"Reel SF" Finds a Tough, Moody Kinda Town

Dennis Harvey April 13, 2006

San Francisco is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, so it shouldn’t surprise that most S.F.-set movies these days offer a picture-postcard burg where every street is hilly, sweeping vistas are ubiquitous, and everybody seems to live the kind of lifestyle that requires an annual income of 200K or so. Occasionally an indie feature or one dealing with one of our myriad cultural (and countercultural) communities will offer an alternative view. But those are seldom seen by mainstream audiences. For them, the city invariably looks freshly scrubbed and Michelin-approved — whether in a family film (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), thriller (“Basic Instinct”), action epic (“The Rock,” “Hulk”) or yet another formulaic romantic comedy (“The Wedding Planner,” et al.).

It wasn’t always that way. Up until the 1960s, Hollywood more often cast SF as a tough, moody kind of town, where everyone was too busy brawling, floozing, plotting intrigue, and pulling scams to exclaim “Just look at that view!” That’s the “Frisco” (a term once acceptable for non-rube use) you’ll find refreshingly on display in most of Reel San Francisco, the Balboa Theatre’s second annual showcase for films shot and/or set in the city. The series runs April 16th through the 27th.

Mixing famous and lesser-known titles, Reel SF starts out with an undisputed classic: “San Francisco,” the 1936 MGM all-star smash in which it takes the 1906 earthquake to resolve a contentious love triangle. No wonder, when you’ve got he-men Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey arm-wrestling over wannabe-opera-singer-turned-to-saloon-chantoose Jeannette MacDonald, even though she keeps trilling that “open your Golden Gates” song until faultlines fissure in protest. Jeannette is a high-class kinda dame, and you can imagine diva harrumphing that ensues when hootch joint impresario Clark greets her with this exchange:

—Well, sister, what’s your racket? —I’m a singer! —Let’s see your legs! —I said I’m a singer! —All right: Let’s see your legs!

This big-budget hit’s Balboa co-feature was also directed in 1936 by W.S. Van Dyke, who churned out four more that year for good measure. (Trivia note: Look fast in “San Francisco” for an unbilled DW Griffith as an orchestra conductor; though now far better-remembered than Van Dyke, the legendary silent-era director’s career was then at rock-bottom.) “After the Thin Man” was the first of several sequels to the Van Dyke-directed 1934 original which peerlessly paired William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora Charles. This time the perpetually sloshed socialites and amateur sleuths leave Manhattan for S.F., where once again a murder mystery attempts to interrupt their epic cocktail hours. As if! It’s considered by many the best in the “Thin Man” franchise, which is saying something.

After a single evening’s presentation (on April 18) of rare ’06 post-quake documentary footage, there’s more mayhem and snappy patter on tap in another 30’s double feature starring two of the era’s toughest durable her best to outrage the prudes. Not only is she the leader of a bank-robbing gang, she attracts romantic attention from a crusading evangelist (Preston Foster) ain’t bad, either. Meanwhile Bette Davis is a “thrill-a-minute party girl” pulled into some risky business in the mile-a-minute “Fog Over Frisco.” Of course these shameless pre-Code dames find redemption in the end — thankfully, only after several reels of bad, bad, bad behavior.

On April 21-22, there’s more lockup action in “Birdman of Alcatraz,” the 1962 John Frankenheimer-directed drama about a real-life con who used his stint to become a famous aviary expert. In the title role, Burt Lancaster gives one of his best performances. Likewise looking at S.F. from a distance (save in the first scenes) is a more familiar feathery saga, Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Was Tippi Hedren an innocent bystander, or did she somehow piss off the West Coast’s entire flying populace by being simply a wealthy playgirl from sinful San Fran? Several Bodega Bay residents ponder that question — when they’re not being pecked to death, that is.

The city’s traditions of brassy nightlife and colorful characters are glorified in the next double bill. Based (very, very loosely) on John O’Hara’s stories and the subsequent Broadway musical, 1957’s “Pal Joey” is a splashy vehicle for Frank Sinatra as a womanizing crooner a stretch sure which one he sings “The Lady is a Tramp” about. There’s less singing but even more fighting and chorus-girl flouncing in Howard Hawks’ 1935 “Barbary Coast,” a Roaring 90s saga with dancehall hostess Miriam Hopkins juggling suitors Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea.

If that’s still not hardboiled enough for ya, April 25 offers two lurid gems from the film noir era. The famous 1950 “D.O.A” has Edmond O’Brien tearing up the town to find out who gave him a fatal slow-acting poison, and why. 1953’s not-so-famous “The Bigamist” has big-boned O’Brien again as a man who keeps one wife (Joan Fontaine) in San Francisco, another in L.A. (Ida Lupino), and both of them in the dark. This tight little “B” was one of the few films directed by Lupino at the time.

Finally, if you’ve had enough crime and punishment, Reel SF ends with two solid-gold comedies. There’s Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 salute to screwball classics “What’s Up, Doc?,” with its memorable climactic chase up and down the city’s most gravity-challenging streets. Then comes 1969’s “Take the Money and Run,” Woody Allen’s first directorial feature (discounting “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” a Japanese spy flick he redubbed with funny English dialogue). In it he plays a bungling compulsive thief who got that way after his musical career was crushed by an inconvenient lack of talent. Everyone expressed shock when Woody’s latest, “Match Point,” forsook his beloved Manhattan for a London setting, forgetting that he’d started out with a movie location — shot in S.F. Forget it again, and we will unleash our birds.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    NFPF’s ‘Treasures 5’ Excavates 'The West'

    The National Film Preservation Foundation delivers another gem with the fascinating three-disc box set 'The West 1898-1938.'

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.