Irving Cummings’ THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD (1926), a pioneering disaster and special effects movie, starring Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, re-creates one of the greatest disasters in American history, when, in 1889, over 2,000 people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, lost their lives.
In her first major role, Gaynor plays a teenage girl smitten with dashing engineer O’Brien, whose pleadings about the imminent collapse of the local dam are ignored. It’s up to Gaynor to ride through the streets à la Paul Revere to warn the townspeople of the imminent disaster. After 97 years, the movie’s flood sequence is still a pre-CGI marvel of optical effects, matte paintings, and miniatures.
THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD has been newly restored in 4K from 35mm elements preserved at George Eastman Museum. Academy Award winners/film scholars Ben Burtt (sound designer of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.) and Craig Barron (visual effects supervisor for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Batman Returns) have recorded a 30-minute illustrated conversation deconstructing the movie’s visual effects, that will be screened following the feature.
A recent article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, where the movie was filmed, tells of its back story.
THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD | Laemmle Royal, Glendale, Claremont, Newhall Theaters | September 27