Film: 656

Places + Locations | 1950 | Sound | B/W


An interesting short film about the survival of the cable car system in San Francisco, USA including some marvellous 1950s footage of the cable cars, the city's sloping streets and its people.

A silhouetted cable car (No. 502), displaying a flapping flag bearing a cross, and accompanied by the clanging of its signal bell, rises to the top of a hill before rolling down towards us.

The camera glides rightwards, offering a panoramic view of San Francisco's buildings, steep streets and distant hills, accompanied by the noise of the streets. A cable car in silhouette slowly negotiates a steep downward slope away from us, against a backdrop of the city. As a male American narrator explains that there are many ways of tackling a hill in 'America's most tilted city', a woman climbs a long flight of steps constructed up a hillside. A woman's feet walk up some stone steps on the left of the screen. A white bus moves up a sharp gradient from right to left across the screen. A white convertible sports car screeches down a zig-zagging road. A steep residential street seen from the foot, deserted but for two cars parked in the foreground, as the narrator explains that people just gave up on some hills until 'a gentleman called Andrew Hallidie thought of a brilliant idea.' A sign on the track says 'TAKE ROPE'.

As the narrator explains that Hallidie invented the grip, two hands seen at close view clasp a grip handle. A man pulls back on a grip lever, before the camera moves down to the base of the grip. A close-up of the base rotating. Two close shots of the grip at work below the track, latching onto the wire cable in one of them. We see through the side of a cable car a grip man pulling back the lever, setting the car moving from left to right across the screen. A nice shot of the rear of a silhouetted cable car disappearing away from us down a steep decline, with telegraph poles to the left and hills in the distance; as the narrator tells of the endless cables beneath the city 'driven by the great winding wheels back at the old green carbine.' Three quick close shots of the slots through which the cable can be seen running. The narrator invites us to 'stare into the rope's dark home', as the camera moves from a view of a road to one alongside the cable beneath ground level.

The camera rotates, in imitation of a cable car turntable, presenting a row of cable cars in a shed and the track beside it: the narrator reflects, 'Born in a quieter day, they now sniff warily the sunlight of an atomic age.' A hand pulls the rope that allows the signal bell to ring. A bell itself is seen ringing. From a position just below the track we see a cable car pass over and its rear disappear at the top left of the screen. A cable car moves away from us along a street that rises sharply in the distance, a man hanging off the right-hand side of the car. A shot of two men working on a cable car in a dark shed, as the narrator remarks that many have already 'passed away'. Iron parts are thrown noisily into a heap from right off-screen. As the narrator explains that some cars have been 'cannibalised for spare parts', we view the stripped interior of a cable car.

A shadowy hand uses tweezers to pick out wiry threads that criss-cross a grid, illustrating how one by one the cable lines disappeared, until only two remained and the question of whether the cars should survive came to a head. A voice imitating 'a taxpayer' declares that 'the cable car is dead', as one approaches us from a distance until its number 511 fills the screen. A cable car emerges into a street from an invisible upwards slope and passes rightwards, as a female voice points out that a bus able to tackle the hills would be costly to build.

As we hear various opinions for and against the cable cars, there are a sequence of shots. A cable car passes up a slight gradient left to right across the screen. Another moves across screen from left to right at a very steep angle. A small model cable car rests on the palm of a hand, as a female voice claims that they are 'worth their weight in gold.' A cable car negotiates a curve, passing from top left of the screen down to bottom right. A striking view of a cable car passing from right to left along a steep street, viewed from such an angle that the old houses on the far side appear to be leaning.

The rear of a cable car disappears over the edge of a steep decline, as a male voice worries, 'What if they couldn't stop?' A man turns a horizontal lever. A brake block is released from a wheel, which begins turning. Sand is poured from a bucket onto the track. A boot presses down, perhaps on a brake pedal of some kind. A shower of sand is seen below the track. Rapid shots of a shoe pressing down on a prominent pedal; a grip lever being pulled away from us; and three different sets of wheels coming to a halt. A cable car moves from right to left across screen, stopping suddenly. A painted 'LET GO' sign between the tracks is seen. As a male voice speaks in favour of buses, a conductor ushers passengers onto a bus on the left. Bus doors close, as the narrator says, 'And that closes the argument.' The screen remains black, but we hear the sound of the signal bell, to which a voice replies, 'Hey, shut up, you're dead!'

As the narrator begins to recall the battle against the city authorities' proposal to scrap the Powell Street line, a group of uniformed cable car men look and point at a noticeboard. We see, in quick succession, a finger pressing a doorbell, a leaflet dropping, a doorbell being turned, and the leaflet dropping again before being frozen, all illustrating that 'Some people did something about the situation.' The editorial page of a city newspaper is buried under various typed and printed documents to suggest the effort eventually made by the authorities to look at the facts, figures and opinions concerning cable cars.

A newspaper filling the screen is pulled away, leaving the face of a man, who pulls a cigarette from his mouth indignantly. A woman's face looks concerned. Two men face each other, the one on the right arguing. A hand writes with a pen on a white sheet of paper, to illustrate the fact that 36,000 citizens signed petitions or wrote letters. A close-up of the Mayor's typed and signed letter on the issue. As we are told that the people saved the line, we follow a cable track though the middle of the screen until it reaches 'the end of the line', which many people still think that all cable cars have reached.

We follow a cable car leftwards as it is carried by a turntable, a man pushing it on its way, while passengers continue to step aboard, until it is ready to travel straight into the distance. As the narrator invites us to take a closer look at 'our sprightly octogenarian', a cable car moves beside a shed on the right, followed by a model of the much smaller original model. The smaller model, bearing an umbrella shade, moves alone towards the shed. A design of the early model is followed by shots of a number of features that show how the cable car 'still remembers Mama': the signal bell ringing; the interior of 'the coach works'; the frosted glass of a machine that has counted fares since 1896; the mark that indicates its patent; and a typed document relating to the latter.

Two crowded cable cars pass in opposite directions. Passengers step off and onto the crowded board of a cable car. A side-on view of passengers at the windows of a car, with the grip man pulling on the lever behind, setting the car in motion rightwards. Two staff seen in a cable car. Another standing in a moving car. Feet step onto a cable car. A hand grips the rail beside the steps up. A close-up of hands pulling leftwards the bar that controls a turntable. A close shot of the track rotating. An iron catch locks into place. A view of some track. Two workmen at the tracks, one on the right standing with his back to us, the other on the left, in white shirt and cap, wrenching something up.

The camera moves over some broken rubble in the foreground up to 'the big brick barn' where the cable is kept running. A rather obscure view inside. The interior, showing engineers at work, with the large main wheel in the background. A very close shot of the wheel turning, accompanied by its deafening roar, with an engineer visible behind. Two close shots from different angles. A series of close shots of various small wheels and pulleys, serving different purposes.

An old man in a wide-brimmed hat passes his ticket to a cable car man, as the car moves rightwards and the camera follows it a short way. As we are told how the fate of the Powell Street line was decided by voters, we see the long rolling downward sweep of a street, with traffic passing both along and across it. A cable car travelling towards us stops and passengers step off, other traffic passing across the foreground. A close shot of passengers on the board of a car, some stepping off. A nice silhouette of a cable car passing from right to left, leaving behind just the outline of buildings against the horizon, as the narrator tells how an attack on the Californian line almost succeeded.

A car moves across, from right to left. A view from the back window of a moving cable car of another car set against a backdrop of the city. A silhouetted cable car moves across rightwards in the background, dwarfed by telegraph poles and wires against the sky. A cable car passes across at close view, momentarily obscuring a view of buildings. A silhouetted cable car passes from right to left, leaving beside a guard house a man wearing a hat. As the narrator voices the belief that if the people make their voice heard, 'the current battle will certainly not mean the end', we follow a cable car side-on along a busy street, a traffic light switching from 'Go' to 'Stop' in the foreground, once the car has passed. 'The End' appears, soon revealed as painted on the rear of a cable car passing into the distance.

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