#459) A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

#459) A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

OR “A San Francisco Treat”

Directed by Harry Miles

Class of 2010

The Plot: In 1906 San Francisco, independent filmmaker Harry Miles took a camera, placed it in front of a cable car, and hand-cranked the camera during its trip down Market Street, from 8th Street to the Embarcadero Ferry Building. Along the way Miles captures the hustle and bustle of California’s (then) most prosperous city, capturing sights of horse drawn carriages, pedestrians in formal attire (complete with bowler hats), as well as plenty of those new-fangled automobiles. What started out as an experimental film documenting San Francisco suddenly became a sought-after historical artifact when, just four days later, the infamous 1906 earthquake struck.

Why It Matters: The NFR writeup gives a historical rundown, and an essay by historian David Kiehn details how Kiehn successfully determined the film’s production date.

But Does It Really?: Obviously my closeness to the subject matter gives me a bit of a bias, but “A Trip Down Market Street” is an invaluable historical document. The film’s innovative cinematography helps differentiate it from other actuality films of the era. Filming an entire street on a moving vehicle helps preserve so many details of turn-of-the-century living. And the film’s unintentional date with destiny adds an extra layer to the viewing experience. No argument here for the NFR induction of “Market Street”.

Everybody Gets One: The Miles brothers (Harry, Herbert, Earl, and Joe) started off with Biograph Studios before branching out into their own independent film company. They kept an office in New York, but moved their business to San Francisco, making theirs the first film company with offices on both coasts. After successfully filming an entire prize fight between “Battling” Nelson and Jimmy Britt in 1905, the brothers opted to film Market Street on a cable car. This wasn’t too big a stretch for the brothers; this film’s starting point is half a block away from their Market Street studio.

Wow, That’s Dated: As a San Francisco citizen I’ll point out the most important now-outdated aspect: Cars being allowed to drive down Market Street.

Other notes

  • For many years, the Library of Congress determined that the film was shot in September 1905, based on the buildings in the background. Something about that date didn’t ring true for film historian David Kiehn, who went about doing his own research on the film. Using newspapers and other artifacts in the San Francisco Library, Kiehn learned that several of the cars’ license plates weren’t registered until January and February of 1906. Puddles spotted on the tracks placed filming in late March or early April (San Francisco had no rain in September 1905). Finally, he found newspaper articles regarding production, and could pinpoint the actual shoot to Saturday, April 14th 1906, a little after 3pm. Kiehn chronicles his journey in his aforementioned essay, as well as this “60 Minutes” piece.
  • Also worth noting from Kiehn’s research: while Market Street appears to be bustling with cars, automobiles were still quite a novelty in America. The Miles Brothers hired a few chauffeurs to drive past the camera, circle back, and drive past them again. One car passes the camera six different times during the 12 minute film.
  • Because the camera is mounted on the front of a cable car, you can spot several people “hailing” the camera as it comes towards them.
  • Wow, everyone is cutting this cable car off. There’s also several close calls between cars, pedestrians, and horses. It helps that cars of the era had a top speed of around 30mph, no one’s getting hurt by these things.
  • My favorite detail: A giant sign of the side of one of the buildings advertising “Pianos”. Makes sense, every home had one back then.
  • Another prominent sign: M. Blaskower’s Cigar Shop with its “Nathan Hale” five cent Cuban style cigar. “If you have one life to live for this country, smoke ’em if you got ’em!”
  • The film ends with the cable car approaching the Ferry Building, then moving on a turntable to head back up Market Street. The final few frames are children waving at the camera, an occurrence that takes place in every era of American filmmaking.

Legacy

  • Of course, the film’s legacy was solidified only four days later when San Francisco was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fires. Among the many buildings destroyed was the Miles Brothers’ Market Street studio. “A Trip Down Market Street” was loaded onto a train for New York the day before the earthquake hit, and only three prints of the movie are known to exist.
  • While the brothers continued their business (their film of a pre-earthquake San Francisco became in-demand), they still never came out of the financial hole the studio’s destruction left them with. Following Harry’s death in 1908, and the company being forced into bankruptcy in 1910, the remaining Miles brothers went their separate ways, working for other small film companies.

Further Viewing: In 2005 (back when this film was believed to be from 1905), filmmaker Melinda Stone set out to recreate this film for its centennial. Even in only 15 years, the Market Street in this updated film differs from its present day iteration. One of the film’s producers/researchers is film curator Liz Keim, who I can say from personal experience is one of the nicest, most insightful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

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