Sunday 14 February 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes a new edition of SAN FRANCISCO (W S Van Dyke, USA, 1936)

First screen above is from San Francisco.  

A previously sinful but now sinless Jeanette MacDonald with virginal choirboys in an ecclesiastical moment midway the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. She's on her way up and out of the town flesh pits run by "King" Clark Gable whose seen below in scrumptious closeup, taking in Jeanette eye candy (lower below) at a performance of some hideous quasi-operatic show, in which Madame having risen to the heights, now simply vocalises, sans paroles through a performance of Gounod's Faust, itself barely recognizable under an ocean of tessitura. All the while wearing some Chekovian peasant girl costume courtesy of the great Adrian, king of Metro wardrobe.

Mercifully the deft hand of composer Bronislau Kaper returns shortly to deliver another rousing chorus from Jeanette of the movie's biggest musical hit (written for the movie, not from the actual period), "San Francisco".
I've very consciously refrained from posting a screen of Spencer Tracy in dog collar playing Father Tim, with all the smugness he could muster. Apart from his character as goody-two-shoes nemesis to Gable's attractively brawny godless man of the flesh, Tracy is one of only two mis-steps in the picture's tone, the other indeed the wholly sentimental open air choir for the finale in which Gable and MacDonald re-unite, joining the huddling masses droning their way through "Nearer my God to Thee". Jeanette this time doesn't give us an encore of her wordless vocalising. Maybe she should have, to lift the mood a bit.
But all preceding 110 minutes of the movie are far more impressive than the studio circumscribed message of paying for your sins. The otherwise fulsome credits don't get around to mentioning two outstanding people who contributed to the 15 minutes quake sequence including the break in the actual quake before the fire Notably, D.W. Griffith who was the major second unit director for the sequence, and Metro's go to montage genius, Slavko Vorkapich, whose terrific earthquake disaster footage for me sets an unbeatable effects standard in what is perhaps the cinema's first disaster movie.
Warner Archive's new Blu-ray delivers a really outstanding restoration here, with no extant O-Neg or other first gen elements. According to other sources the principle element was a French nitrate fine grain neg, with at least one additional safety fine grain lavender from the studio vaults. The movie looks sensational, even the massive number of process and lab work shots in the ten minutes or so of the earthquake. Only two or three very short moments here have obviously dupey quality. For the rest it's perfection, once again.

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