Getting acquainted with San Francisco through the work of authors and filmmakers will provide an extra dimension to your trip—including the thrill of happening upon a location you recognize from a favorite movie or novel.
For a great introduction to the city, check out San Francisco Stories: Great Writers on the City, edited by John Miller and published by San Francisco’s own Chronicle Books. This collection of short pieces covers the personal and the political as recalled by acclaimed authors including Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, and Amy Tan.
San Francisco in Film
As one of the loveliest spots on the planet, San Francisco has been a favorite of location scouts since the beginning of the film industry. Hundreds of movies and television shows have been shot or placed in San Francisco, making the hills and bridges among the most recognized of backgrounds.
It may be difficult to locate, but the 1936 Clark Gable/Jeanette MacDonald romance San Francisco (1936) is lauded for its dramatic reenactment of the 1906 earthquake. It’ll be easier to find the classic film The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on Dashiell Hammett’s detective story, with Humphrey Bogart starring as Sam Spade. This movie includes shots of the Bay Bridge, the Ferry Building, and Burrit Alley (above the Stockton Tunnel). John’s Grill, mentioned in the novel, continues to flog its association with Hammett’s hero from its location at 63 Ellis St. (btw. Stockton and Powell sts.).
An obvious choice on the list of great San Francisco films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, is always worth viewing. Stewart plays a former detective hired to tail a woman who he thinks is the wife of an old college friend; Stewart becomes obsessed with his prey as they make their way around the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Fort Point, Mission Dolores, and the detective’s apartment at 900 Lombard St.
The city is also a major character in the 1968 thriller Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, famous for its hair-raising car chases over many hills. Along the way you’ll see the Bay Bridge from a recognizable point on the Embarcadero, Mason Street heading north next to the Fairmont Hotel, the front of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Grace Cathedral, and the fairly unchanged Enrico’s Sidewalk Café. Close on its heels came 1971’s Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry, where Eastwood’s rogue cop Harry Callahan sleuths his suspect at such photo-op spots as Marina Green, Alamo Square, and City Hall.
Another of cinema’s all-time classic car chase scenes appears in the very funny romantic comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Watch for shots of Lombard Street, Chinatown, and Alta Plaza Park in Pacific Heights. The mood darkens with Francis Ford Coppola’s engrossing 1978 thriller The Conversation, which stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert obsessively combing for clues in a surreptitious video shot in Union Square.
If you have kids to rev up, the 1993 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, starring Sally Field and San Francisco favorite son Robin Williams, shows off the city with blue skies and refreshingly uncrowded cable cars. In case you care to gawk, the house where the character’s estranged wife and children live is located in Pacific Heights at 2640 Steiner St. (at Broadway St.).
Finally, the 2005 documentary 24 Hours on Craigslist covers a day in the life of the Internet community bulletin-board phenom. The filmmaker posted an ad on Craigslist, followed up with a handful of volunteers—an Ethel Merman impersonator seeking a Led Zeppelin cover band; a couple looking for others to join a support group for diabetic cats; a single, older woman needing a sperm donor—and sent film crews to cover their stories. While other films display the physical splendors of San Francisco, 24 Hours on Craigslist will give you a sense of the city’s psyche, or at least offer an explanation of why non–San Franciscans think the place is populated with . . . um . . . unusual types.
San Francisco in Fiction
One of the more famous and beloved pieces of modern fiction based in San Francisco is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Whether or not you’ve seen the miniseries, this is a must-read for a leisurely afternoon—or bring it with you on the plane. Maupin’s 1970s soap opera covers the residents of 28 Barbary Lane (Macondry Lane on Russian Hill was the inspiration), melding sex, drugs, and growing self-awareness with enormous warmth and humor.
For a vividly depicted look at San Francisco during the Gold Rush, read Daughter of Fortune, by acclaimed novelist and Marin County resident Isabel Allende.
Sounds of the '60s
During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco was the place to be for anyone who eschewed the conventional American lifestyle. From moody beatniks to political firebrands, the city attracted poets, writers, actors, and a bewildering assortment of free thinkers and activists. Thousands of the country’s youth—including some of America’s most talented musicians—headed west to join the party. What culminated in the 1960s was San Francisco’s hat trick of rock legends: It was able to lay claim to three of the rock era’s most influential bands—the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane.
The Grateful Dead -- Easily the most influential band spawned from the psychedelic movement of the 1960s, the Grateful Dead was San Francisco’s hometown band of choice. Described as the “house band for the famous acid tests that transformed the City by the Bay into one endless freak-out,” the Dead’s cerebral, psychedelic music was played simultaneously (and loudly) on so many stereo systems that it almost felt like one enormous, citywide jam session. More than any other band of the 1960s, the Grateful Dead were best appreciated during live concerts, partly due to the love-in mood that percolated through its drug-infused audiences. In the 1980s and 1990s, they marketed repetitive permutations of their themes, delighting their core base while often baffling or boring virtually everyone else. The group disbanded in 1995 after the death of its charismatic lead vocalist, Jerry Garcia, but its devoted fans had already elevated the Grateful Dead to cult empire status, and several of the band’s original members still tour in various incarnations. (Most recently, mega-hot guitarist John Mayer has been touring with a reconstituted version of the Dead.) Tie-dyed “Deadheads” (many of whom followed the band on tour for decades) can still be found tripping within the Haight, reminiscing about the good old days. If you’re looking for an album that best expresses the changing artistic premises of San Francisco, look for its award-winning retrospective What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been at any of the city’s record stores.
Big Brother & the Holding Company and Janis Joplin -- In the fertile musical landscape of 1960s San Francisco, Texas-born Janis Joplin honed her unique vocal technique: a rasping, gravel-y, shrieking voice that expressed the generational angst of thousands. Her breakthrough style was first embraced by audiences at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967, where Billboard magazine characterized her sound as composed of equal portions of honey, Southern Comfort, and gall. She was backed up during her earliest years by Big Brother & the Holding Company, a group she eventually outgrew. Though specialists warned that her vocal technique would ruin her larynx before she was 30, Janis continued to wail, gasp, growl, and stagger over a raw, vivid blues repertoire. Stories of her substance abuse, sexual escapades, and general raunchiness litter the emotional landscape of modern-day San Francisco. Contemporary photographs show a ravaged body and a face partially concealed behind aviator’s goggles, long hair, and a tough but brittle facade. Described as omnisexual—and completely comfortable with both male and female partners—she once (unexpectedly) announced to a group of nightclub guests her evaluation of the sexual performance of two of the era’s most visible male icons: football quarterback Joe Namath (not particularly memorable) and TV talk-show host Dick Cavett (absolutely fantastic). Promoters frantically struggled to market (and protect) Janis and her voice for future artistic endeavors but, alas, her talent was simply too huge for her to handle. The star died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, a tragedy still mourned by her thousands of fans, who continue to refer to her by her nickname, “Pearl.”
Jefferson Airplane -- In the San Francisco suburbs of the late 1960s, hundreds of bands dreamed of stardom. Of the few that succeeded, none expressed the love-in ethic of that time better than the soaring vocals and ferocious guitar-playing of Jefferson Airplane. Singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin—as well as bass guitar player Jack Casady—were considered at the top of their profession by their peers. Most importantly, all members of the band, especially Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, were songwriters. Their fertile mix of musical styles and creative energies led to songs that still reverberate in the minds of anyone who owned an AM radio during the late 1960s. Intense and lonely songs such as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became musical anthems, as American youth explored a psychedelic consciousness within the catalytic setting of San Francisco. In 1989 the group reassembled its scattered members for a swan song renamed Jefferson Starship, but the output was a banal repetition of earlier themes; the energy of those long-faded summers of San Francisco in the late 1960s was never recovered. As Jefferson Airplane, however, the band is still inextricably linked to the Bay Area’s epoch-changing Summer of Love.
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