Thirty years had passed since America experienced one of the most devastating natural disasters in its history. The city of San Francisco, leveled by the violent 1906 earthquake and consumed by fire, had been rebuilt and, by 1936, was again a thriving, bustling metropolis. But the memories of the disaster were still fresh with many Americans. Thanks to the emerging culture of mass visual communication, particularly the motion picture, the images of the 1906 earthquake were as well known to Americans of 1936 as the images of Hurricane Katrina are to Americans in 2015. They’d even seen newsreel footage of the city as it still simmered beneath the embers, thanks to a 1906 documentary short film. It had been the first time that America had been held captivated by a natural disaster, in almost real time: reading the events as they came across by wire for the night edition, and seeing the images in the next day’s paper:
Americans were held transfixed for the endless days that followed, glued to the newspapers the same way that you and I are glued to our Twitter feeds or the nightly news, with stories of refugees in the tent cities, stories of heroism, stories of loss.
It was, in other words, perfect material for a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie.
But in 1936, if you’d said the words “disaster movie”, someone was liable to think you were inferring that the film itself was an absolute disaster; it was still a few decades away from actually becoming a genre. There had in fact, up to the point, been a number of films that used natural disasters (both real and fictional) as a plot device: Michael Curtiz’s epic silent feature Noah’s Ark (1928) and Merian C. Cooper’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) being particularly noteworthy examples.
But with W.S. Van Dyke’s historical melodrama San Francisco (1936) we have, perhaps, the first truly modern, big-budget disaster movie as we know them today.
Being an MGM production, this film is the high-gloss, spared-no-expense spectacle you would come to expect from the studio, and W.S. Van Dyke’s snappy direction manages to tone down the melodrama … which is textbook melodrama. Virginal chorus girl and aspiring opera singer (Jeanette MacDonald) is torn between her love of her art and her love of her morally corrupt man (Clark Gable) set against the disaster of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The story is a Hays Office wet dream with its condemnation of Gable’s immoral lifestyle and his inevitable moral redemption. But. Somewhere towards the third act, this glossy MGM production becomes as realistic and gritty as anything you might have seen over at Warner Bros. Only, the bad guy isn’t a machine-gun slinging gangster. It’s mother nature.
Under the supervision of MGM’s head of special effects, and true master of the art of disaster, James Basevi, and edited together by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich, the film’s big San Francisco earthquake scene holds its own nearly 80 years later as one of the most powerful special effects sequences ever filmed. And you do not have CGI to thank for it.
The trick photography is still rooted in the real world, not CGI, and it’s therefore tangible. Not the least bit cartoonish, Basevi and Vorkapich recreated one of the most harrowing natural disasters in American history by grounding monumental special effects with humanity. Sure, the effects trump the story (even Clark Gable himself hated the soppy lines) and, to this day, one of the biggest flaw of the disaster film genre is that story is oftentimes an annoying necessity keeping us from what we paid our 15 bucks for. (Or, in 1936, 25 cents. Discuss.) But with effects of this power, the viewer is hardly cheated.
I’m not a film academic, but I have watched this particular sequence– rather compulsively– again, and again over the years, and in my opinion there are two specific reasons that it stands the test of time.
The first: the disaster sequence itself is not concerned at all with the film’s protagonists. From Basevi’s greatest work as a special effects artist (the devastating locust plague in The Good Earth and the epic tropical hurricane in John Ford’s riveting The Hurricane) right up to today’s big-budget CGI extravaganzas, disaster movies are obligated to have the ‘main event’ pivot around the main characters. Sometimes the device works very well (C’mon, you know you love The Towering Inferno). Other times … not so much. (I’m looking at you, Earthquake.) Either way, you know the general formula:
EXT. CITY STREET – DAY
EMOTIONALLY MANIPULATIVE ORCHESTRAL ARRANGEMENT SOARS OVER THE FOLLOWING SEQUENCE:
A LOUND BANG is followed by death and destruction and more death and destruction
A LOUD BOOM is followed by a close up of leading man
A LOUD BANG is followed by a close up of leading woman
Close on: Tender moment between the two in which they reconcile their issues
A LOUD BOOM separates the lovers (music swells)
Music swells over death and destruction followed by more death and destruction
San Francisco is a marvelous anomaly to this.
The disaster sequence itself is book-ended by the protagonists’ dysfunctional affair, but they play no real role in the actual event. Jeanette MacDonald queues the start of the sequence but soon disappears completely, and only when the sequence is over does Gable brings us back to the narrative. Therefore, freed from any loyalty to the narrative, what we get are 90 seconds that feel like a prototype of cinema verite. We don’t know the names of any of the faces in the disaster sequence, which makes in eerily real. The people we see are the victims, the unnamed masses of any disaster, natural or man made. Basevi and Vorkapich give us only glimpses of fellow humankind in their last seconds of life. The only sound we hear is that of the tremor–no score of any kind–and when it’s over there is only quiet … just as it is in real life. It succeeds where what disaster films can often fail: it makes us painfully aware of our mortality.
The second reason Basevi and Vorkapich hit a home run here, is their shared vision: Basevi’s technical wizardy is coupled fluidly and flawlessly with Vorkapich’s keen talent of threading together images into powerful collages movement, sound, and light. Vorkapich makes full use of Basevi’s monumental effects: the city hall collapsing; the dance hall splitting in two; the streets of San Francisco buying itself in brick and mortar. But he balances it with startling, unexpected close-ups of the human face and figure. A little girl’s crying face fills the frame, and is cut quickly with the side of a brick building toppling down onto her. Human movement blurs these frames, and behind them we see debris, mayhem, and dying bodies. It is a mixed media canvas, and the composting of film trickery and photo-journalistic sensibilities results in something that is disturbing and uncommonly affecting. (Just as a side note: the Visual Effects category was not introduced to the Academy Awards until 1938, hence no Oscar for Basevi. The film did, however, win for Sound Recording.)
What Basevi and Vorkapich accomplished in 1936 might be archaic in today’s world of 48FPS and mind-bending virtual technology, but it is this writer’s opinion that the more advanced technology becomes, the further it alienates itself from what was achieved right there in 1936: true, human reality.
Have a look for yourself: