San Francisco is one-third musical, one-third catastrophe movie, and one-third religious movie. The musical third is just a showcase for Jeanette MacDonald in the role of Mary Blake. We don’t really relate to this movie as a musical, and so we become impatient with her numbers while waiting for the catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake. But this catastrophe, in turn, merely provides the basis for its religious themes of sin, suffering, and redemption.
Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, who runs the Paradise Club, an establishment catering to vices such as drinking, gambling, and ogling pretty women. Blackie is an atheist, who, according to his friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), doesn’t believe in anything, which means Blackie is a cynic as well. However, we also see that he has a good heart underlying his sneering façade, for he shows concern about people getting out of a burning building, offers to make a charitable contribution, pays for an organ for Tim’s church, and plans to run for Supervisor, a political office that will enable him to enact regulations preventing more fires like the one we see in the beginning of the movie.
Tim tells Mary about Blackie’s good heart, saying in general that no one is all bad, an absurdity on which I will not bother to comment. The important thing about this conversation he has with Mary in this regard, however, is the smug look he has on his face, which only gets worse as the movie wears on. A lot of people suppose that belief in God and moral goodness are linked together in some essential way, and this was especially true in 1936, when this movie was made. Therefore, Blackie’s atheism in conjunction with his good heart, we are being guided to believe, is unsustainable.
Mary gets a job in Blackie’s nightclub as a singer. Her operatic voice seems totally out of place in a joint where people want to indulge their vices, but that is sort of the point. Soon she is offered a chance to sing in the Tivoli Opera House. One of the musical numbers sung by Mary during the course of the movie is from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod. You know the story. A man sells his soul to the Devil so he can get laid. Presumably Blackie’s attempt to possess Mary recapitulates Faust’s seduction and ruin of Marguerite, which is why Tim contends with Blackie for Mary’s soul. After she breaks off her engagement with Blackie, Mary sings in the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, about a courtesan who dies from tuberculosis, possibly suggesting the unhappiness that Mary will experience if she goes ahead with her plans to marry Jack Burley for his money and social position, a man whom she does not love. Also, Burley will allow her to continue to sing at the Tivoli, while Blackie wants her back at the Paradise.
Early in the movie, we see Blackie and Tim in the boxing ring, in which Tim knocks Blackie to the mat, as he usually does, according to Blackie. It is important to establish that Tim can lick Blackie in a fight, because later in the movie, when Blackie and Tim are arguing over Mary, Blackie punches Tim, who just stands there and takes it with a hurt look on his face, the blood trickling down from his lip. In other words, Tim is turning the other cheek in spite of his superior ability at fisticuffs. If the movie had not featured that boxing scene early on, we might suppose that Tim’s reluctance to strike back is out of cowardice and weakness, that he is hiding behind his collar.
Though Mary loves Blackie, yet it bothers her that he doesn’t believe in God. Blackie responds, “God? Hey, isn’t he supposed to be taking care of the suckers that come out of the missions looking for something to eat and a place to sleep?” Some might answer that it is God that inspires the people that run the missions. But as Mark Twain once noted, “If you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself.”
This challenge returns to us toward the end of the movie where God indeed has the field to Himself, for when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries. Of course, we are probably supposed to understand this earthquake as Old Testament style, wrath of God punishment for the Barbary Coast. As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God. Mrs. Burley, the mother of the man whom Mary was planning to marry, says of her son’s death that it is God’s will and that it’s God’s help they both need now. This brings out the great paradox regarding the connection between religion and suffering: the more suffering people experience, the more likely they are to turn to God; and yet, the more suffering people experience, the more we wonder why an all-powerful, loving God would let them suffer.
Eventually, Blackie finds a place where the injured are being cared for, where Tim is offering them comfort. One might expect that in the face of all the death and destruction that has befallen the city, Tim would look as grief stricken and overwhelmed as everyone else including Blackie. But no, Tim has a look of serenity on his face when Blackie sees him, and that look stays on his face right through the end of the movie. Earlier in the movie, when the Barbary Coast was indulging in all its wantonness—drinking, gambling, carousing—Tim’s facial expression was often grim and disapproving. But now, with all the pain and misery around him, Tim is in his element. As the city burns, as people die before his eyes, as he hears people cry out for the loss of their loved ones, Tim is truly at peace. This is especially so when he sees Blackie. Now, at last, Blackie will see. There must be a God after all.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. All this devastation brought about by the earthquake doesn’t prove there’s a God. At most, it only proves that people need God. But that nice distinction exceeds the critical acumen of those that made this movie. More to the point, if people need God, then they need priests like Tim. For years, Tim had to endure all of Blackie’s scoffing and sneering, but now the day of triumph is at hand. Blackie is truly humbled, confused by all the suffering and misery that he does not comprehend, as he stands before Tim, who has known all along that this day would come, and whose heart is filled with joy.
When Blackie asks Tim if he has seen Mary, Tim takes him to a place outdoors where survivors of the earthquake have found refuge. There is Mary, singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” accompanied by those around her, while a mother holds her dead child in her arms until others gently take him away from her and she collapses in tears. It is all so heavenly.
When Blackie sees Mary, he says to Tim, “I want to thank God.” And then we see it, the spectacle that exceeds even the earthquake: Blackie Norton, on his knees, tears in his eyes, giving thanks to God, while Tim looks on smiling sweetly.
When Mary sees Blackie on his knees in prayer, she comes to him, and now we know that Blackie will finally have Mary’s love. Just then, someone yells that the fire is out, at which point everyone becomes happy, shouting that they will rebuild San Francisco, marching over the hill, back to the city, as they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When you consider that within less than the length of one full day, husbands have lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and children their parents, they seem to be holding up remarkably well, all of which testifies to the power of faith and the glory of God.