In those days, Hollywood classics were shown on content-hungry network TV. Under my mother's rapturous tutelage, that was my first viewing of Gable's dynamic performances in "It Happened One Night" and "San Francisco."
Seeing his star turn in "Gone With the Wind" came later, when the blockbuster was re-released to theaters and my mother took me to see it.
For years, Gable's role as the Barbary Coast saloon keeper Blackie Norton in "San Francisco" shone in my memory. On Thursday night, my longtime hopes to see the film again were at last fulfilled thanks to TCM, where I found the movie as magical as I'd remembered from childhood.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the 1936 film possesses the black and white grandeur of other pre-color classics. Depicting the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the film's special effects set an unsurpassed standard.
Apparently D.W. Griffith contributed to the scenes showing the quake striking the city, the death and devastation, and the persistent flames. The movie's crowd scenes and set pieces rival those of John Ford and Howard Hawkes.
While Gable with his cocky grin and boyish All-American masculinity dominates, the film also glows with the star power of Jeanette Macdonald and a young Spencer Tracy. A strong roster of Hollywood character actors give memorable performances.
I was struck by an appearance by Shirley Ross, whose "Thanks for the Memories" duet with Bob Hope in "The Big Broadcast of 1936" is one of the greatest Hollywood scenes. After achieving prominence in the 1930s and early '40s, Ross saw her career fade.
Along with D.W. Griffith, silent film director and later "Sunset Boulevard" star Erich Von Stroheim also contributed to the making of "San Francisco." The script was co-written by Robert Hopkins and, I was intrigued to discover, Anita Loos. While gentlemen may prefer blondes, as Loos established in her novel and subsequent movie, the raffish Gable in "San Francisco" prefers the red-headed MacDonald, who plays the virtuous operatic star Mary Blake, who finds herself attracted to a ruffian.
The ravishing MacDonald and charismatic Gable generate maximum sexual heat, although they apparently disliked each other off-screen. Tracy received an Academy Award nomination for his 17-minute appearance as a good-natured priest brought up in the city's rough-and-tumble ways.
MacDonald made my heart soar with her performances of the standards "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates" and "Nearer My God to Thee." Her lilting soprano rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee" elevates the movie's glorious finale showing the city's joy after the fire burns out. In the uplifting conclusion, the city's people sing "the Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they march together, vowing to rebuild the city.
With all of today's computerized special effects and high-tech wizardy, they don't make them like that anymore. The old directors knew that heart is required.