Friday, April 17, 2009

History and the Movies: The San Francisco Earthquake

Tomorrow is April 18th, the day 103 years ago that San Francisco was rocked with a 7.8 magnitude* earthquake and subsequently burned to the ground. Initial figures of deaths in the hundreds were doctored and the real death toll, which was in the thousands, was hidden from the public because the city government was afraid people might be apprehensive to move back in and businesses might be scared away. It took two to three years for the city to clean-up and start rebuilding the downtown area and a few more for it's economy to get back on track. The earthquake is still one of the strongest to ever hit the continental United States, though the strongest is still the almost unbelievable in size 9.2 earthquake of March 28, 1964 in Anchorage, Alaska. Thirty years after the fact, the movies got involved.

San Francisco was released in 1936 and starred Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald and Spencer Tracy. The story of gambling hall owners, singers and priests called... Tim, really didn't matter much. The main thing was to show the earthquake and that's what ended up raking in the dough for all concerned. And Hollywood took notice. Using disaster as a backdrop for soap opera (touched on recently here in a post on the Titanic) quickly caught on and within a year John Ford had directed and released The Hurricane with its spectacular ending using extraordinary miniatures and even more extraordinary wind and water machines that must have made Thomas Mitchell and Dorothy Lamour wish they were in a real hurricane. From that movie to the seventies disaster flicks such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno to the nineties offerings of Twister and Deep Impact to the 2000's The Day After Tomorrow the sub-genre is alive and well.

It does so well because audiences love seeing destruction and the wrath of nature from a safe distance. It's too terrifying and heartbreaking in real life but fictionalized up on the screen it can be awesome to behold. I grew up in Charleston, SC which suffered a massive intraplate earthquake in 1886. It was felt as far as Chicago, IL, Cuba and Bermuda. Charleston has only had that one big one but it has small earthquakes almost daily and every few weeks they're big enough to feel. Growing up there I got used to occasionally hearing all of nature go silent for a few seconds and then feeling the tremor as the doors rattled and the dishes shook. I also saw my fair share of hurricanes and tropical storms. I was already living in DC when Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston in 1989, just days before another huge earthquake rocked San Francisco, but going home to see my parents afterward it was amazing to me that anything had survived, so devastated did the whole area look. Like I said, close-up it's not much fun, but seen in a movie it can exhilarating, even cathartic.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was also one of the first big natural disasters well documented photographically, with both still and motion picture photography. Thirty years before the fiction movie was released, newsreel footage was abundent and can be seen below in the first clip. The second clip is from the climax of the 1936 movie, showing the first part of the earthquake unfold. On April 18th, 1906 San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake. In 1936 Hollywood exploited that event and discovered gold still lay in the hills of San Francisco after all. Over a hundred years later we still don't know enough about earthquakes to predict when they will occur but predicting big-budget onscreen destruction is as easy as checking the calendar. Every summer the aftershocks of that Gable-McDonald romance are still felt, and will be until the world ends in 2012.


*current estimate.

Further Links:
The Virtual San Francisco Museum
Wikipedia entry on 1906 earthquake
Eyewitness to History
USGS Page on 1906 Earthquake