Blessed with directors like John Ford, Frank Borzage, and Raoul Walsh, not to mention F.W. Murnau, it is surprising that William Fox should assign such an ambitious and sure-fire subject to Irving Cummings. When Alex Gordon was rescuing nitrate prints from the Fox vaults in 1970, I was able to see a number of Cummings’s films. He was efficient and vigorous, although from the batch that I saw, this was by far the best. He had been an effective leading man and his work in serials must have been a great help on this picture. Although Janet Gaynor’s scene as a female Paul Revere is ruined by the cameraman (the speed of her horse is far too fast)—what an introduction! Gaynor plays the ward of the lumber camp boss, “a newcomer and a corker,” declared Variety. The following year, Murnau cast her opposite Johnstown Flood costar George O’Brien in Sunrise.
O’Brien came to acting via an unusual route. The son of a San Francisco police chief, he was a star athlete at San Francisco Polytechnic High School who planned for a medical career after serving two years in the Navy. O’Brien had won the light heavyweight boxing title in an elimination contest among Navy boxers in San Diego and briefly considered a professional boxing career, but his mother persuaded him not to. “I’d have probably never amounted to much,” he later said, “because whenever you’re good, there’s always someone just a little bit better. Besides, I got into the movies and I won every fight. I couldn’t lose! Why should I take a chance when the scriptwriter wrote me that I won?” When he met Tom Mix at a rodeo, the western star offered him a job as camera assistant and he quit school to move to Southern California.
O’Brien’s job at Fox for $15 per week mostly involved carrying equipment. “Strong back and a weak mind,” as he put it. He occasionally cranked a camera on second units, played small parts, and did stunt work—he even doubled for Valentino and wore a shark fin to play a shark in a Hobart Bosworth movie. And then John Ford gave him the lead in The Iron Horse (1924), one of the great epics of the silent era. In Johnstown Flood O’Brien replaced Edmund Lowe, who had been announced for the role of the young engineer. O’Brien recalled that the studio had tremendous tanks, which could be tripped on cue for the flood scenes. Filming these scenes took a toll, as they had to deal with horses and cattle as well as human beings. “I recall Janet Gaynor passing completely out as I was carrying her out of the water, from cold and exhaustion,” O’Brien told an interviewer years later. “I took her to her dressing room where her secretary, Miss Thompson, and I just put her bodily, clothes and all, right into her shower and I turned the hot water on to revive her. She was blue absolutely … She was a very petite package. I took her in the car to the studio doctor. After relaxing, she was able to go right back to work in the afternoon.”
Irving Cummings remembered that the topography of Santa Cruz in Northern California was similar in many respects to that of Pennsylvania’s Conemaugh Valley, where Johnstown was located. Cummings and his team surveyed the area but were sorely disappointed. They were ready to leave when they met hotel proprietor Robert Jones, who had covered the disaster for the Chicago Daily News and retained a vivid impression. Jones took the party to several spots hidden in the mountains. Cummings was so pleased he decided to look no further. By coincidence, Gerald Rudolph, the publicity manager of Fox Films, was on the West Coast and came to see how Cummings was progressing. He and Jones struck up a friendship when Jones revealed that, unlike most newspapermen, he had kept the notes he’d made. According to Moving Picture World, “Most of the exteriors were shot with Mr. Jones on the ground.”
The Santa Cruz Evening News reported in November 1925 that director Cummings had been exploring the area along with his “miniature men,” E. Roy Davidson and Jack Clifford Smith, in order to reconstruct the flooded areas of Johnstown in Hollywood. For Davidson, this was the big break that led Howard Hughes to hire him for Hell’s Angels. His most renowned work came later for Columbia, the plane crash and the Shangri-La sequences in Lost Horizon. According to Italian film historian Federico Magni, who primarily focuses on the technical side of filmmaking, Smith was an “unsung hero” of special effects, in charge of process work at Fox and responsible for the storm on the lake in Sunrise. He later published quick instructions for making a synthetic waterspout as he’d done for Johnstown, calling it “very simple.”
The plot of The Johnstown Flood includes violent (and fabricated) conflict between Capital and Labor, a subject rare in mainstream cinema since the arrival of the Hays Office. Anders Randolf plays Hamilton, the boss of the lumber corporation, who has done a crooked deal involving a million feet of lumber, which is convincingly photographed by John Ford’s cameraman George Schneiderman as it floats serenely down river with half a dozen extras standing bravely on the logs.
In May 1926, Photoplay devoted its Six Best Pictures of the Month to such titles as The Black Pirate with Fairbanks and La Bohème with Lillian Gish, leaving Johnstown Flood among the also-rans like The Torrent, an MGM film starring Garbo, which, coincidentally, was about the building of a dam. Its torrent was anti-climactic compared to Johnstown Flood, which the reviewer liked better: “A thrilling melodrama centered around the flood of 1889. It is apparent that the flood is the most important sequence in this picture and around it the story was written. Besides the thrilling flood scene, this serves to introduce a very charming young lady, Janet Gaynor, who is easily recognized as one of the season’s best ‘finds.’”
When I interviewed Gaynor in 1977 she talked about a moment in the film that was also used as her test: “They just gave me a few pages of script. They had a rather sweet set – it was an old-fashioned well. The man I was in love with – this was supposed to be his wedding day – to another girl – and my lines were – well, now, let me think if I can really say them … I know the tears came to my eyes and I said something like ‘Today’s the day, isn’t it?’ And the tears welled up and with that they cut the camera and they rushed me to the casting office, so I guess it was my tears and my smile, you know, which got me my five-year contract.”
The career of Florence Gilbert, who plays O’Brien’s betrothed, was overshadowed by her five marriages—one to Ashton Dearholt, pioneer film actor, and another to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the celebrated author of Tarzan. She made one more outstanding silent, The Return of Peter Grimm (1926), in which Janet Gaynor, now her friend, also appeared. Anders Randolf, whose wealthy lumberman in the film is also uncle to Gilbert’s character, had been the champion sword-fencer of Denmark and was featured in The Black Pirate and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall. He died in 1930. Max Davidson was a much-loved Jewish actor whose comedies for Hal Roach were rediscovered with delight at Pordenone a few years ago. Sid Jordan was a genuine cowboy and one of Tom Mix’s closest friends. Janet Gaynor’s father is played by Paul Panzer, a veteran of serials, including the original Perils of Pauline (1914).
Photoplay printed a fan letter that read: “Beyond all doubt it will remain, to me, one of the most thrilling of pictures. The story value was not forgotten in view of the historical happening, thus we have a most entertaining picture, boasting a perfect cast.” The Johnstown Flood may lack the filmmaking mastery of later disaster films like 1936’s San Francisco, but if the damburst still impresses a century later, imagine how rural audiences must have felt in the 1920s! One exhibitor in Point Marion, Pennsylvania, about seventy miles from the real Johnstown, gives us an idea in his capsule review for Exhibitors Herald: “With a 70-ft dam recently filled above our town, felt unsafe showing this one but we ran it … and they ate it up.”
Thanks to Theodore Goodman, Federico Magni, and Shari Kizirian for their invaluable contributions to this piece. —Kevin Brownlow
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (Rodney Sauer, Britt Swenson, David Short, Brian Collins, and Dawn Kramer)