An earthquake noisy and terrifying, is San Francisco’s forte. Quake occurs after more than an hour and up to then the picture is distinguished chiefly for its corking cast and super-fine production.
Story basically follows the outline traced previously by Warner’s Frisco Kid and Goldwyn’s Barbary Coast [both 1935] although this one tends more to the musical through the constant singing of Jeanette MacDonald.
Lone incongruous note is the remarkable survival of Clark Gable after a whole wall has toppled over on him. His survival is necessary, to complete the picture, but it might have been made easier to believe.
As were James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson before him, Gable is ‘king’ of the Barbary Coast, and like his predecessors, his reformation is the essence of the plot [story by Robert Hopkins]. Only this guy is tougher; it takes the earthquake to cure him. As Blackie Norton he operates a prosperous gambling joint and beer garden. The closest friend of this godless soul is a priest, who doesn’t try to reform Blackie but always hopes for the best.
MacDonald enters as a Denver choir singer who’s in Frisco looking for work. From the show at Blackie Norton’s she graduates to grand opera under the sponsorship of Blackie’s political rival.
Spencer Tracy plays a priest, and it’s the most difficult role in the picture. His slang – he calls Gable ‘mug’ and ‘sucker’ good naturedly – is the sort usually associated with men of lesser spiritual quality.
1936: Best Sound Recording.
Nominations: Best Director, Actor (Spencer Tracy), Original Story, Assistant Director (Joseph Newman)