Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fog Over Frisco (1934)

WHO: Bette Davis stars in this, looking astonishingly young to anyone who has her performance in All About Eve, made sixteen years later (or even in Now Voyager, made eight years later) burned into their brains.

WHAT: Film historian William K. Everson called it the "fastest film ever made" and compared it favorably to Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin as a screen textbook for film editing. But for viewers interested the history of San Francisco's depiction in Hollywood films, Fog Over Frisco takes on special significance. It's one of the very few big-studio productions of the 1930s that actually brought some of its cast (although not Davis, as far as I can tell) and crew to the City By The Bay in order to film sequences on location here.

There's a dynamic sequence in which a gaggle of reporters await Margaret Lindsay (who plays Davis's sister) outside her family's mansion in order to ambush her with their cameras. This is shot in Pacific Heights, right at the corner of Octavia and Washington, and you can clearly see Lafayette Park, Spreckels Mansion (pictured above, and currently resided in by novelist Danielle Steel) and other still-standing structures in the scene. The cable-car line on Washington Street, however, is no more.

Another scene in the film calls for a bridge- but since the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges had only just begun construction in 1933, the filmmakers utilized the Third Street Bridge (now known as the Lefty O'Doul Bridge) in China Basin- a neighborhood that has evidently changed its appearance far more than Pacific Heights has since 1934.

These sequences make Fog Over Frisco one of the most extensive on-location Hollywood film to use 1930s-era San Francisco that I've ever come across. Films like Ladies They Talk About (1933), Barbary Coast (1935), San Francisco (1936) and Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) for instance,  use stock photography of the city or none at all, evoking San Francisco entirely through the construction of Hollywood sets. It's a very different story from that of the 1920s, when films like Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) and Greed (1924) were just a few of the productions able to shoot extensively in town (without sound crews, of course), or of the 1940s (particularly the post-World War II era) when developments in cameras and film stocks helped usher in a vogue for location photography in this city that has essentially never looked back. But any student of history wants to fill gaps in the record however possible, so a chance to see what 1930s Frisco was like, through the lens of a First National production, is all the more precious.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight and tomorrow at the Stanford Theatre at 6:10 and 9:05, and the West Portal Branch of the San Francisco Public Library at 6:30 PM on July 23rd.

WHY: I'm thinking a lot about San Francisco-shot films this week because I just received an advance copy of World Film Locations: San Francisco, a book tracing the history of San Francisco moviemaking in a fun and informative way. I'm proud to have been able to contribute to this handsome volume packed with maps, images, and short write-ups on forty-six of the most notable films made in my hometown, each represented by a different scene and location. There are also six essays contextualizing certain recurring trends (the Golden Gate Bridge, car chases) and filmmakers (Hitchcock, Eastwood) involved in shooting here, and a seventh that discusses the current reigning local favorite filmmaker (at least according to a plurality of SF Bay Guardian readers), Peaches Christ.

I've mentioned here before (perhaps too frequently) that my contribution was one of these contextualizing essays, in my case on the topic of film noir in the 1940s and 50s. Though I had free reign to approach this topic how I liked, for which I graciously thank editor Scott Jordan Harris. I had no input in the rest of the book, including the selection of the 46 featured and mapped titles. Of course there are some omissions I'd have stumped for if it had I been involved in that part of the process, but that's a natural reaction any movie fan would feel. Perhaps there can be a sequel if this edition is a success- I think it will be. Overall the book does a great job in bringing together the famous films everyone around the world associates with this city, with a healthy dose of unexpected surprises.

So no, Fog Over Frisco is not featured in the book, but that doesn't mean Spreckels Mansion isn't. It gets its own two-page spread as the chosen location from George Sidney's 1957 musical Pal Joey, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. I don't want to give away too much about the contents of an unpublished book yet, but I will note that nine of the book's forty-six featured films are planned to screen for free this month at San Francisco Public Library branch locations as part of a twenty-title SF Library Film Festival. (To further narrow a few guesses, I'll hint that two of the three of these titles screening Thursdays at the Main Library are in the book).

HOW: At the West Portal Library, Fog Over Frisco will screen via projected DVD. At the Stanford, it screens on a 35mm double-bill with the Of Human Bondage, the career-defining Davis role that was filmed just before, and released just after, the filming of Fog Over Frisco.


  1. Brian: I'm looking forward to that book! I was just watching parts of Curtiz' The Case Of The Curious Bride, a year after Fog Over Frisco, and it has some more of our city though part may be footage when the actors weren't there. Thanks for mentioning Everson, I recall at least one of his students was shocked when Bill had the audacity to compare this little Dieterle film to Potemkin.

  2. I hope you like it, Larry. Thanks for supplying the Everson tidbit in the first place!