Hollywood loves disaster films, and, mostly, audiences love them, too. The drama that happens between characters when nature (or something else) raises the stakes is compelling, and it's a great opportunity for some CGI wizardry. If there's one thing that modern films have over classic films, it's the ability to make a great disaster movie.
The 1936 film San Francisco directed by W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke (with help from D.W. Griffith) and starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy has all the elements of a great disaster film: colorful characters, a complicated love triangle, and lively music, all leading up to the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, when the city was rocked by the most devastating earthquake in the city's history.
D.W. Griffith directed many of the earthquake sequences, which, of course, utilize no CGI whatsoever - just a lot of camera tricks and a whole lot of great stunt work and effects.
Many people refer to this as a musical, since it is filled with lavish musical numbers in the Barbary Coast club owned by Clark Gable's character Blackie Norton, as well as some great opera scenes featuring Jeanette MacDonald. Jeanette also gives us a memorable rendition of the title song.
(Sorry about the colorization in this clip. It's all I could find. I recommend seeing this in the original black and white. Ted Turner is nuts.)
By the way, Van Dyke was known as "One Take Woody," for his quick film-making style, completing most scenes in just, well, one take. Spencer Tracy has a little bit of fun with this in one scene by throwing in an ad lib in a scene where he and MacDonald are in his rectory. (Tracy plays a priest and childhood friend of Blackie Norton. He's not part of the love triangle. That would be weird.) Tracy makes reference to "that Rooney kid" - referencing young Mickey Rooney (who isn't in this movie, but with whom Tracy had worked before) - and Jeanette MacDonald was not expecting it. The look on her face is priceless. And, of course, since the scene only had one take, it's in the film.
Fun movie. Check it out.
In black and white, preferably. (Ted, Ted, Ted . . .)