One hundred years ago the city of San Francisco was destroyed. On the morning of April 18, 1906 an earthquake ripped through the city doing millions of dollars worth of damage. Worse than the quake itself however, was the fire that followed. It consumed much of the city and burned out of control for four days. Out of the city's 410,000 residents, it was estimated that between 225,000 and 300,000 of them were left homeless. This was one of the largest natural disasters in US history.
Another important aspect of this disaster is that it was the first major
tragedy of it kind to be filmed. While the quake itself wasn't captured
on camera, the aftermath certainly was. A pair of film makers, the
Miles Brothers, had set up shop in the City by the Bay and recorded the
aftermath of the disaster, the fires and displaced people. Many of
these films documenting this seminal event in San Francisco's history have
been collected and released as The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Cinema
Centennial, a nice collection that benefits the Niles-Essanay Silent
This collection starts out with a brief origin of the moving pictures and shows some early Edison Kinetiscope reels. Sandow, the Modern Hercules, Little Egypt, and Ocean Beach and the Cliff House are presented along with the famous early Edwin S. Porter film Life of an American Fireman.
The disc really gets underway with A Trip Down Market Street, a film that the Miles Brothers shot in the center of SF a week before the Earthquake. In this simple one-reel short, the brothers placed a camera at the front of a trolley and filmed Market Street as it was in 1906. Viewers seen horse and buggy carriages alongside early automobiles and wireless trolley cars all fighting for room on the crowded streets with pedestrians and peddlers. It's an interesting look into the past.
The centerpiece of the DVD is The Destruction of San Francisco 1906, a compilation of film, mainly shot by the Miles Brothers, that chronicles the devastation the city experienced. There are images of entire city blocks where the only clue that buildings used to stand in the space are the still standing chimneys and the huge piles of brick and rubble. The film was compiled by David Shepard and Blackhawk Films and while there is no narration, the ample intertitles give a lot of background information and explain what the viewers are seeing. Running about 20 minutes, it is a rare look at a tragic event.
These films come on a DVD-R in a standard keepcase with an insert about the Niles-Essanay Silent Film Museum and other projects that are available. The disc offers viewers the option of watching the movie with narration between the films, or just the silent films themselves.
The two channel mono audio sounds fine. The Blackhawk film comes with an organ accompaniment and the other shorts have a piano soundtrack. These were generally clean and had only a few defects. While none of these scores were composed specifically for these films, they worked well enough.
The full frame image varies in quality but the picture is generally rough. There are a lot of scratches and the contrast isn't that great, the blacks are weak, the highlights tend to bloom, and the image is very soft.. Of course, these are very rare films and it's fairly miraculous that they've survived at all. Don' t let the quality of the picture deter you from considering this disc however. It is still watchable and likely the only chance you'll have to see this rare footage.
There are no extras on this disc.
All in all this is a very interesting and educational disc as well as
an interesting look into the past. Seeing turn of the century San
Francisco before and after the devastating earthquake and fire is quite
striking. The destruction was widespread and almost total, it's amazing
that the city was able to rebuild. The disc is well worth owning,
and the proceeds from sales go to the Niles-Essanay Silent Film Museum,
an organization that preserves silent films, so you can feel good about
buying a copy. This is an easy DVD to recommend.