#588) Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)

#588) Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)

OR “Filmin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

Directed by Frank Stauffacher

Based on text written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Class of 2013

No clips I could embed here, but you can watch the whole film at the Bay Area Television Archive website, courtesy of my alma mater, San Francisco State University.

The Plot: San Francisco gets the city symphony treatment in “Notes on the Port of St. Francis”. As Vincent Price narrates Robert Louis Stevenson’s various musings of The City, Frank Stauffacher’s camera captures the many natural and manmade wonders of San Francisco: from waves splashing against the coastline to the impressive structures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, from the old world charm of North Beach to the celebrated traditions of Chinatown. Together, Stevenson’s words and Stauffacher’s images paint a well-rounded portrait.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[i]mpressionistic and evocative” and praises Stauffacher’s “organization of iconic imagery”. There’s also an essay by film professor and AMPAS scholar Scott MacDonald.

But Does It Really?: I’m always biased towards San Francisco footage on this list, but if the NFR can devote entry after entry to New York City, they can throw SF a bone every once in a while. While not as monumental in the history of experimental film as some of his successors, Frank Stauffacher is still an important part of that history, and there’s plenty of room for his well crafted love letter to Fog City on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Frank Stauffacher spent the late ’40s and early ’50s at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as the head of “Art in Cinema”, an organization he ran with the hopes of not only educating the Bay Area on experimental film, but also encouraging a continuation of said experimentation. Inspired by Steiner and Van Dyke’s “The City”, Stauffacher wanted to make a “City Symphony” about San Francisco. He also made a film about Sausalito, but who cares about them?

Everybody Gets One – Source Material Edition: I didn’t realize how big a role San Francisco played in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. By the late 1870s, the future “Jekyll & Hyde” author was romantically involved with Frances “Fanny” Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman living in Grez-sur-Loing, France after a separation from her unfaithful husband. When Fanny returned to the Bay Area in 1879, Stevenson made the trek out to her; the extensive traveling doing wonders for his creativity, but little for his lifelong bronchiectasis. Within six months of his arrival, Stevenson’s health had greatly improved, Fanny’s divorce was finalized, and the two married, honeymooning in Napa Valley. Stevenson wrote about San Francisco with some regularity for the rest of his life, including the short essays “A Modern Cosmopolis” (1883) and “The Old and New Pacific Capitals” (1880).

Wow, That’s Dated: The one main giveaway in Stevenson’s text is the “wooden houses” he saw in San Francisco. Most of the wooden houses were destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake.

Other notes on the Port of St. Francis

  • At this point in Vincent Price’s career he had already made a splash in such ’40s noir as “Laura” and “Leave Her to Heaven”, and was oscillating between the lead roles in the B-pictures and the supporting roles in the A-pictures. Price was also a regular on serial radio dramas at this time, so it’s no surprise that he would lend his smooth voice to this film. It’s Vincent’s second best piece of narration on the Registry, behind, of course, “Thriller“.
  • It is nice to see San Francisco represented on this list in footage that wasn’t taken immediately before or after an earthquake. It’s also nice to see picture perfect 1950s San Francisco without it serving as a backdrop to Jimmy Stewart stalking Kim Novak.
  • “Notes” gives thanks in its credits to the Maritime Museum, which I’m happy to say is still around, tucked away right next to Aquatic Park. I went there once for a wedding!
  • Ah, bumper to bumper traffic and 1 Hour Parking signs. Some things never change.
  • There’s a montage of a car trying to drive up a steep hill, intercut with children sliding down a street on little cars, as well as a cable car careening down another street. I don’t know what it means, but it looks great!
  • At one point Stevenson writes of the “mingling of races” as one of the city’s unique qualities. Within the context of this film the – wait what!? “Mingling of races”!? Oh noooooo. Just say “diversity”. That’s all you had to do.
  • The MacDonald essay mentions the film’s segment on “Fisherman’s Wharf when it was a fisherman’s wharf”. Touché, MacDonald. You’re just lucky you weren’t there when Bushman was alive.
  • There’s mention of an indigenous legend that San Francisco rose from the ocean and may sink again. Brother, you don’t know the half of it.
  • It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore the rest of the city, staying mostly in the downtown/North Beach/Chinatown area. Though to be fair, that is where the ports are. Stevenson didn’t write “Notes on the Avenues”.
  • At one point Stevenson describes the streets of San Francisco as “the narrow arteries of the city”, which is maybe the best description I’ve ever heard in regards to navigating this damn town.
  • If Robert Louis Stevenson had lived to the 1930s he could have come back to San Francisco to visit Treasure Island.

Legacy

  • Tragically, Frank Stauffacher died in 1955 at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. According to the MacDonald essay, Stauffacher was an influence on a number of Bay Area experimental filmmakers. Among them, Bruce Baillie, Nathanial Dorsky, Larry Jordan, and Gunvor Nelson; all of whom have their own films on the National Film Registry.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson also died tragically young, in 1894 of a possible cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 in Samoa. San Francisco was one of the last places Stevenson travelled to prior to settling down in Samoa, and there are still plenty of memorials and tributes to a man who fell in love with “the most interesting city in the Union”.

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