Fox Film Corp/The Film Preserve/The Maltese Filmworks
Blu-Ray Review by Roy Frumkes
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Upwards of 2,200 inhabitants of Johnstown PA perished in 1889 while Andrew Carnegie and his millionaire buddies went duck hunting rather than make repairs to the dam outside of the
town. The resulting collapse pretty much swept the town away in the worst U.S. disaster of the 19th Century. It’s a familiar story that reappears time and again (recall JAWS and its
avaricious mayor who opens the doors for the marauding shark and lets it in.)
37 years later a precursor to the ‘Disaster Films’ – Irving Cummings’ THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD - burst into theaters identified as ‘A Thrill Picture,’ one of the early and stunning
uses of modern special effect technology. Coming three years after THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923), its spectacle dealt with water just as Cecil B. DeMille’s film had, only where the ’23 biblical epic inundated Egyptians, the JOHNSTOWN flood waters
carried logs which pulverized anything the water missed. Restored by Robert A. Harris and James Mockoski, the Blu-ray release is an exquisite restoration boasting a robust score. In
contrast, the new Criterion release of Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN disappoints with a routine score not nearly as moving as the music for the earlier WB release of the Browning
Tinting is usually the bane of silent feature releases which, in an attempt to present the films as they were originally shown, end up obscuring the details of the cinematography with heavy-handed applications of the colors. The good news is that the tinting works perfectly here, including one lurid purple tint that I don’t recall ever having seen before. The cast features George O’Brien and soon-to-be super star Janet Gaynor. She plays a tomboy who loves the leading man, who loves a more sophisticated woman but is crazy about Gaynor in a brotherly way. This subplot weaves its way through the main story in which O’Brien, sensing that the nearby dam is about to disintegrate, alerts the money men who opt for a lucrative financial deal over the populace’s lives. Gaynor, in a leap of observation that I didn’t understand, realizes what is about to happen and pulls a Paul Revere (it actually makes that
analogy on the film’s poster), and in one backlit shot of her riding like the devil across the horizon (53:57) she conjures imagery from the ending of Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH
A healthy collection of supplements are included. VFX artist Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt engage in an informal chat about the effects that adorn the film. Their tone
is just right for the Blu-ray audience – not too technical to distance the viewer from the subject.
Lead actor George O’Brien appears in two audio interviews – one in 1961, the other in 1975. He talks, among other things, about working with John Ford on THE IRON HORSE (1924), and
about 98 lb. Gaynor nearly collapsing on the set of THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD.
A collection of photographs reveals the aftermath of the cataclysm, displaying how close the look of the carnage in the film production came to duplicating the actual vistas. And, due
to someone’s ingenious brainstorm back in 1889, there are a vivid batch of 3D photographs of the disaster. A pair of 3D glasses comes with the box, as does an essay and poster art display.
The 3D photos claim that 12,000 people were killed. Most other sources have the count at just over 2,200. Bad enough.