San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was the original city of sin. The film San Francisco (1936) picks up in this licentious quarter’s last stretch up until the big 1906 quake struck. Barbary makes Bay to Breakers look like a polite round of gin rummy. At one point, Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy) says to the sweet songbird Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald): “You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt, most governless city in America.” And he’s exactly right.
With the dashing Clark Gable and his pencil-thin mustache as the club owner Blackie Norton, the movie pits wickedness against the soul. The Barbary Coast teems with girls who show their ankles (gasp!) and free-flowing booze. At one point, after Blackie aggressively stumps for the City Supervisor position, he shouts, “And now, free beer on me!” Ah, a man after our very own hearts.
But beyond the masses crowding around the liquor, this San Francisco has a strong sense of community. The song “San Francisco” gets a lot of play and becomes a rallying call, especially after the devastation of the earthquake. Coincidentally, this song became one of our city’s official songs in 1984 (after “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”). Wait–we have an official song?
Maybe it was just the Barbary Coast that had all the SF pride, but it seems that today San Francisco is very fractured. Play “San Francisco” now, and it’s unlikely it will appeal to the denizens like it did in the film. The current city runs along neighborhood ties, and even then some neighborhoods don’t really care much for representing. We all may decide to live in the city, but what draws someone to the Mission is entirely different than what draws someone to Outer Sunset. San Franciscans are often proud of their city’s diversity (personality-wise), but is it possible to still get the kiddos all riled up over a song from their grandmother’s time? Only if there’s still free beer.
San Francisco proves that everything was bigger and better a century ago. The earthquake montage clocks in at almost two minutes. Two minutes?! An earthquake nowadays lasts 30 seconds, tops. It was the Big One, its main temblor lasting in reality up to a minute, which was long enough to shake some sense into Blackie and his player ways. Enough sense that he finally finds God. Will Sharon Stone say that we deserved the next Big One when it strikes our heathen asses? (No, on second thought, it would probably be Bill O’Reilly.)
It’s not that the city doesn’t have pride–we do have gay pride, after all–but our people don’t burst into song about the city every 15 minutes. Instead, we have different rallying cries, like the string of four letter words aimed at MUNI when it is full of FAIL or annual events that promote though do not necessarily condone public intoxication, public nudity, and possibly public sex. See? The old Barbary Coast may be gone, but we can still be barbarians at heart…together.
Starring San Francisco is Appeal culture reporter, Christine Borden’s, take on the city’s cinematic past to illuminate today. Have a locally-set film you’d like to see featured? Tell her at firstname.lastname@example.org.