About 37 years after the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, Hollywood decided to make a motion picture of Johnstown’s most catastrophic event.
The 1889 Flood certainly had all the elements of an epic story: the 60-foot wall of water heading for the city like a juggernaut, the unsafe dam used for the wealthy families’ playground, the various heroes, including a dog, a teenager and a young man running a train backwards to alert the town.
And let us not forget the recovery efforts, spearheaded by the heroic Clara Barton and the newly established American Red Cross.
And so it was that the Fox Film Corp. (later to become 20th Century-Fox) set out to tell the story of the Johnstown Flood on the silver screen. The cinema was still silent back then, though synchronized sound technology was just around the corner.
The director for the Fox film was Irving Cummings, a former actor (who appeared with Gloria Swanson in a Cecil B. De Mille production) and by then a respected director who had recently directed comedians Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle in separate films.
This new film would be much more complex, featuring special effects (such as miniatures) to replicate the flood itself.
The stars of the film were George O’ Brien, Florence Gilbert and Janet Gaynor.
O’Brien became one of Fox’s top romantic leads, eventually paired with Gaynor the following year in the classic silent film “Sunrise.”
One of Gilbert’s three husbands was Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.
After a handful of bit parts, this film was Gaynor’s first big role. Barely 20 years old, Hollywood took immediate notice, and put Gaynor in increasingly bigger roles.
Also worth mentioning is that Clark Gable, his future wife, Carole Lombard, and Gary Cooper all appeared in extra roles in this film, a few years before they would become some of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood.
The film was shot in California, not Johnstown. The small town of Soquel, in Santa Cruz County, doubled for Johnstown. It was 3,000 miles closer to Hollywood than the Friendly City, and the clear, sunny weather in California was much more dependable than here in western Pennsylvania.
The townsfolk in Soquel had hoped that future Hollywood productions would film in their town, boosting the economy locally with services needed and jobs as film extras. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Location shooting in Soquel eventually dwindled over the ensuing decades.
Ironically, like its real-life setting Johnstown, Soquel also had a reputation for flooding. The lowlands in and around Soquel Creek have flooded many times due to log jams from Capitola, a city downstream.
The special effect scenes were shot on location at the Fox Studios.
I had first discovered this silent film on the Johnstown Flood quite by accident. While living in Atlanta, I happened to have the TV turned on to Entertainment Tonight one evening. Film historian Leonard Maltin’s segment featured the film, in observance of the 100th anniversary then, back in 1989. Maltin, still a highly respected film historian, was quite impressed with the film and its then-cutting edge special effects technology for 1926.
While on a summer vacation in 1989, I had the opportunity to see this film here in Johns-town, during the 100th anniversary of the 1889 Flood.
If you would like to see this rare film (I only know of two copies here in the U.S.), it is being screened at the Grand Halle in Cambria City Friday at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students. This screening will feature live musical accompaniment by the nine-piece Ivy Leaf Orchestra from Kittanning.
Local silent film historian Bill Eggert will also be on hand to introduce this film. I hope to see you all there.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.