Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Robert K Bonine

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike (1899)

This is a series of footage presented on the DVD “Invention of the Movies,” but I’m not entirely sure that these scenes were presented to audiences stitched together as they are here. As it is, it appears as a kind of 1-minute documentary about the gold rush, giving modern viewers a chance to see Alaska as it appeared over a century ago.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondike1The first shot is a newspaper headline that emphasizes the harsh conditions and large numbers of unskilled people emigrating to Alaska in search of gold. After that we see a tracking shot down the street of an Alaskan boom town, with largely empty streets and many signs for new businesses. Spectators in the street stare directly up at the camera, which seems to be on a wagon or other conveyance. The next shot shows a much busier street from sidewalk-level, and here crowds line the streets. There are banners over the street and a man carries a sign advertising a local business, giving the whole scene the sense of a parade or fairgrounds. Next we see a raging river, and a large boat speeds into view, carrying a handful of men through the rapids. The last shot shows men working at sluices, with a camp visible in the background. There is a woman at the lower part of the screen (distinguishable in her heavy 19th-century dress), and at one point she picks up a rock and shows it to her escort. I get the impression that she is being given a tour of the mining facility.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondikeAs I said above, I don’t know (and somewhat doubt) that these strips of film were ever shown to audiences in exactly this way. The editing structure of the current presentation seems too close to modern documentary technique to have been used at the time. What is more likely is that each of these shots was a part of a longer film, sold separately or in a bundle to exhibitors, who showed them with live narration or reading from newspapers about events in Alaska. Possibly these snippets are all that has survived, and editing them into a single film made sense from a video distribution standpoint. We do get some nice contemporary images of the Klondike, however. The ramshackle buildings and simple tents that make up the city and mining area speak to the primitive conditions people embraced, and the crowded street scene gives a sense of the population-problems the area was facing. Also the fact that we see only one woman among all these shots is telling in terms of the skewed gender-situation at this time and place. On the whole, while they are discouragingly short, these clips do transport us to a time which has been romanticized by cinema at least since the first version of “The Spoilers” hit the screen.

Director: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Camera: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).