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Images of San Francisco

The film San Francisco (1936) and James Dalessandro’s novel 1906 (2004) present similar images of San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake and fire, showing the city as a bawdy, corrupt place with a somewhat dualistic character, combining the sophisticated and the sordid. However, they approach the subjects with different tones; while San Francisco takes a light-hearted view of the city’s boisterous, shady personality and does not delve into it very deeply or cynically, 1906 explores evil in a much deeper and more detailed manner, depicting San Francisco as a depraved place beneath its sophistication.

The two works share generally similar plots and use the 1906 earthquake as a climax, though in each work, the quake casts a different light on the city. San Francisco is more of a historical romance than anything else, using San Francisco as a colorful, dynamic backdrop. It focuses on Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), a tough but good-natured saloonkeeper who embodies the bawdiness of the Barbary Coast, San Francisco’s vice district. Though other characters describe Blackie as unscrupulous and immoral, the film never explores or explains his sins (which include womanizing, the only one even vaguely shown).

Like the city itself, he is presented as a generally likeable sinner, good-hearted and benign (indeed, his best friend is a priest and he reluctantly enters politics to enact better fire safety codes in his neighborhood). He falls in love with a minister’s daughter, Mary Blake, whom he hires to sing in his saloon, only to see her wooed away by Jack Burley (Jack Holt), a member of the city’s establishment but inwardly just as corrupt as Blackie. (Again, though, his corruption is never specifically detailed; it is implied by the fact that he is less genial and likeable than the “low” Blackie.)

Burley hires Mary to sing at the respectable Tivoli Opera House and proposes to her, aiming to elevate her from the Barbary Coast’s sinful environs (and thus out of Blackie’s reach). The earthquake resolves the film’s conflicts; as it levels the city, it kills Burley and forces Blackie to accept religion while searching for Mary, with whom he happily reunites. In the end, the city’s people are shaken but their spirits undimmed and their goodness brought to the forefront. They ultimately rebuild the city as a modern, moral place, leaving behind its bawdy, colorful past as though passing into maturity.

1906 also features a love story that develops amidst San Francisco’s corruption, though in this novel the corruption and evil are not merely implied but explored in considerable detail. The book has more in common with the noir genre, exploring the city’s depravity directly and sometimes graphically, not as benign, naughty fun. Dalessandro tells the story through the eyes of Annalisa Passarelli, a crusading female journalist working with the city’s chief of detectives, Byron Fallon, to arrest and unseat the city’s corrupt mayor, city attorney, police chief, and other leading officeholders.

To better depict San Francisco, Dalessandro incorporates historical figures into his otherwise fictional narrative, such as Mayor Eugene Schmitz, fire chief Dennis Sullivan, opera singer Enrico Caruso, criminal Shanghai Kelly, eccentric Joshua Norton (here dubbed “Joshua Milton”), and political boss Abe Ruef, called “Adam Rolf” in this novel. However, Rolf has Fallon murdered, leaving Annalisa to unite with his sons, Christian and Hunter (a college graduate with whom she falls in love), as well as a collection of idealistic policemen eager to carry on Fallon’s work.

They plumb the underworld looking for information and collecting evidence, but as they plan to arrest and indict the corrupt city leaders, the earthquake strikes and disrupts their plans, killing some of their colleagues (along with hundreds of citizens) and unleashing anarchy. Instead of being resolute and optimistic, the city is dazed and unable to cope – particularly Schmitz, the inept figurehead who illegally places the city under martial law, which the soldiers abuse.

Ultimately, the protagonists prevail, helping San Francisco reform itself and leave its corruption behind. In San Francisco, the city is at once cosmopolitan and vulgar, with a class of wealthy elites and manifestations of high culture (such as opera) flourishing alongside the bawdy saloon life that Blackie embraces. San Francisco’s picture of the city is bawdy yet benign, a place of naughty pleasures but no genuine harm done. The film makes clear at the outset that the city, as of 1936, has left behind its rollicking past, as titles claim: “San Francisco .

. . stands today a queen among sea-ports – industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was – splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent. . . .” Many of the film’s characters embody this duality. For example, the opening scene of a raucous New Year’s Eve party, heralding the advent of 1906, sets the stage for the film, showing the Barbary Coast as a wild, hedonistic place rife with saloons, illicit gambling houses, and brothels, but it does not appear particularly dangerous or degrading.

Though Blackie’s friend Father Mullin tells Mary, “You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt, most godless city in America,” it seems like rowdy fun instead of criminal activity, and the denizens of such places appear rough but, like Blackie, inherently good-natured and as concerned about people’s well-being as about the pursuit of pleasure. In 1906, turn-of-the-century San Francisco has its bawdy side, though it is hardly benign.

Instead, it is violent, exploitive, and controlled from above by crooked elites, whose conduct is frequently cruel and destructive and who are by no means separated from the city’s seamier side; in fact, they are deeply complicity in the city’s sin. Local eccentric Joshua Milton tells the runaway Kaitlin (who finds herself lured into prostitution) that “making heroes of reprobates is not new to San Francisco,” and indeed the city appears to be demonic beneath a thin angelic veneer. The worst characters seem to have the most power and influence, particularly over the realm of criminal behavior.

In the film, the pursuit of vice is basically victimless, while in the book, one finds mentions of human trafficking, violence, prostitution, opium dealing, illicit sex (such as Rolf’s taste for underage prostitutes), bribery, extortion, and murder for hire. Annalisa comments on the city’s “singular reputation for irreverence,” making a euphemistic reference to a notorious bawdy house frequented by many city leaders and “respectable” citizens. Along with its immoral behavior, San Francisco has deep political corruption that goes far beyond the film’s lack of adequate fire codes.

The novel also emphasizes the city’s deep, pervasive political corruption that turns the place dysfunctional and barely civilized, as Rolf and his cohorts exploit the city, enriching themselves at its expense and rendering the city’s government deeply dysfunctional – a fact that becomes even clearer after the earthquake strikes and civic authorities make a series of disastrous choices, such as dynamiting buildings to halt the fire’s spread, which does not work. (When City Hall crumbles, one finds its hollow columns stuffed with newspaper, symbolizing the fact that the city’s government was equally hollow and weak as well.) T

he novel also depicts San Francisco as a place hungry for reform, as crusaders like Annalisa and Fallon hope to clean up its ugly politics. The fact that she is a politically active woman implies that the area is progressive by the standards of the time, and the presence of reform-minded police and a relatively tolerant population shows that San Francisco has enlightened impulses along with its sordid underside. Dalessandro sums up their hopes: “San Francisco would serve as the model for a national crusade against graft. . .

The blight of urban America, the rule of city ‘Bosses’ and their political puppets would hear its death knell. . . . [It] would usher in a new era in democracy, one safe from the pervasive power of Big Business and Boss Rule. ” Class and race issues appear as well, though again San Francisco glosses over them and does not explore the ugly realities of such conflicts. Both works show allusions to San Francisco’s multicultural character, featuring Anglo, Irish, Italian, black, and Chinese characters, though the film both avoids exploring their dynamics while also treating them as stereotypes.

The few Chinese appear as servants, Italians speak in sing-song accents, and the Irish appear mostly as policemen or toughs. (Only Jack Burley’s mother has depth or dignity. ) Tensions exist between the elites on Nob Hill and the Barbary Coast’s working classes, but the film does not explore the conflicts other than to imply that the affluent lack a sense of good-hearted fun and zest for life. In addition, the aristocrats’ wealth and power are rather new, and their sophistication is merely a veneer. Mrs. Burley, a onetime washerwoman and part of this new, rough aristocracy, tells Mary about her elite neighbors’ true vulgarity: “Aristocrats!

. . . There isn’t a rougher joint on the Barbary Coast than that home right here on Nob Hill. ” In 1906, though, the racism and class conflict are much more tangible. An ethnic hierarchy exists, with the Anglos and Irish at the top and non-whites (particularly the Chinese) at the bottom. Also, the poor are exploited and mistreated by the rich and their political allies; madam Tessie Wall is one of Rolf’s cohorts and supplies him with prostitutes (one whom is Kaitlyn, who escapes the planned liaison), and the elites appear not simply pretentious or hypocritical, but also evil and predatory.

Both the film and the novel treat the earthquake as a sort of watershed, marking the end of San Francisco’s widespread political corruption and its bawdy, hedonistic nature. However, they cloak the city and the events surrounding the quake in distinctly different auras. The film shows a fun-loving San Francisco forced to grow up and abandon its naughty ways, as though shaken from its frivolity by the calamity. Blackie finds religion and reunites with Mary, and the citizens appear unified and matured, resolved to leave their shady past behind and rebuild a better city – which the ending claims has occurred.

In 1906, the city does not necessary grow up or give up its old ways without a fight. Instead, it disintegrates into looting, violence, and anarchy, with the crooked city leaders carrying out political vendettas against reformers and other adversaries. Even when corrupt, weak Mayor Schmitz tries to take command and control the city, his characteristic incompetence and lack of ethics prevail, as he breaks the law by declaring martial law (and the soldiers commit as many crimes as the actual looters).

These two works depict turn-of-the-century San Francisco as an immoral place, though only the novel explores the sordid side. San Francisco presents a naughty, rollicking, boisterous picture of a city forced by the disaster to grow up and become sedate, leaving behind its colorful, exuberant past. On the other hand, 1906 depicts San Francisco as a genuinely evil, exploitive place, so corrupt that it can barely function and rife with exploitation, violence, and hypocrisy.

They approach roughly the same subjects but reflect distinctly different attitudes toward the city’s history; while the film embraces a basic optimism about the place and its people, the novel is deeply cynical and not reluctant to describe or explore the city’s depraved underside – especially that of its leadership, who generate much of the evil.


Dalessandro, James. 1906. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. San Francisco. VHS. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. 1936; Los Angeles: MGM/UA Home Video, 1992.

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