930s: “I don’t believe I’m king of anything. I’m not much of an actor… I’m no Adonis, and I’m as American as the telephone poles I used to climb to make a living. [Men] see me broke, in trouble, scared… they see me making love to Harlow or Colbert and they say if he can do it, I can do it, and figure it’ll be fun to go home and  make love to their wives.”

As is often the habit, Hollywood was eager to point blame on a premature death. Monroe’s behavior was such a stress on Gable it gave him a heart attack. Huston not using a double for Gable gave him a heart attack.

Gable and the end of an era...

Kay Gable’s now famous remarks to Louella Parsons are more or less the reason for this.

“It wasn’t the physical exertion that killed him, it was the horrible tension, that eternal waiting, waiting, waiting. He waited around forever, for everybody. He’d get so angry that he’d just go ahead and do anything to keep occupied. That’s why he did those awful horse scenes where they dragged him on his stomach. He had a stand-in and a stuntman, but he did most of it himself. I told him ‘your’e crazy’ but he wouldn’t listen.”

From John Huston’s autobiography: “One of the myths attached to ‘The Misfits’ was that Clark Gable died of a heart attack because of over-exertion on this film. This is utter nonsense. Toward the end of the picture there was a contest between Clark and the stallion the cowboys had captured. It looked like rough work, and it was, but it was the stunt men who were thrown around, not Clark.”

NOT a stunt double.

There is no denying the fact that The Misfits proved enormous strain on Gable, physically and emotionally. But. Be that as it may, the truth is, The Misfits didn’t directly kill Gable anymore than the Kennedy’s killed Marilyn. The strenuous Misfits shoot did not cause Gable’s premature death– but at the same time, cannot be disqualified as one of its many contributing factors.

Monroe did not attend Gable’s funeral (although Miller did), although it is reported she cried for two days straight after hearing the shocking news.

One year and nine months later, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Beverly Hills home.

Upon learning of Monroe’s death, which shook Clift greatly, he was noted as having said ‘Hollywood deaths always come in threes. First Gable, now Marilyn… who’s next.’

Clift would make two more films after The Misfits: Huston’s Freud and Raoul Levy’s The Defector: the first a mistake from start to finish ensuring Clift’s inability to work anywhere in Hollywood and leading to the last film, a European spy flick filmed on the Continent. Like Gable, Clift would die of a heart attack before its release.

The eerie lyrcisism of Miller’s words would prove to be hauntingly prophetic: “Honey, nothing can live unless something dies.”

Blog it for Baby: Day One of the Jean Harlow Blogathon

The Jean Harlow Blogathon Day One!

Today The Jean Harlow Blogathon kicks off and we are off to a roaring start! Thoughtful, imaginative and introspective—everyone is really putting out some beautiful work which just amps up the excitement of what’s in store for the rest of the week.

Thanks to all the participants who have jumped on board for this special week of activity! Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?

color by Victor Mascaro

Carole & Company:

Vincent from Carole & Co., who has been a major supporter of this Blogathon, has created an alternate universe in which real-life friends Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard have swapped careers. Let’s Switch” is a winsome short story that asks us to tap into our imagination and wonder how might they have fared in the other’s films:

Harlow, Lombard: Let’s switch!

For the centenary of Jean Harlow’s birth, I tried to find a way to commemorate it – especially since this will be part of a Harlow blogathon at “The Kitty Packard Pictorial,” a superb site on Harlow, classic Hollywood and popular culture (

An entry linking Carole Lombard and Harlow isn’t easy. Although they were good friends and were beloved by casts and crews throughout filmland, no picture of them together has ever been discovered – a holy grail among both fandoms. Carole’s first husband, William Powell, later had an intense, but ill-fated, romance with Harlow, and Lombard’s second husband, Clark Gable, was renowned for his steamy romantic films with Jean (although in real life, they were good friends, never lovers).

So, what’s a writer to do? Use imagination, that’s what. I’m going to create an alternate universe where Lombard stars in Harlow’s movies, and vice versa. How might these silver screen goddesses have fared in each other’s films?

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Kevin Scrantz runs a fascinating blog called Clarosureaux and specializes in colorizing and restoring vintage photography. He’s also a Jean Harlow enthusiast as you will find in his post Harlow Centenary:

March 3 will mark Jean Harlow’s 100th birthday, so pretty much my entire blog will be devoted to her for the next couple of weeks

As part of the celebration of her hundredth year, the Max Factor Museum in Hollywood will be hosting a new Harlow exhibit that contains such cool items as her Packard and a mural that once hung in Paul Bern‘s Benedict Canyon home depicting Harlow, Joan Crawford, and a host of other MGM stars as medieval courtiers.

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Eve’s Reel Life

Oh that Lady Eve Sidwich! Her Eve’s Reel Life blog is a real treasure trove : an intelligent blend of thoughtful prose and painstaking research and she has really outdone herself with “Platinum Blonde and Beyond“. Here she takes a look at one of Harlow’s early features, Platinum Blonde, and within the contextual framework of Harlow’s early career she does a marvelous job of pinpointing what makes Platinum Blonde pivotal:

It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film in which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde had originally been intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time it was released, the film’s title had changed and changed again until it was an outright reference to pale-haired co-star Jean Harlow. It was not Harlow’s breakout picture, that had come with Hell’s Angels (1930), nor is it generally cited as one of her great classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal – it proclaimed her stardom.

In 1931, the 20-year-old starlet was still under an oppressive five-year contract with Howard Hughes, producer/director of Hell’s Angels. She had proven her appeal in the film, but Hughes had no projects in the works for her and most Hollywood insiders believed he was mismanaging her career. Harlow’s then-friend/future husband Paul Bern arranged for her loan to MGM for The Secret Six (1931) an underworld drama with Wallace Beery and not-yet-famous Clark Gable.

Immediately after, she was loaned out to Universal for an unsympathetic role in The Iron Man (1931), a boxing drama with Lew Ayres. While still on that project, she went back to MGM for retakes on The Secret Six and began work on her next film, this time on loan to Warner Brothers for the gangster classic The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. Her fourth film in five months was for Fox, Goldie (1931), a comedy with Spencer Tracy. Of these films only The Public Enemy was an unqualified hit, and it was a blockbuster, but it was Cagney who became the overnight star…Harlow’s allure was noted, but her performance was widely panned.


The Hollywood Revue:

Angela with The Hollywood Revue is a super swell dame and, in honor of Jean’s centenary, she has published a great review of one of Jean Harlow’s best films, Wife vs. Secretary. It’s also in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the film’s release back on Febraury 28 1936:

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) seems to have it all: he’s a very successful magazine publisher, he’s been very happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy) for three years, and he’s got Whitey (Jean Harlow), the best secretary he could ever want.  Most wives would be worried about their husbands having secretaries, who look like Whitey, but Linda trusts Van completely and she has every reason to.  At least she trusts him until all the suggestions from friends and family that Whitey must be one of those secretaries finally start to get to her.  But Linda isn’t the only one jealous of Van and Whitey’s working relationship.  Whitey’s boyfriend Dave (James Stewart) wants to marry her, but she loves her job and doesn’t want to quit to stay at home.

When Van decides to take on a new business venture, he has to keep it top secret from everyone, including Linda.  Whitey is the only person who knows what’s going on.  So when he says he’s been at a club all afternoon one day, Linda does a little investigating and finds out he wasn’t at the club all day, he was with Whitey.  Linda begins to fear that all those insinuations were right after all, she has no idea that he and Whitey were working together on the new business deal.  Things get even worse when at a company skating party, Linda thinks Van and Whitey look like a little too friendly and she asks Van to transfer Whitey to a new job.  Van refuses and Linda eventually decides she’s being ridiculous and Van promises to take her on vacation soon to make it up to her.

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The Platinum Page:

Ah, the lovely Lisa Burks. If you’re a fan of Harlow’s you almost certainly have spent many an hour at her Platinum Page. It was the first such one on the Internet dedicated to Harlow and is still the place to go for anything and everything related to her. It is hardly surprising, then, that in her post Harlow 100 Week she has proposed a truly beautiful gesture in Jean’s honor:

This weekend I had my thinking cap on to come up with some article ideas, when my friend and fellow Harlow fan Reg Williams pinged me about his efforts to encourage fans to fill Jean’s room in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale with flowers.

If you’d like to participate, contact The Flower Shop at Forest Lawn to place your order. Please note, Forest Lawn’s $3 placement fee will apply.  The delivery location is Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, Private Family Mausoleum Room #34, Crypt B.

How will we know if the goal is met? Being a private room, special permission is needed to visit in person. The Platinum Page is on the case and will be working our contacts to bring you officially sanctioned updates, so stay tuned!

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Keep the links coming, everyone!

Join in the celebration and email The Pictorial!