Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
A fun video look back
Jonal entry 1108 | April 7 2010
The only direct connection there is in today's video with Blacklick Valley is that it was sent to me by Mary Lou (Ciprich) Ford, a Nanty Glo native and a Nanty Glo-Vintondale Class of 1960 graduate whom I've known since we went to different schools together back then and who still lives just out of town. Of course many Valley residents have visited San Francisco, the city where this video was filmed in 1906, just four days before the great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire destroyed most of the buildings seen in this historic footage. And I have lived in the San Francisco area, a half-hour to an hour's drive away (at several addresses in the same county) in what's known as "the South Bay Area" or Silicon Valley most of my life now (since 1972).
And, I love the approximately seven-minute film and think I would love it as much if it had been shot in Pittsburgh or Johnstown in 1906. I've watched it at least four times now, studying it, and think I may have some suggestions or questions about it which, if you have also received a link to it and have watched it already, might make your reading on worthwhile. First, here's some information provided in the email that Mary Lou forwarded to me. She did not originate it, so as in all forwarded email messages, this may be less than the unvarnished truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I can believe that this was the first 35mm film released in theaters (the citation of the New York trade papers suggests it was shown in theaters, and at that time it must have been a fascinating "short subject"). But I doubt that it's reasonable to claim that no 35mm films were done at least to test the film stock and the cameras to see that the new process worked adequately before launching a commercial project.
On my first viewing I thought it humorous that lots of people on the street seemed to be mugging for the camera, but repeated viewings convince me that the film shooting was probably big news in Baghdad by the Bay (one of San Fran's several affectionate nicknames) and that most of those crossing the cable car's path were doing so intentionally to get their few seconds in film history. That could explain why "the amount of automobiles [seemed] staggering for 1906." If you owned one at the time (just three years after Henry Ford launched Ford Motor Company), what better way to show it off than get it in the film?
Remember that the cameras at the time were not pocket-sized; the one mounted on the front of the cable car would have been visible from half a block away. There was no sound on films in those days, of course, the soundtrack we hear was added later. The fact that this is a cable car, incidentally, as there is no cable car line on Market Street today (and this is Market Street) is proven by the slot in the center of the tracks. Cable cars are moved not by individual motors but by cables installed below the street that are kept running by huge engines in a central engine house, somewhat analogous to the way cables pull the Johnstown Inclined Plane cars up and down the mountainside.
The clock tower at the end of Martet Street (on the Ferry Building) looks quite similar to how it looks today, but whether it may have fallen in the Great Quake and had to be rebuilt is something I can't say. The buildings lining the street were almost all destroyed; those not leveled by the Quake itself burned down by the fires that swept the inner city after the great shake. The buildings then are not as high as their replacements, but the advertising signage is more similar than I would have expected.
Three other things I found interesting are, 1) how well dressed everyone seems to be; 2) how few women and girls are seen on the street compared with boys and men, and, 3) how fearless everyone was in crossing the path of a heavy dangerous cable car. They are the size of a street car and even then they probably could move as fast as electrified street cars. But this one may have been moving slower for the filming. The second and third points are similar to observations I made when my brother and I traveled by car in India, New Delhi to Agra in 1996 (videos of those unforgettable days can be seen here). I'm guessing that women were much less likely to go out on the streets in 1906 than later, and that seemed still be be the case in India, though some were seen, as some are seen in this film. In India, cars seldom seem to go faster than 30 or, at top, 40 miles per hour, so elephants, cows, and bicycle-drawn rickshaws go wherever they please, whenever. But besides the heavy traffic of smaller cars than we're used to, the poor quality highways are also clogged by 18-wheel trucks much like in America and Europe.
Finally, a Google search does find a Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, in what used to be the village of Niles, California, only about 30 miles from where I live and probably the same distance from San Francisco, in what is now a district of the city of Fremont. I'll have to make a visit. Essanay was the name of a major silent film production company, taken from the initials S and A from the names of the studio's founders.