San Francisco (1936)
There is much charm in San Francisco, what with Clark Gable wholly in his comfort zone portraying "Blackie," a Barbary Coast nightclub owner and gambler with a heart; Spencer Tracy as his boyhood friend, now Father Tim; and Jeanette MacDonald as the classically-trained singer, Mary Black, down on her luck.
Mary wanders in to Blackie's "Paradise Club" looking for work, even nightclub singing, if it comes to that. Blackie likes the sound of her voice and so does "the Professor' (Marx Brothers uncle, Al Shean), the piano player and musical director. Blackie makes a routine, casual move on Mary, which she is visibly repelled by, so he backs off the romance and offers her a job. He may be a rogue, but he's not an animal. She becomes a huge draw fro the club and they develop a strong mutual attraction.
Meanwhile, the Barbary Coast is suffering from neglect from city leaders. Blackie, encouraged by Father Tim, decides to run for city council to do something about the horrible conditions and myriad fire hazards. There is also the complication of Mary's obvious operatic talents, noticed at once by the Professor, who contrives to get her an audience with owners of the famous Tivoli Opera House. Mary leaves the Paradise with Blackie's blessing, and is soon thrown into the company of opera-loving, socially-appropriate Jack Burley (Jack Holt), who promptly falls in love with her.
Jack wants Mary; Mary wants Blackie, who also wants her, but wants to see how the election plays out and isn't so sure she wouldn't be better off with the guy in her own class. Father Tim wants Blackie to be good and follow his conscience. Politics and jealousy soon lead to the Paradise's closure. In the wee hours of the annual "Chickens Ball," a competition for, I don't know, Best Clip Joint of the Barbary Coast, Mary sings on behalf of the Paradise and wins, which annoys both Jack and Blackie. Suddenly, the earthquake hits!
And it's a lulu. The special effects of the immediate damage, the aftershocks, and the fire are spectacular. Honestly. For the time, the technology, and the budget, the cinematic depiction of the disaster and its aftermath are amazing.
When you think about it, the distance between the movie San Francisco and the actual 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire is only 30 years -- the same distance between Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" machinations at the VMAs and Madonna performing "Like a Virgin" at the same event three decades earlier. Yet, the 19-aughts of this excellent W.S. Van Dyke film seem far, far away from the 1936 in which it was highly stylized. But the changes between 1906 and 1936 were astonishing: air travel, ubiquitous telephony, fast cars, skyscrapers, highways, one world war down, and one on the way. Indeed, the enormity of these changes are deftly evoked in the closing shots of the film.
And if that doesn't interest you, you should at least see the picture for Jeanette MacDonald going all ragtime on the tune "San Francisco" right before the quake hits. It's like watching your grandma rap.