The Great Quake of '06 and The Great Film About It

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P.O.V. shot from W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco (1936) which recreates the Great Quake of 1906 and the subsequent fires.

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., a 7.8 quake struck the City. Much of the city was destroyed during an era when retro-fitting wasn't an option. Thousands died as buildings collapsed on them. Fires raged for days. Archival photographs recall the magnitude of the devastation: block after block of rubble.

And 30 years after the great quake of 1906 destroyed much of San Francisco, Hollywood produced a romantic drama about the catastrophic event.

When MGM released director W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco in 1936, the City had been completely rebuilt. It was the crown jewel of the West Coast, a city who's skyline was beginning to rival that of New York. Van Dyke's film ends with a shot of the devastated city in 1906. Right before the final fade-out, the audience sees the great metropolis San Francisco went on to become.

The movie stars some of the most well known actors of that era: Clark Gable (1901-60) was a top box office star in 1936. Virile and handsome as hell, he was eventually dubbed "The King of Hollywood." Jeannette MacDonald (1903-65) was a musical comedy star who possessed a stunning set of operatic pipes. Spencer Tracy was a rising star who himself went on to become one of Hollywood's greatest leading men/character actors.

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The three top billed stars of San Francisco were given a somewhat formulaic script about Blackie (Gable), a hot tempered saloon owner on the rough and tumble Barbary Coast. He falls in love with Mary (MacDonald) a preacher's daughter who yearns to be an opera singer, but sings at Blackie's saloon because she's broke and homeless. Tracy plays Father Tim, Blackie's childhood friend and conscious.

It all turns into a love triangle when an opera impresario (Jack Holt) falls in love with Mary and decides to make her a star -- and to marry her.

Who will Mary choose?

San Francisco is a soap opera. But it works. During the 1930s MGM was the most powerful studio in Hollywood. Studio boss Louis B. Mayer spared no expense at obtaining the finest talent. Actors, directors, cinematographers, writers, set and costume designers: Mayer literally scoured the world, looking for artists and craftspeople who were at the top of their game. Though other studios had rosters of great stars and made great films, MGM product had a polish that no other studio could rival.

Gable's almost God-like screen presence personified "star quality." The great screenwriter Anita Loos coined the phrase "it" to describe those who's larger than life personas made them seem greater than the rest of us mere mortals. When someone has "it" the mere sight of them is mesmerizing. "I know it when I see it," Loos wrote. Gable had "it". His star turn as Blackie makes the screen sizzle, and highlights MacDonald's own screen aura.

The film concludes with a terrifying sequence that attempts to recreate the '06 quake. In those long ago pre-CGI (computer generated) days, MGM effects artists had to literally shake the soundstage and collapse studio sets on camera as dozens of extras ducked for cover. (Reportedly the great silent film director D.W. Griffith helped to direct these sequences without credit.) The effect is chilling.

There was nothing romantic about the Great Quake of '06. Around 3,000 people lost their lives. Thousands and thousands more were left homeless as entire neighborhoods either collapsed or burned to the ground. The then modern city of 1936 seen in the final shot of the film had to be completely rebuilt, largely from scratch.

The 1906 quake was an unimaginably horrific tragedy that only those who endured could fully comprehend. San Francisco the film does not attempt to sugar coat the events of that terrible day.

The love triangle which leads up to the film's devastating climax ultimately puts a human face on tragedies such as these. In the aftermath of the quake, we see the emotional devastation it inflicted on the lives of these characters we've come to know.

San Francisco becomes a great film because it tells a very human story about the worst day in the history of one of the world's greatest cities. The film reminds those of us who live here today, that it could, and probably will, happen again.

San Francisco is available on DVD, and we suggest you check it out on this 108th anniversary.

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