Slavko Vorkapich was a genius of film, little known today although he personally contributed to incredible sequences in many Hollywood films of the 1930s. The first I ever saw was a hallucinogenic dream sequence he designed for the Claude Rains film "Crime Without Passion" which has to be seen to be believed; if my memory's correct, it probably helped inspire some of the more bizarre imagery in Fantasia's Bald Mountain sequence. Vorkapich was practically unique in his freelancing just montages for so many large scale films for different studios-which gives an indication that the studio bosses knew greatness when they saw it.
The clip here is of course of Vorkapich's visualization of the Great 1906 earthquake in MGM's "San Francisco", directed in all but this montage by W.S, Van Dyke("The Thin Man", among many others). The rest of the film is fairly straightforward romantic drama with Clark Gable at his staccato angriest, tempted as he is to decency by lovely Jeanette MacDonald. Spencer Tracy plays his usual tough Irish priest, friend to both the leads. But all the melodramatic twists of the plot pale next to this incredible, impressionistic, utterly jaw-dropping piece of cinema that represents a staggering disaster--made in 1936.
See how the tension in the conventional plot builds with Gable's public embarrassment of Jeanette, and how a few disturbing quick cuts to the audience members create a sense of unease and disturbance(probably Van Dyke's)...then as Jeanette walks through the crowd the familiar rumble of the earthquake starts, resulting in the actress stopping abruptly and turning back with a muffled, panicked "What's that?"--so clipped it almost sounds like an ad lib(it surely wasn't). Then here we go...
There's no music. The shots are seemingly erratic: the ceiling, the slivers of plaster, the glasses, the roar of the earthquake, the screaming starting...the sound building to the wheel falling--and then a second or two of pure silence.
It's still got every bit of its impact today. The only pity is that this is humble YouTube quality, and doesn't do it full justice. But what a lesson in editing for impact. I think we have a lot to learn from this.
There's one little historic inaccuracy: the actual earthquake struck at 5:15 am, not many hour earlier as the film's plot indicates, but that's a small caveat. Everything else shown is based on a reality that was--hard to imagine--only thirty years in the past at the time this was made.