“Construction engineer Stewart Graff is estranged from his jealously possessive wife, Remy, and has an affair with Denise Marshall, the widow of a co-worker. Meanwhile, Remy tries to persuade her father, Sam Royce, who is Stuart’s employer, to use his influence to stop Stuart from seeing Denise. Rogue policeman Lew Slade is suspended from the LAPD for having punched an obtuse officer from another jurisdiction. Embittered, Slade contemplates quitting the police force. Jody, a perverted grocery store manager, lusts after Rosa Amici, sister of Sal, the assistant to Miles Quade, an aspiring daredevil motor cyclist. The lives of all these people are devastated when a major earthquake rips through Los Angeles and reduces the city to ruins.” (courtesy IMDB)
San Andreas (2015) starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is currently breaking box-office records around the world, the latest in a long line of Hollywood disaster films, a genre that uses an impending or ongoing catastrophe as its primary plot device. Characters are introduced and tension builds as the event (and sometimes its aftermath) is witnessed by these characters. Disasters can include natural events (floods, asteroids, earthquakes, etc.), accidents (fires, plane crashes, shipwrecks, etc.) and worldwide calamities (pandemics, zombies, aliens, etc.). Hollywood was actually built on a potential catastrophe – the San Andreas fault – a crack in the earth subject to quakes which runs from Los Angeles to North California. A major tremor in the fault caused the destruction of San Francisco in 1906, first by an earthquake and then by a fire that raged among the ruins. Although few more than five hundred people were actually killed by the disaster, the effect was one of total devastation, followed by looting and riots.
With that local example at the beginning of the American film industry, it’s surprising that no major earthquake movie was made in California until San Francisco (1936) three decades later. Clark Gable plays the owner of a club on the Barbary Coast, where Jeanette Macdonald sings. He even gets to punch-out Spencer Tracy, playing the priest who befriends them both, but refuses to allow Gable to put Macdonald in a cabaret act wearing next-to-nothing. Just as Macdonald leaves Gable to marry another man, the earthquake happens to put a stop to this impetuous action. The lovers survive, though Gable is felled by a falling brick wall, which he shrugs off to the delight of the audience. The scale of the production called for some frightening scenes of devastation. The sound of the first rumble, the collapse of entire streets and buildings, the city-wide fire out of control and the dynamiting of whole city blocks to stop it remains a terrifying spectacle.
Memories of it and a determination not to repeat the banalities of the old plot was the inspiration behind Hollywood’s second major attempt to film a quake to end all quakes: Earthquake (1974). Universal producer Jennings Lang didn’t want a disaster movie about a group of people caught together in a plane or a boat like Airport (1970) or The Poseidon Adventure (1972). That didn’t capitalise on catastrophe enough for Lang: “Millions of men and women hardly ever get on boats or planes!” He wanted a common disaster which could include all of a potential worldwide audience. Being a Californian, an earthquake seemed the most likely armageddon, so he hired Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather (1973), to work out a treatment which was completed by screenwriter George Fox, who discovered that of the 74 million people estimated to have died in earthquakes, only 1,200 were Americans.
So, with the aid of veteran director Mark Robson, an earthquake film was scripted for Los Angeles, which could destroy and flood the city from the breaking of the Hollywood dam (actually Mulholland dam, named after the engineer William Mulholland). Death could come to the masses by quake, fire and flood, and the story this time was meant to reflect human turbulence as a prediction of the natural disaster to come. As Fox put it: “An earthquake is a release of seismic energy. Our people ought to be as pent-up and ready for release as the ground under their feet.” Perhaps they were shown to be so, and certainly the film was hugely successful and made a lot of money, but the human actors suffered as do all actors in disaster movies – no human emotion, however volcanic or subterranean, can compete even in close-up with a good special effects department showing the destruction of an entire city (two of the most memorable sequences involves a crowded elevator falling, splattering the camera lens with blood (possibly a first for a major Hollywood film), and a scene in which a woman under a shattering building turns to the camera with a face full of bloody glass shards).
Even the unexpected drowning of the lead actors in a sewer conjures up little feeling for them, only our surprise that a happy ending is sacrificed along with the stars. Originally the script had Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) survive at the end of the film, while his wife Remy (Ava Gardner) and Lou (George Kennedy) are killed off in a storm drain. However, Heston disliked the script as written, and didn’t feel it was morally right that Graff survives to rebuild the city with his mistress by his side. Since he had script approval, Heston insisted his character die while trying to save his drowning wife. The change was made, Lou survives, and says the final lines of the film originally intended for Graff. The innovation of Earthquake was less in its excellent miniature effects, than in the invention of a sound system called Sensurround.
The film print had a fourth soundtrack of low frequency electronic impulses, programmed like a music score to the action on-screen. These impulses were below the 16-to-20 cycle range of most audible sound. Thus the audience could only sense a vibration like an earth tremor (at one point the filmmakers also considered dropping chunks of polystyrene onto the unsuspecting viewers). Some people were shaken with fear by this low-frequency hum without knowing exactly why, and there were cases of nosebleeds occurring amongst audience members due to the sound. At last, brainwashing techniques and psychological warfare (originally researched and developed by the military with American tax dollars) had come to the aid of Hollywood! Sensurround was only used three more times: Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978).
When the movie played at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, a giant net had to be rigged above the patrons fearing that the ornate ceiling decorations might break loose and fall on the audience. Worried that continuous periods of strong sound waves throughout the film’s exclusive run might loosen the ceiling’s ornamentation and light fixtures, management ordered a safety net to be slung below the entire auditorium ceiling, just below the ornamentation. Whether it was an actual workable safety measure or merely a publicity gimmick, I’m not really sure, but it certainly heightened audience anticipation. The fourth biggest grossing film of the year, Earthquake broke the record for the number of stunt people to work on a single film (141) and was honoured with four Oscar nominations for its impressive special effects, winning for Best Sound and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. There were also a number of made-for-television movies that also capitalised on the craze with titles like Heatwave (1974), The Day The Earth Moved (1974), Hurricane (1974), Flood (1976) and Fire (1977).
A sequel imaginatively titled Earthquake II was planned, and a first-draft script was written by George Fox in 1975, but it went through development hell and was eventually shelved in 1977 as interest in disaster movies dropped. The sequel was to follow several of the surviving characters of the original as they resettle in San Francisco. The multi-tiered plot included a group of scientists trying to predict future earthquakes on the west coast, a corrupt builder constructing high rises on unstable land, and the original characters adjusting to new relationships and business ventures. An unexpectedly massive earthquake off the coast of San Francisco levels the city, as a tidal wave threatens to wipe the Bay Area off the map. Speaking of which, it’s vitally important that you join me for next week’s edition of Horror News, because an old gypsy woman told me that if you don’t read all my reviews from now on, the entire world will be destroyed. Normally I’m highly skeptical of such claims, but she seemed so certain, I feel we’d best not take the risk. So enjoy your week and remember, the survival of the entire world depends on you! Toodles!