San Francisco burns — in New York
The first American newsreel debuted just over one hundred years ago, representing the first real attempt to contextualize the moving images of actual events into a stream of information that could emulate a newspaper. The French film company Pathe and the New York-based Vitagraph both debuted edited silent newsreels in the city in 1911.
Before this time, actual events where contained in straightforward ‘news films’ or actualities that were presented at Nickelodeons and other exhibition spaces alongside narrative fiction shorts. As a result, there wasn’t a strict need to display accuracy in filming real life.
Biograph Studios was especially guilty of this. From its studios at 11 East 14th Street in New York’s Union Square and in locations nearby, the film company recreated a variety of news events. Audiences could be easily fooled in 1906; real events, from moving trains to boxing matches, already seemed fantastic to eyes untrained to cinema. And so, sometime in the spring of 1906, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to the Biograph production team to simply recreate the San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural tragedies in American history.
The devastating quake that rocked the California coast on April 18, 1906, killed over 3,000 people and nearly wiped the young city off the map. But with one exception (which I’ll mention), nobody was filming it, much less capturing it in a way that could encapsulate the horror and damage it caused.
Enter Biograph general manager George E. Van Guysling. He and his crew produced an elaborate model of San Francisco at their 14th Street studio, a mini-metropolis of cardboard and clay, replete “a yawning cavity which appeared to split the city in two.” As a camera took note, the New York film crew pulled San Francisco asunder, setting it ablaze.
It seems to be this must have looked spectacularly fake to our eyes today, a regular Ray Harryhousen-type production from a 1960s monster movie. But the eye of the film goer was not as explicitly trained to spot fabrication in 1906, nor were audiences jaded enough to expect it.
What seems especially brazen about this fabrication is that it was being created in New York’s Union Square, even as San Francisco’s public square of the same name sat in ruins.
Biograph quickly put the film into circulation, and the footage was a hit with shocked and amazed audiences. Allegedly, both the mayor of San Francisco and one of California’s senators thought the footage to be real. (Of course, that would have required a fortuitous placement of camera at just the right time and place.) Had it been taken for the fake that it was, the studio’s cavalier recreation of a disaster that killed over 3,000 people would probably not have been as warmly received.
A San Francisco filmmaker named Henry Miles did in fact record some of the earthquake in action. (The earthquake actually destroyed his own film studio in the process.) Being real footage, it was apparently not as perfectly framed as Biograph’s fake movie. As a result, when Miles released it for distribution, it was not a success, according to author Raymond Fielding and his book on the history of the newsreel.
Faking the events would not be the norm. Edison’s film studio, of course, was adept at successful ‘news films’, and clearly unstaged events — from European coronations to parades down Broadway — would be hits with audiences. In fact, Edison even filmed the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, and the footage provides some of the most powerful images of the tragedy:
Not surprisingly, one of the first disasters to be filmed in New York was the blaze that destroyed the Powers Film Studio in the Bronx in June 1911. After all, the cameras were already there! The New York Times proclaimed: “MOVING PICTURE FIRE CAUGHT BY CAMERA; Man Behind the Film Snaps the Players as They Escape from Canned Drama Plant.”
But even with the introduction of journalistic standards and the somewhat legitimate format of the newsreel, filmmakers still frequently fudged real news events. (After all, don’t they sometimes do that today?)
Even the renown March of Time newsreels, produced by Henry Luce at their midtown offices at 460 West 54th Street, was known to fabricate events in the 1940s. During World War II, according to author Richard Koszarski, producers regularly had the New York area stand in for Nazi Germany. “When suitable footage of Nazi beer halls was unavailable, a brauhaus in Hoboken served just as well; ‘concentration camp graveyards’ were constructed on Staten Island; the newsreel’s own offices doubled as Nazi Party headquarters.”