Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Disaster Film

Eruption of Mount Pele (1902)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an early disaster film – and also a rare case of a film from Méliès with no actors or even narrative to speak of. The event it depicts occurred in the same year as its release, so it can be seen as a topical recreation of a story film-goers were reading in newspapers of the day.

Eruption of Mount Pele

The film shows an obvious miniature of a fishing village, intended to recreate the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique. In the background, a large mountain looms, with smoke emerging from its peak. Miniature boats float in the foreground, on what is obviously shallow placid water. As the movie progresses, the smoke billows in different patterns, and someone makes waves in the water, coming in from the left side of the screen toward the boats and town. At the very end, the smoke seems to pour down from above onto the tiny town, as ash might from a volcano.

Eruption of Mount Pele1

By modern standards, this isn’t a very dramatic movie, and I would imagine that at the time it was screened, live narration (perhaps even read from newspapers) would have accompanied the images, to emphasize the drama of real-world events. As it happened, in May of 1902, about 28,000 people were killed in a firestorm ignited by hot ash raining down on the city during the worst of the eruption, which continued for several years. That might have been beyond the ability of Méliès to recreate, or he might have felt it was in bad taste to show such a great tragedy in detail. Note also that the surviving print is black and white, but it would likely have been hand-painted in original release, and the eruption might appear more dramatic if the cloud had gone, say, from yellow to orange to fiery red.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Children of Eve (1915)

Children of EveBy the end of 1915, the Edison Company had lost its position of prominence in the film industry, and crushing losses in legal battles had guaranteed that it could no longer benefit from the work of others. Nevertheless, it still continued to release movies like this one, no longer innovating and inspiring others, but following trends established by others in the field. Apparently, it was hoped that by making “message” pictures such as this one, they could be perceived as artistic leaders if not industry chiefs. The result in fact was less box office popularity and the final decline of the studio.

a swinging joint

a swinging joint

“Children of Eve” begins by showing us the meeting of Henry Clay Madison (played by Robert Conness), a studious young man, and his flophouse neighbor, Flossie, a dancer at the Follies. Madison tries to reform Flossie (Nellie Grant), and, in doing so, falls in love with her. She returns his feelings, but fears that she will end up dragging him to her level if they marry. So, she departs, just as Madison is beginning to find some success in business. As it happens, she delivers a baby girl and dies after leaving him, and he takes on his brother’s (?) child as an adoptive son. The son (played by Robert Walker), Bert, is raised in luxury, while the daughter (Viola Dana, the real star of the movie, who went on to do “Blue Jeans” and “Naughty Nanette”), Fifty-Fifty Mamie, lives in poverty, unknown and unacknowledged by her father. She makes her living through cheap cons and winning dance contests, while he takes an interest in social reform, urging his now jaded father to reconsider his child labor practices. They meet when Mamie tries to hide out in the reform office after stealing a large feathery thing from a cart. Paralleling his father’s course, he tries to reform her and falls in love, and Mamie stays up all night with a sick woman and starts reading the Bible, showing her interest. Her real turning point comes when an old cohort shoots a policeman, and Mamie refuses to give him shelter. Meanwhile, Bert gets a fever and yells out her name. Madison affirms his belief in the moral lesson in the note Flossie wrote so long ago, and encourages Mamie to leave Bert as Flossie left him. Mamie is recruited to investigate labor conditions at Madison’s factory, but while she is there a fire breaks out and children are killed by smoke inhalation before the fire fighters can get to them. Mamie is dragged out, unconscious, and given little chance to survive. Madison discovers the old picture of her mother and learns, too late, that this was his daughter. Bert arrives just in time for Mamie to die in his arms.

Children of Eve2

The central theme of this movie was the dangers of child labor and poor working conditions, and the fire scene was based on the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, which was still a major scandal at the time. Due to lack of fire escapes and a locked shopfloor, hundreds of women and young girls were trapped in a burning building, with 146 deaths resulting. The director, John Collins, wrote the scene to evoke that event, and tied it in to a message of reform and Christian charity. However, the plot winds up being both overcomplicated and predictable at the same time, and the story never quite seems to come together. In a lot of ways, the movie is reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s “Regeneration,” of the same year, but it never manages to be as visually or narratively compelling.

Children of Eve3

Technically, I’d rate the movie as middling for 1915. There are close-ups, cross-cutting, and some camera movement, but most of the movie suffers from being shot on small sets at 90-degree angles, with “stagey” action. Unfortunately, little of the movie was shot in the streets of New York, which were still close to the Edison home base, and most exteriors just show doorways. There are some good exterior scenes on the rooftops when the cop and the crook have their shootout, and also some visually interesting shots on a large set representing the dance hall. The windows of each tenement apartment look out onto painted flats, but at least the cinematographers thought to have a different view for each one, and also used lighting on these flats to show night- and daytime. The “big scene” of the factory fire is reasonably suspenseful, but doesn’t show any really new or exciting footage – it could almost be Edison’s “Life of an American Fireman,” with better editing.

Director: John H. Collins

Screenplay: John H. Collins

Camera: John Arnold, Ned Van Buren

Starring: Viola Dana, Robert Conness, Nellie Grant, Robert Walker, Tom Blake

Run Time: 1hr 14 Min

I have been unable to find a reliable copy for free on the Internet. If you know where one can be seen, please say so in the comments.

Last Days of Pompeii (1913)

This probably wasn’t the “first disaster film” – I haven’t researched it, but I recall several 1890’s movies about the sinking of the battleship Maine that might deserve that title. However, it was an early example of a feature film in which a disaster plays a major role in the plot. Unlike a more modern disaster movie, you don’t get the disaster as means of heightening the tension early in the film, but rather in the form of a Deus ex Machina that resolves all the problems at the end. It also presages “Cabiria” somewhat, being an Italian feature-length movie, set in ancient times, which tries to show an epic sweep of life and death, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy. It isn’t quite as successful, being mostly stuck in a simple love triangle (or quadrangle) involving the myopic but heroic Glaucus, his lady Jone, his blind slave Nidia, and an Egpytian Priest named Arbace. Arbace covets Jone, and Nidia secretly loves Glaucus, but ultimately sacrifices himself for his happiness. The movie is based on a novel, which has been remade many times, probably with more impressive special effects, though for the limitations of a hundred years ago, I thought the red-tinted destruction scenes at the end did a good job of conveying pandemonium.

Directors: Mario Caserini, Eleuterio Rodolfi

Starring: Fernanda Negri Pouget, Ubaldi Stefani.

Run Time: 1 hr, 27 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.