110 years ago to the day, at 5:12 AM in San Francisco, there was a 7.8 earthquake. Immediately following the earthquake was a fire that burned for three days and destroyed nearly the entire city. More than two-thirds of the population were homeless, around 3,000 people are believed to have died. According to Philip L. Fradkin, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was “the closest this country has come to experiencing the widespread ravages of modern warfare.”
I actually owe the idea of this post to Movie Classics and the “Bette Davis Blogathon.” Movie Classics wrote about The Sisters, with Bette Davis, and her post inspired me to revisit the film. Near the end, Bette Davis is in San Francisco and has just been deserted by her husband, Errol Flynn. While she sits in disbelief, the camera cuts to the calendar, which reads April 18th. This was supposed to be a portend, but I honestly had no idea what the significance was…until the house fell in on Bette Davis’ head. It was then that I realized that the 110th anniversary of the earthquake was coming up and I set out to read several books on the topic and watch a few films that feature the event.
Books – Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in completing either book in time for this post.
A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester, is a bit peripatetic. We’ve visited Iceland, various podunky little towns across America. He’s covered the founding history of California, various earthquake disasters in the 1800s, and lots and lots about plate tectonics, the Pacifc Plate, the North American Plate and the San Andreas Fault. What we haven’t covered yet is the San Francisco earthquake…and I’m 200 pages in.
Simon Winchester evidently studied to be a geologist and many of his books have a geological approach to their respective topics. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s only that I was primarily interested in the more social aspects of the 1906 disaster. His book also takes a more global approach, necessitated by the interconnected nature of plate tectonics. For him, people are relatively helpless and small in the face of the sheer size and age of the world.
Philip L. Fradkin takes the opposite approach in his book, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, which I have also not finished. He posits that San Francisco was ill-prepared for an earthquake and that they were largely responsible for their own destruction. The earthquake was devastating, but the firestorms that followed are what caused the kind of apocalyptic images taken a few days after. He explores the ways people react in moments of disaster.
The main problem was that firemen didn’t have enough water and resorted to dynamiting buildings. The idea was to create a wall to stop the fire, but instead it merely caused the spread of the fire. They also used the wrong kind of explosives – black powder, which is highly flammable. Basically, a lot of people with limited to no experience of explosives ran about dynamiting the city. There were so many charges going off, that many people said it sounded like a war zone.
To complete the picture of war zone devastation, the federal army was also deployed to keep order. San Franciscans thought marshal law had been declared. What had actually happened is that the Brigadier General in charge of Fort Mason simply deployed the troops when he saw the extent of the damage, though the mayor never protested. Instead, the mayor issued a warning that all looters should be shot on sight, adding to the confusion.
I believe the rest of the book is going to cover the rebuilding of San Francisco and the uneven distribution of relief.
Movies – There are five movies that I am aware of involving the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, though I am sure that there are more.
San Francisco (1936) is probably the most famous movie featuring the earthquake. Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a saloon keeper on the Barbary Coast who falls in love with Jeanette MacDonald’s innocent Mary Blake, an aspiring opera singer. It’s a typical, lavish MGM film that is quite entertaining and ends with a fantastic earthquake sequences that does feature the fire, the heavy dynamiting and the constant presence of the soldiers. The earthquake comes as a deus ex machina, partly as retribution for the sins of the city. Everything is wiped out so they can start afresh with repentance in their hearts.
I watched Frisco Jenny (1932) for the earthquake, but was pleasantly surprised by the story. Directed by William Wellman and starring Ruth Chatterton, the story is a kind of Madame X (though I’ve never seen any version of Madame X). Ruth Chatterton is the daughter of a saloon keeper and in love with the piano player. She’s pregnant with their child and they plan to marry, despite her father’s refusal. But after the earthquake, both her father and her lover are dead and she must fend for herself and her child.
After becoming a successful madam, she is forced to give up her child because of legal issues (she is accused of murder), but watches as he grows up to become an honest DA. She, on the other hand, has been running the bootlegging in the city, as well as paying off the politicians. But she’s determined to never get in the way of her son. It’s a remarkable performance by Ruth Chatterton. The plot sounds soapy, but it actually makes perfect sense, as Chatterton’s character consistently makes intelligent decisions that make sense in the context of her situation and the story is extremely affecting. The earthquake also looks pretty good, happening at the beginning rather then the end of the film.
In The Sisters (1938), the earthquake has the least importance, being more of a historical event that happens to occur during the story. The story begins in Montana, on the 1904 election night. Bette Davis, in an uncharacteristically restrained and quiet role (which I find absolutely riveting) falls in love with ne’re-do-well sportswriter Errol Flynn. She elopes with him to San Francisco, but the restraints of married life and his guilt over not being able to provide the things the husbands of her sisters do causes him to leave her, after which the earthquake strikes. But Bette Davis moves on, becomes successful in business and the film ends with a reunion in Montana during the 1908 election.
There are two other films that I’m aware of that feature the 1906 earthquake: two silent films called Old San Francisco (1927) and The Shock (1923). Old San Francisco apparently features a terrific earthquake at the end and some very scenic scenes in Chinatown, but is also virulently racist, depicting the Chinese as sneaky, devious people preying on innocent Caucasians. In this film, the earthquake comes as divine retribution to save the heroine from a fate worse than death. What I find interesting is that this film, made in 1927, should represent so accurately what was a prevailing view of many San Franciscans in 1906, who were evidently constantly trying to find a “solution” to the Chinatown problem (Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed by the earthquake and fire). The Shock features Lon Chaney and is available on youtube.
Notable People in San Francisco in 1906
Enrico Caruso is the most famous survivor of the Earthquake. He was in San Francisco with the Metropolitan Opera Company, which was on tour. Fortunately, non of the opera company died, though they lost most of their baggage, as well as the props and scenery for many of their operas. On the day after the earthquake, Caruso apparently traded in a signed photograph of Theodore Roosevelt to get the opera company on a ferry boat to Oakland
John Barrymore was also present during the earthquake. He was 24 years old and appearing in a somewhat obscure play. All we really know is that he was at the opera to hear Caruso sing in “Carmen.” Reportedly, he coped by getting drunk in a bathtub.
Footage of San Francisco in 1906
Although historians are unsure exactly when this footage was taken, at most it was only a month before the earthquake. The camera was placed on the front of a cable car traveling down Market Street by the four Miles brothers. The streets look busier than they actually are; they had cars repeatedly drive in front of the cable car (note the car with license plate 4867 – he seems particularly to show up a lot). It’s fascinating to see what it really looked like, however: how people really dressed, how traffic flow was rather disorganized. Both Frisco Jenny and The Sisters features clips from this footage to lend authenticity to the proceedings.
This video shows footage of the same street, before and after the earthquake and fire. It’s chilling.
Visit this link for many more pictures of the disaster, which I highly recommend.