San Francisco Earthquake Recreated in the Oscar-winning 1936 film starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald

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Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy brought home the horror of the 1906 earthquake in the blockbuster classic movie “San Francisco,” released seventy years ago. But the filming was problematic since Gable didn’t want to work with MacDonald; he was friends with Nelson Eddy, who had just bitterly broken off his engagement to MacDonald.

The movie “San Francisco” remains one of Hollywood's greatest disaster films. Directed by Woody Van Dyke, it was filmed in 1936 to mark the 30th anniversary of the great quake. The A-list cast included Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. The special effects were awesome for the day and the film was a blockbuster worldwide, making “San Francisco” one of the top moneymakers of the year.

Director Woody Van Dyke took special care with the earthquake sequence. He had begun his career working as an assistant director for silent film great D.W. Griffith. But by 1931, Griffith was forced into retirement due to a failing career. Five years later, he was all but forgotten in the industry. But loyal Van Dyke hauled Griffith out of retirement to help direct the stunning earthquake scenes. Van Dyke also hired many out-of-work silent film actors to appear as extras.

The MGM film actually began as a project for soprano Jeanette MacDonald. She never could envision anyone except Clark Gable in the role of Blackie Norton, and fought to get him as her co-star. In March of 1935, she wrote MGM management: “I was approached about a story (based on an original idea)…momentarily called “San Francisco” to be done with Clark Gable. The idea is a swell one with a great dramatic background, punch, but happily not a musical comedy or operetta, but with music opportunities and scope so great that unless I am entirely crazy, it is a natural. In its present embryonic state it fits Gable and me like a pair of gloves…”

The only problem was that Gable didn’t want to work with MacDonald. He was friends with MacDonald’s frequent co-star Nelson Eddy. MacDonald and Eddy had been dating off-screen and she had accepted his marriage proposal in 1935 while they filmed “Rose Marie” on location at Lake Tahoe. But when MacDonald became pregnant, studio head Louis B. Mayer insisted MacDonald end the pregnancy and call off the engagement. While MacDonald dithered about what to do, she miscarried and Eddy broke up with her in disgust. Gable sided with Eddy and later claimed that Jeanette MacDonald was the only co-star he didn’t even try to bed.

MacDonald waited several months for Gable to become available, losing money in the bargain. Gable was forced by Mayer to make the film, partially as punishment for getting Loretta Young pregnant.

Filming began on Valentine’s Day, 1936. MacDonald noted in her autobiography, “The first day on the set, [Gable] showed up reeking of garlic. We had to kiss in the scene we played together. I’d never known a man to smell worse. I got the point that he despised prima donnas, but I scarcely knew how to survive the embraces as Woody shot and re-shot our kiss.” In her annotated version of her book, MacDonald wrote in the margin that the garlic was really “hangover breath.”

MacDonald later wrote in a February 1936 letter: “Gable is a mess! I’ve never been more disappointed in anyone in my life….The third day of production he & I had quite a blow up and it all came out in Mayer’s office that evening. I like Tracy very much, there’s as much difference between the 2 as day from nite.”

Another problem was MacDonald’s reluctance to sing the title number, “San Francisco,” as a torch song. When director Van Dyke insisted, MacDonald bet him $500 he was wrong and the song would be a flop. When the song became the hit of the film, she kept her word and paid up. The movie was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Spencer Tracy for Best Supporting Actor. It won for Best Sound Recording and grossed over two million dollars in the United States alone.

More about MacDonald’s comments regarding the filming of “San Francisco” can be found in the books “Sweethearts” by Sharon Rich, and “Jeanette MacDonald Autobiography: The Lost Manuscript,” annotated by Sharon Rich, at http://www.maceddy.com. You can also listen to Jeanette MacDonald singing “San Francisco” at http://www.maceddy.com.

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