Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. Starring Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy
Dir. Jan Troell. Starring Gene Hackman, Liv Ullmann, Eileen Heckart
There’s nothing inherently weird about the idea of a disaster movie where the first three-quarters of it have nothing to do with the disaster itself. The reason Titanic turned into this enormous phenomenon was not really because of the boat but because of the bright young things entangling themselves on it. A disaster at the end of the picture is a good way to add some tragedy to the proceedings, although if the disaster at the end of the picture is a little bit too meaningful that can make the rest of the film pale a little. (From Here to Eternity dodges this problem by inches. On the other hand, the vast majority of 9/11 movies don’t.) The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is not necessarily too odd for that either. In fact, in terms of its limits it makes a really strong choice for a historical disaster to make a movie from. Like Titanic, San Francisco is working with a onetime event that was horrible in the moment but which does not have obvious national or international shockwaves (sorry) which follow it. The end of this movie is about the optimism that the earthquake’s survivors have about rebuilding San Francisco in a new image, one that we can assume from the singing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is going to be significantly less sinful than the old San Sodom and Gomorrah we’ve been watching. They mourn their dead, are upset about the injured, miss their burned homes. But the future is more important to them, and the movie chooses not to end on a note of tragedy which would have been earned if they’d gone that way. I think what makes this movie weird is how much it owes to Jeanette MacDonald’s box office draw, just how often it needs to put her in a position where she’s singing. It is the only interesting thing about Mary Blake, the “daughter of a country parson” from Colorado who is as bland as her name, and the singing she does at the Paradise Café is not even the kind of singing which makes us believe in her voice. I get why the movie is doing this. It’s about the star, not the story; it’s about the expectation that Jeanette MacDonald will sing many times over the course of the movie just as the expectation for Mae West is a sludgy one-liner or the expectation for Eleanor Powell is tap dancing. As much as I think the anxiety people feel about IP taking over as the primary method of getting butts in seats pre-covid is justified, it’s also worth noting that using a star to get butts in seats is not exactly a guarantee of a richer cinema. San Francisco has some good scenes even outside of its famous earthquake sequences, but I’d stop short of saying it’s better or more interesting than Black Panther or Iron Man 3.
There’s nothing inherently weird about the idea of a western where the cowboy mostly stays on his ranch. Zandy Allan (Hackman) is one of those men we often find in westerns, a rough-hewn sort who lives in a dark little cabin, eats what he can kill, and would stick his member in virtually any hole that presented itself regardless of species. His mail-order wife, Hannah (Ullmann), is there to make food, “comfort [his] bed,” and produce sons who will act as heirs to this miniature California fiefdom. In short, the goals that Zandy has in marrying are not unlike the goals that Adam Pontipee has when he is preemptively blessing beautiful hides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, except the first twenty-four hours of Hannah’s marriage are less easily dealt with than the first twenty-four hours of Milly’s. Milly has the benefit of shame to diffuse among a larger group of men who are sort of wild at first but who also have some home training behind them. Zandy’s father (Frank Cady) is, if anything, even worse than his son. The history of the Allan men is one of pleasing wants immediately and a nearly sociopathic approach to having things their own way. Although the conditions these people live in are fragile enough where we know academically that they cannot survive without working hard, there’s a decision made in this movie to more or less ignore that in favor of watching other people work hard for them. There are far more shots of Zandy’s mother (Heckart) or Hannah working on something than there are shots of Allan père or Allan fils working. Nor do we see the work that the women have done rewarded in any kind of way. The tenderest moment in Zandy’s Bride is between Zandy and his horse, who he pushes too far and injures in an uphill climb. Zandy takes the horse’s head in his hands, puts his head against the horse’s, and apologizes, all of which is far more than Hannah ever gets from him. The end of the film, where Zandy has a boy and a girl (he’s only excited about one of those) by Hannah, is treated as a truce, albeit an uneasy one. At this point, Hannah has fulfilled the better part of her contractual obligations, and she has also proven, in his absence, that she can live without Zandy’s help. It is the beginning of the rest of their marriage, and the movie is much less optimistic about their ability to work it out, I think, than the singing citizens of San Francisco are worried about their ability to rebuild in the wake of the earthquake.
What both of these California movies have in common is an interest in the civilizing capability of women in rough circumstances, and I think in both cases we are meant to believe that the health of the state is somehow incumbent upon the success these women have in reforming this West Coast Canaan. In both cases, I think the films share some trepidation about how successful they might be.
San Francisco seems, on the surface, like a movie which generally believes in the power of a good woman to get through to a bad man. After all, Mary Blake, over the course of months, is more enthralled by Blackie Norton than she is able to alter him. Even in key moments where a strong word or a tough rejoinder might convince Blackie of something, she will follow in his wake with a surprising willingness. It takes significant coaching from Father Mullin (Tracy) to get Mary to even see that Blackie is someone who might be reformed at all, and it takes his presence at key moments to get her away from Blackie’s clutches. The thing which ultimately convinces her that she’d be better off with Burley (Jack Holt), singing opera for him at the Tivoli, is watching Blackie strike his old buddy Tim in the face. In an earlier scene, we saw Tim lay Blackie low in the friendly confines of a gym, and we know that the priest is, ironically, a better roughhouser than the saloonkeeper. But Tim, presumably thinking about some choice words from Matthew 5, uses the opportunity to show Mary what kind of man Blackie really is; she leaves with him, and Blackie goes into a tailspin that he is not shaken out of until the earthquake hits and he realizes that he would do anything (even find God! in public! the horror!) in order to know she’s safe. Yet this is a long time coming and requires a shaking to his core that’s a little more physical than the kind of shaking than even the Jeanette MacDonalds of the world can create. With her voice loudest in the chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” centered in the moving mass of people returning to their broken city, we can assume that she is going to have some part to play as the wife of Blackie Norton, whose energy and determination will (again, we can assume) will be essential to making the city new. But all those assumptions are their own form of uncertainty, and it’s hardly as if the entire place is filled with crooks. There’s a not insignificant amount of distrust and enmity for the Nob Hill crowd in this movie, and I am fascinated by a conversation between two women of low birth and good character: Mary and her would-be mother-in-law, Mrs. Burley (Jessie Ralph). The two of them have a heart-to-heart at a time when Mary is not entirely sold on Jack, and what eventually sways Mary is hearing that in her younger years, Mrs. Burley chose a man like Jack rather than a man like Blackie. If women are civilizers, or at least have the power to become civilizers, it is noteworthy that Mrs. Burley, for all her good sense and proper opinion, does not appear to have had the presence or persistence to have made a better man out of a beau back in the 19th Century. If women are potentially meaningful figures in changing a place for the better and not simply trophies for the men who do so, then the story of Mrs. Burley is a cautionary tale in the exact opposite way that she means. Choose the better man, she tells Mary, for the better life. But in San Francisco, with the caveat that the better man is dead with a few thousand of his fellow citizens, the better outcome is for Mary to end up with Blackie and continue to push him to a career in public service that people like Father Mullin saw for him all along. There’s a cost to the safer prospects.
Then again, Zandy’s Bride has the wisdom to see that the unsafe prospects are not exactly likely to create a smooth path for the women who follow them. Pa and Ma Allan are misogynistic dysfunction in a cabin, and just as the choices of a Mrs. Burley echo in the years to come, so too does their example tattoo itself on Zandy. That little scene where we see Zandy come home and witness his father barking orders at his mother is essential to the movie; it is a moment where we get to see the potion brewed from a hateful apothecary, and from the way Zandy treats Hannah it’s clear that the guy’s been pouring it into his mush every morning at breakfast. Hannah does not know what she’s getting herself into—it’s clear that she’s expecting some kind of gentleman, or at least someone more in the mold of Adam Pontipee than Zandy Allan—and that gamble proves to be as much as she can handle. She tries to do what she can to bring the millennium to Zandy: take your hat off at the table, use the right utensil, buy me a clothesline for the laundry. Zandy appears to be amenable to one of these at a time, and even then but grudgingly. The hat will come off with a grudging smirk, but in pushing for a clothesline when she could just put the clothes out to dry on bushes like everyone else Zandy knows, she goes a bridge too far for her emotionally retarded husband. Hannah plants a garden late in the movie; Zandy drives his cattle through it and practically on top of her. Hannah tries to dress up for a picnic where she will meet the neighbors for the first time after months of isolation; Zandy dunks her head in a trough and she goes in a plain, rough dress. Whatever she does which would improve Zandy as an individual and maintain her dignity (which is to say, make her more important than the horse) is rejected out of hand and with a fist by this man she has foolishly cast her lot with. The fate of California is not too difficult to divine based on how ineffective Hannah is in making her husband into a real human being, but the fault is not really with her at all. Not even his much-desired son will be able to turn him into something worth more than a lump of manure, for the society that Hannah breezily appears within is not worth much more than that anyway. This movie is probably most famous for a scene where Gene Hackman fights a bear, and Zandy’s triumph is measured with serious injuries. If California was to be made a purer place, Hannah should have put a blunt object through Zandy’s skull, like Jael did to Sisera, while she had the chance.