Sunday, March 17, 2024

The Johnstown Flood

Not too long ago, the George Eastman Museum restored the copy it had of the 1926 sielent film The Johnstown Flood. TCM gave the movie its world television premiere, and since the movie sounded interesting, I decided to record it. TCM is showing again tonight as part of Silent Sunday Nights, overnight tonight at 12:45 AM (so technically March 18 here in the Eastern Time Zone but still March 17 in more westerly time zones).

As you may recall from American history, Johnstown is a smallish city in western Pennsylvania where a dam in the hills overlooking the town failed in 1889, sending a cascade of water down into the city below and killing a shockingly large number of people. The story is something that should be cinematically interesting, if you can do the special effects for the actual flood properly. With that in mind, this telling of the story centers on an engineer named Tom O'Day (George O'Brien). He works for John Hamilton, who owns a lumber concern in the region.

Hamilton also owns the dam that's going to break, not that I'm spoiling anything considering the title of the movie and the fact that it's based on real events. Hamilton uses the dam to control the level of the water and help float his logs down the river to get to where they're going to be sold off. And he's recently signed a large contract with a firm in Pittsburgh. It would mean a lot of money for all involved. But it also means that the water level in the dam is going to have to be kept high, with the logs hitting the dam and putting pressure on it. Tom understands -- and in fact most of the town does -- that if the water level isn't reduced, one big rain could lead the dam to burst, with disastrous consequences.

Meanwhile, Anna Burger (Janet Gaynor) is the daughter of one of the forestry workers. She sees big old handsom Tom, and falls in love with him. The feeling is not quite mutual. Not that Tom doesn't like Anna, it's that he meets Hamilton's niece Gloria (Florence Gilbert) and understands that there would be good reasons for the two of them to wind up together. And they do seem to have some genuine feelings for each other. But there's still that dam.

The locals push ever harder for a state inspector to come in and look at the dam, which eventually happens. The company Hamilton signed the big contract with, however, tells him that if the water level in the dam gets lowered, they'll take their business somewhere that can fulfill the contract on time and on budget. So Hamilton hires a bunch of goons to "protect" the dam from the locals who want to lower the level of the water.

Now, of course, we all know that the dam will eventually burst, and in this version of the story, it does so just as Tom and Gloria are about to be married. Anna finds out about the dam break first, and rushes to town to try to save people....

What surprised me about The Johnstown Flood is that it's not really an epic at all. It runs a little over an hour, and the actual flood doesn't come until the final reel. Before that, it's a all the standard-issue stuff you'd seen in a disaster movie like the Clifton Webb version of Titanic. The build up is passable if not great, but th special effects in the final reel make up for it. The advancement of special effects meant that there would be better disaster movies in the years to follow, but The Johnstown Flood isn't a bad little movie. And with the restoration, it's also quite pretty to look at.

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