Restored version of 1926 silent movie, “The Johnstown Flood” to premiere as part of 50th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood Museum

Restored version of 1926 silent movie, “The Johnstown Flood” to premiere as part of 50th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood Museum

Posted: April 21, 2023 12:19 pm

The 1926 film “The Johnstown Flood” is a major achievement of the silent film era – and now, a newly-restored version of the film will have its premiere in Johnstown as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Johnstown Flood Museum.

The film will be shown on Sun., May 28 at 8:00 pm at The State Theater, and will be followed by a discussion session featuring the distinguished film archivists, preservationists and historians Robert A. Harris and James Mockoski, who completed the restoration. Tickets to the film showing, which is open to the public, are $25. The event will be preceded by a private reception at the Johnstown Flood Museum for sponsors of the 50th anniversary celebration.

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“The importance of ‘The Johnstown Flood’ to film history is difficult to overstate. The special effects of the film combine miniatures and sets to depict the actual historic event of flood and its aftermath, pioneering complex techniques,” Harris explained. “It was the ‘Star Wars’ of its day.”

“The Johnstown Flood” was also the first starring role for George O’Brien, who had achieved fame as a sports figure and model but had not yet become a major star – and the debut of a young ingenue named Janet Gaynor. Two future stars of Hollywood’s golden era have uncredited roles in the film – Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Only one original nitrate film print of “The Johnstown Flood” survived, preserved by the George Eastman Museum of Rochester, NY, but it was deteriorating and endangered. Nitrate film decomposes over time, and in fact more than 90% of all silent films are lost. According to Harris, who has restored such notable titles as “The Godfather,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” “in the near future, the original nitrate print could have disappeared forever.” So Harris and his partner, the noted film archivist James Mockoski, took on the project of restoring “The Johnstown Flood.”

“They got in touch with JAHA to see if our archives contained any reels of the film,” explained Amy Regan, JAHA’s curator. “We did not. But we did have some film reels that are possibly of interest to the Library of Congress and Warner Brothers.”

From there a discussion arose around the idea of premiering the restored version of the film in Johnstown at a movie theater that was new in 1926 — The State Theater – as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood Museum. JAHA also provided the historians with stereoptic photography from the 1889 flood, as well as other historic photography, that will be included on the Blu-Ray disc of the film that will later be made available for sale.

“We are honored that Bob and James decided to premiere this new restoration here in Johnstown as part of our celebration,” Regan said. “It’s sure to be a memorable evening.”