Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916
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Before and after the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897–1916
Created and maintained by the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Reviewed June 30–July 1, 2008.

This Web site, part of the American Memory project, presents twenty-six films of the San Francisco Bay area taken before and after the earthquake of April 18, 1906, and the four-day fire that destroyed the heart of the city. The site provides a very brief introduction to the topic, focused mostly on comparisons with other cities. Each film, however, includes an extensive and usually excellent scene-by-scene summary, including a description of the views presented and sometimes additional information—both general and specific—on the events shown in the film. The summaries include only a few errors, e.g., a reference to the “International Workers of the World.” Only very few of the generalizations can be questioned. For the most part, though, the summaries rarely venture beyond description. The films are presented alphabetically by title, not chronologically. One must read the individual summaries to determine a film’s date and how it fits into the chronology. Each film is available in three different formats. Seventeen of the films were made before 1906. Seven films present the aftermath of the earthquake and fire. Two films include scenes of the rebuilt city.

San Francisco earthquake and fire, April 18, 1906.

Of the films made before 1906, five (nos. 2, 5, 6, 9, and 25) deal with other parts of the Bay area and are of minimal interest for visualizing San Francisco. Three (nos. 2, 15, and 19) have to do with Chinatown, but show little of the physical structure of that part of the city; the most interesting (no. 15) shows a funeral procession. Seven (nos. 3, 8, 10, 12–14, and 22) provide a good sense of the physical appearance and life of San Francisco’s central business district before 1906. Four of these (nos. 8, 10, 14, and 22) show a parade during President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit in 1903.

Of the seven films that show the damage done to the city by the 1906 earthquake and fire, number 16 is a simulation, created by burning a scale model of the city, and number 1 shows soldiers bringing supplies into the burned city. The remaining five (nos. 4, 17, 20, 21, and 26) scan the damage; all are vivid and well documented. Unfortunately, no filmmaker appeared in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to record how the city looked after the earthquake but before the fire, as most buildings survived the earthquake, only to be destroyed by the fire.

Film number 7 features the silent-film stars Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle visiting the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, but includes some scenes of the rebuilt city. Film number 18 is propaganda, likely related to the Law and Order Committee of 1916, challenging San Franciscans to “wake up” to the dangers of anarchy and the Industrial Workers of the World. It includes scenes from the 1916 Preparedness Day parade and the immediate aftermath of the bombing of those festivities.

Robert W. Cherny
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, California