Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21, 1937 – Fire Breaks out at Carthay Circle Theater

Never before or since has Hollywood seen as terrible of a disaster as it did on the night of the premier of the ill-fated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Created by Silly Symphonies animator Walt Disney, the film’s doom seemed to be prophesied. Hollywood executives, as well as Disney’s own brother Roy and his wife, Lilian, tried to talk him out of the notion of a full-length animated feature film as they were certain no audience would want to sit through something so ridiculous as a cartoon dwarf movie. Disney persisted, however, even mortgaging his own home to pay for the $1.5 million production costs, astronomical for the day.

The film was set to premier at the Carthay Circle theater, which was growing in popularity with premiers such as Romeo and Juliet and The Life of Emile Zola in the last two years. The theater was Spanish Colonial Revival style, featuring an exterior of painted concrete and a bell tower sporting a colossal neon sign. As the star-studded audience sat waiting in the circular auditorium, an electrical fire from the neon sign began atop the roof. It went unnoticed for some time, spreading behind the walls raised above the roofline to create a tent effect. Survivors said that they smelled smoke, but it was blamed on a number of cigarettes and cigars.

Rumors say that Disney, desperate not to let a small technical fire ruin the premier of the film into which he had thrown his whole life, preempted the warning and stopped ushers from beginning an evacuation. The truth will never be known as Disney’s body was found after the fire in the projection room, apparently trying to save the film reels, the same that ignited in the burst that would be the first signal of danger to the auditorium. By the time fire alarms began to ring, the fire itself had spread over the roof and destabilized the theater’s famed tower. Moviegoers began to flee toward the exits when the roof collapsed and flaming debris instantly killed dozens. Over a hundred more would be dead by the end of the night despite the race by rescuers to pull trapped victims from under the inferno.

Among the victims of the Carthay Fire were Disney himself, radio comedian George Burns (whose wife Gracie Allen would go immediately into retirement, saying, “The act is over”), young singing sensation Judy Garland, It Girl Mary Pickford, columnist Ed Sullivan, and, most famously, Clark Gable, who, after making certain his girlfriend Carole Lombard had gotten to safety, returned to the fire and saved Shirley Temple. He escaped the fire itself but died the next morning due to complications from smoke inhalation.

It is said that the Golden Age of Hollywood ended with the fire, but the town recovered and continued to produce. In a move that many considered poor taste, the Carthay Circle was rebuilt, hoping to open for the premier of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Shirley Temple, starring as Dorothy Gale, refused to set foot in the building again, and the premier was moved. Instead, the first new show at the Carthay Circle was the notorious flop Gone with the Wind. Gary Cooper had passed on the film’s role of Rhett Butler, which came to Errol Flynn. While his acting was defined by critics as superb, too many audience members expected sword fighting, and the film’s budget of $4 million ruined MGM Studios as the box office did not pay out.

Whether out of respect for the disaster, because Disney was no longer living to push for the genre, or from a simple lack of public interest, it would be decades before another full-length cel-animated feature film would be attempted, gradually coming into mainstream out of the underground comix movement. Few films would be seen as largely profitable until 1986’s Oscar-winning animation Howard the Duck restarted the genre with its biting social commentary, though overall moviegoers would care more for monster films featuring costumes and camera tricks, robotics, and stop motion.

In 1974, the acclaimed disaster film The Towering Inferno would give a semi-fictional account of the evening with Paul Newman as Gable and Steve McQueen as Charles Chaplin, who was partially crippled when a beam crushed his leg. Critics and Hollywood historians alike routinely name Inferno the best disaster film of all time.

In reality, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a hit. The Animated Classics genre would be born to great applause, literally a standing ovation from the star-filled audience. Disney and his dwarfs appeared on the cover of Time less than a week later, and he would go on to revolutionize the entertainment industry with his film and TV productions, innovations, and amusement parks. The Carthay Circle soon premiered another great hit, Gone with the Wind, in 1939.

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