In San Francisco, the new year of 1906 is ushered in with a fire along the Barbary Coast, interrupting the revelries of Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), owner the Paradise Cafe, who rushes to the blaze to help. Blackie returns to the Paradise and meets out-of-work singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), the daughter of a country preacher. Although Mary's only experience has been singing in a church choir, Blackie is attracted to her and offers her a two-year contract.

Soon after, a citizens' group, angered at the New Year's Eve fire, urges Blackie to run for supervisor on a ticket of reforming the outdated fire ordinances. Blackie, encouraged by his boyhood friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), accepts the challenge. Blackie's candidacy prompts Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a Nob Hill patrician who owns tenements along the Barbary Coast, to visit Blackie and advise him against running for office. Burley, who also owns the Tivoli Opera house, is accompanied by the Tivoli's maestro, Señor Baldini (William Ricciardi). He hears Mary sing and offers her an audition. Although Mary aspires to be an opera singer, Blackie will not release her from her contract.

One night, between shows, Blackie sends Mary to Tim's church to sing at the unveiling of its new organ. Tim tells Mary about his boyhood friendship with Blackie and expresses the hope that some day Blackie will act as a force of good rather than evil. Soon Burley offers to buy Mary's contract, and Blackie leaves the choice to Mary. When, out of loyalty, Mary decides to stay, Blackie responds that he is crazy about her. He then decides to throw a party to celebrate their new relationship, but she soon realizes that she is just another conquest to him and leaves for the Tivoli.

Some time later, on Mary's opening night at the Tivoli, Burley proposes, but she does not accept. Meanwhile, Blackie enters the opera house accompanied by a process server whom Blackie has brought to enforce Mary's contract. During the opera, however, Blackie is so moved by Mary's singing that he physically prevents the process server from stopping the performance. After the finale, Blackie visits Mary in her dressing room and she proposes to him. He accepts, but makes it contingent upon her return to the Paradise.

As Mary soon prepares to go onstage at the Paradise in a revealing new costume, Tim visits and denounces Blackie for exploiting her. When Tim refuses to allow Mary to go onstage, Blackie strikes him, after which Mary quits and leaves with Tim. Mary finally accepts Burley's proposal, after being convinced by his mother (Jessie Ralph) that Blackie is not good for her, but Burley, not satisfied with winning Mary, arranges for the Paradise's liquor license to be revoked and Blackie's performers jailed.

The raid occurs on the night of the "Chickens Ball," an entertainment competition that Blackie has won every year. With his entertainers jailed, Blackie has no hope of obtaining the prize money that he badly needs to finance his campaign. Blackie is then given another blow when his friend Mat (Ted Healy) reveals that the citizens group is withdrawing their support because his campaign has become "too personal." When Mary and Burley go to the Chickens Ball, Della Bailey (Margaret Irving), an old friend of Blackie's, denounces Bailey for closing down the Paradise. Hearing this, Mary announces that she is going to represent the Paradise and sings a crowd-pleasing rendition of "San Francisco." Della sends for Blackie to witness Mary's performance, but just as Mary is proclaimed the winner, Blackie angrily goes onstage and refuses to take the award when she tries to give it to him.

Humiliated, Mary prepares to leave with Burley when the ground quakes and the building starts to crumble. Mary and Blackie call to each other, but are separated in the chaos. Within a few moments, San Francisco is destroyed as buildings tumble and streets open-up. When the shaking stops, Blackie pulls himself from the rubble and searches for Mary. After finding Burley's dead body, Blackie goes to the Burley mansion, where Mrs. Burley, who is being evacuated so that her home can be dynamited to stem the tide of fires now raging through the city, tells him that they both need God's help. Wandering through the desolation of the city, Blackie finally finds Tim, who is comforting the injured. Recognizing Blackie's contrition, Tim then takes Blackie to a refugee camp, where Mary is leading the dispossessed in a hymn. As Blackie kneels down to thank God for finding Mary, she sees him and goes to his side. They are reunited just as word comes that the fires are out. Blackie and Mary then join the others, who are marching back to the city, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They will rebuild.

Oscar
6 Nominations
1 Award
Best Sound

Golden Globes
0 Nominations
0 Awards
“San Francisco” was a written by Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins as a tribute to the city that they both deeply loved. They were both native San Franciscans who remembered the city by the bay before it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1906. The script soon came to the attention of singing star Jeanette MacDonald. MacDonald had only been at MGM a short time, but she had made a big splash with her beautiful operatic singing voice and that had made her an instant favorite with audiences. However, Jeanette was not happy to merely be a singing star in no-nonsense operettas. She wanted to have more control over her career and prove she could handle dramatic acting as well. When she found out about “San Francisco”, she knew it would be perfect for her and she knew who she wanted her leading man to be. It had to be Clark Gable. She lobbied forever to get her way, even going so far as to turn down a picture to wait for Gable’s schedule to free up. But Gable couldn’t be less interested. He had heard rumors that MacDonald could be a prima donna on set, and he detested being around actresses that were pampered and spoiled.

But after constant needling from the studio execs, Gable relented and agreed to star in the picture. And while Gable is his usual self-confident self throughout the film, his Blackie Norton character is far more complex than you might expect. So for a picture that he didn’t want to do originally, he turns in a brilliant performance that went against everything Clark had played before. Just when you think you've got Blackie figured for a bum, he does something endearing. And just when you figure him for a hero, he does something stupid. As a character in a film, he was priceless, but as an actor… well, Gable may have finally agreed to star opposite Jeanette MacDonald in the film, but that didn't mean he had to like her. He was cordial to her, but could never warm up to her when the cameras stopped rolling. He did, however, get along with Spencer Tracy. The two managed to forge a deep and lasting friendship. Sorry to say, as much as MacDonald had lobbied for Gable to be her co-star, MacDonald couldn't have been more disillusioned by his behavior on the set. She eventually wrote to her manager, Bob Ritchie, stating, "Gable is a mess! I've never been more disappointed in anyone in my life”.

But truth be told, Tracy is clearly the best actor in the film. His Father Tim loves Blackie like a brother but at the same time considers him a force for evil. Tracy, known for improving a scene at a moments notice, ad-libbed the line, “That Rooney kid skipped Mass again…” Tracy had just worked with Mickey Rooney in “Riffraff”. He knew the director; W. S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke hated doing retakes, so the line stayed in. Tracy would work again two years later with Mickey Rooney, playing another priest trying to reform him in “Boy’s Town”. “San Francisco” made Tracy a star, not bad for a character that was only in one third of the picture. Tracy’s talent, though, went on in the next two years to become the first actor to win back-to-back Oscars. He was the only actor in the film to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor. Unfortunately, he lost to Paul Muni for “The Story of Louis Pasteur”.

In the film, MacDonald introduced the title song, San Francisco, which was written by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann, and with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Since it was written, it has since become a popular official anthem for the city. So many artists have sung it their way, so many times, but there is no substitute for the original.
However, some say the real star of the film was the earthquake sequence itself. The special effects are extremely impressive and still holds up well over 7 decades later. We see walls of buildings collapsing with people inside them. Bricks rain down on the fleeing people. One shot has the street splitting wide open, which was an astonishing visual effect in its day. It was achieved by crewmen using cables to pull apart two hydraulic platforms with hoses underneath and gushing water to simulate broken water mains. The New York Times said of the spectacular earthquake sequence, "It is a shattering spectacle, one of the truly great cinematic illusions."

All in all, “San Francisco“ took 52 days to shoot at the cost of 1.3 million dollars; an expensive film for its day. It opened in June of 1936 to excellent reviews and was an instant box office smash. And while the special effects don’t rival the effects of today, remember the year is 1936 and there virtually were no special effects to speak of. Not to mention, people were still alive who remembered the great quake. It had only been 30 years since it had happened and it was still relatively fresh in their minds. So it became a powerful movie on more than just an entertaining level. “San Francisco” struck an emotional chord deep inside.