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Earthquake 1974 Revamp: Seismic Disaster to Obliterate California + Play Cupid

8 minutes read

Earthquake 1974: Los Angeles destroyed in cheesy melodrama and Sensurround enhanced special effects fest mix
Earthquake 1974. A major seismic burp destroys Los Angeles in Mark Robson’s 1974 mix of cheesy melodrama and special-effects fest: Earthquake, in which an all-star cast – from Moses and Ava Gardner to Victoria Principal and former Evangelical Christian preacher Marjoe Gortner – is shaken, rattled, and drowned, courtesy of both the San Andreas Fault and the Hollywood Reservoir. The Oscar-nominated visual effects were created by Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson, and Albert Whitlock. The sound effects – known as Sensurround – helped to earn Ronald Pierce and Melvin M. Metcalfe Sr. that year’s Best Sound Oscar.

Earthquake 1974 revisited: San Andreas 3D to strike California from shining fault to shining fault

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

An acquaintance of an acquaintance of a friend claims he predicted several catastrophes in the not-too-distant past: the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Great East Japan Earthquake, the George W. Bush presidency, the near-collapse of the international banking system. His latest claim: the Big One will shake and rattle Los Angeles next December 25. Talk about a memorable Christmas gift.

Now, it’s unclear whether this acquaintance of an acquaintance etc. knows someone at New Line. But perhaps he does.

As per the Los Angeles Times blog 24 Frames, the studio is developing San Andreas 3D. Assuming you already know what 3D is, in brief, this is what San Andreas is all about: geological fault line running through California, more or less parallel to its coastline, splitting much of the state in half.

Remember that old nonsense, “As California goes, so goes the nation?” Well, there’s actually a similar saying that makes more sense: “If San Andreas goes, so goes California.”

California not to survive San Andreas 3D

But just like Professor Pangloss in Candide, California keeps bouncing back. It managed to survive the giant ants in Them!, the giant squid in It Came from Beneath the Sea, adulterer Charlton Heston (a.k.a. Moses) in Earthquake 1974, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento, and even Volcano 1997, in which Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche battle the film’s title star in downtown L.A.

So, the state will likely survive San Andreas 3D much like moviegoers will likely survive collapsing, CGI-generated 3D buildings.

It’s less clear whether their grey matter will survive the film’s plot, as described by 24 Frames’ Steven Zeitchik: “… [T]he hero is forced to go on the road to reconcile with his children and his estranged wife, who’s moved away and taken up with another man a la John Cusack’s character in 2012.”

A handful of early credits

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Just Go with It screenwriter Allan Loeb has penned the San Andreas 3D screenplay. He’s likely not expecting an Academy Award nomination for it, but no matter, as he should be receiving some fat paychecks and – in case San Andreas 3D does indeed get made and released – some heavy-duty residuals.

Correction/Update: As found at, Jeremy Passmore and Andre Fabrizio wrote the San Andreas screenplay. Loeb “polished” it.

Beau Flynn, among whose credits are the Journey to the Center of the Earth and Red Dawn remakes, in addition to The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Slap Her… She’s French, is the attached producer. No director or stars have been assigned yet.

Earthquake 1974 Ava Gardner semi-naked Charlton Heston. Disaster movie + soap opera mix
Earthquake 1974 with Ava Gardner and a semi-naked Charlton Heston. No matter the setting, major disaster movies of the 1970s followed a particular formula: a) lots of death (or near-death) and destruction b) a contrived plot (or series of subplots) c) first-rate production values d) veteran directors & movie stars lending a patina of above-the-line prestige to the schlocky proceedings. Earthquake 1974 was no exception to the rule. Representing d) were filmmaker Mark Robson and Old Hollywood stars Ava Gardner (Best Actress Oscar nominee for Mogambo, 1953) and Charlton Heston (Best Actor Oscar winner for Ben-Hur).

‘Earthquake’ 1974: When disaster movies ruled the Earth

Released the same year as John Guillermin’s more popular and more prestigious (but equally trashy) The Towering Inferno, two years after Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure, and four years after George Seaton’s Airport, Earthquake 1974 was directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Mark Robson (Peyton Place, 1957; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, 1958), who once upon a time had made small and well-received black-and-white movies at RKO (e.g., The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Bedlam).

George Fox and The Godfather author and screenwriter Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplay, while the all-star Earthquake cast consisted of:

  • Best Actor Oscar winner Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur, 1959) as the adulterous husband.
  • Best Actress Oscar nominee Ava Gardner (Mogambo, 1953) as the cuckolded wife.
  • Best Actress Oscar nominee Geneviève Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days, 1969) as the youthful lover.
  • Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) as an insufferably bossy L.A. cop.
  • Bonanza actor Lorne Greene, who happened to be seven years older than Earthquake daughter Ava Gardner.
  • Shaft actor Richard Roundtree.
  • Former Christian preaching sensation Marjoe Gortner.
  • Future Dallas star Victoria Principal.
  • Veterans Barry Sullivan (Nancy Goes to Rio, The Bad and the Beautiful) and Lloyd Nolan (Blues in the Night, A Hatful of Rain). The latter had previously worked with Mark Robson on the Oscar-nominated blockbuster Peyton Place.
  • Billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky for his a cameo as a happy drunk, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Walter Matthau (The Fortune Cookie, 1966).
  • Monica Lewis. Gabriel Dell. John Randolph. Pedro Armendáriz Jr. Kip Niven. Scott Hylands. Donald Moffat.

But really, the actual stars of Earthquake 1974 were both the visual effects – crumbling bridges and buildings, a bursting dam – and its revolutionary (i.e., gimmicky) sound effects technology.

Instead of 3D, Universal came up with Sensurround, a loud version of Odorama – minus the odor. Moviegoers could hear the earth rumble all around them, but they couldn’t smell it. (That may help to explain why Sensurround was a goner after a couple of years.)

Box office hit

With a domestic gross of $79.66 million (about $340 million today) – Earthquake 1974 became the fourth biggest box office hit of the year, after Best Picture Oscar nominee The Towering Inferno, and two Mel Brooks comedies, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

More recently, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 didn’t fare so poorly either, collecting $769.67 million worldwide two years ago.

Thence, things look promising for the upcoming on-screen evisceration of California.

The Rains of Ranchipur with Lana Turner Richard Burton. Earthquake and flood revisit South Asia
The Rains of Ranchipur with Lana Turner and Richard Burton. A remake of Clarence Brown’s The Rains Came (1939) – with Lana Turner and Richard Burton in the old Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power roles – The Rains of Ranchipur, despite its Oscar-nominated special effects, didn’t turn out to be the box office hit 20th Century Fox had hoped for. In fact, Jean Negulesco’s mix of romance, exotica, and disaster movie was a money-loser for the studio due to its high production costs. Ranchipur, by the way, is a fictitious location; non-studio sequences were reportedly shot in Pakistan and at the Fox Ranch in Malibu.

Earthquake 1974 predecessors

Long before Earthquake and the in-the-works San Andreas 3D, there was a trio of Hollywood movies featuring major seismic movements:

  • Best Director Academy Award nominee W.S. Van Dyke’s Best Picture nominee San Francisco (1936), which is destroyed by the 1906 earthquake while, quite literally, Jeanette MacDonald sings. Also in the cast: good bad guy Clark Gable and preachy Best Actor nominee Spencer Tracy.
  • Clarence Brown’s entertaining, South Asian-set The Rains Came (1939), in which Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent, Maria Ouspenskaya, Brenda Joyce, and the nastiest Nigel Bruce you’ve ever seen must survive not only a devastating earthquake but also an equally devastating flood (perhaps the inspiration for the bursting dam in Earthquake 1974?).
  • Jean Negulesco’s underrated The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), a color, widescreen remake of The Rains Came. Those struggling to survive the deadly double whammy include Lana Turner, Richard Burton, Fred MacMurray, Michael Rennie, Joan Caulfield, and Eugenie Leontovich. Louis Bromfield wrote the novel on which both films were based.

Earthquake 1974 image: Universal Pictures.

Lana Turner and Richard Burton The Rains of Ranchipur image: 20th Century Fox.

Semi-naked Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner Earthquake 1974 image: Universal Pictures.

Earthquake 1974 Revamp: Seismic Disaster to Obliterate California & Bring Estranged Couple Back Together” last updated in July 2018.

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