Market Street 1932: Wowza!

Market Street, in color, in 1932, when essentially all film was black and white. And not just static, like the photo above, but in full and glorious rumble. Click the video below and prepare to get lost in the past for the next four minutes.

This trip up Market Street between the Ferry and Grant Avenue was original actual black and white motion picture footage that our friend Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, turned us onto several years ago. Rick says it was obviously shot for use in a movie where it would be projected behind actors in a car on a sound stage, to make it look like they were driving up Market Street (though Rick says he’s never found a commercial film it appeared in). The color has been automatically added by a YouTube user who identifies himself as NASS. He uses digital tools called neural networks that use artificial intelligence to make old film look fresh. Not just colorizing, but sharpening and smoothing the images. Here’s the black and white original, which starts just a tad earlier on the Ferry Loop with a delicious glimpse of a Sacramento-Clay cable car at its terminal (could it be Big 19??). (Both versions include a random 15 seconds of a parade passing Stockton and Market at the end, nerd-notable for the little-used switch from the terminal of Muni’s F-Stockton streetcar line onto the outbound Muni track on Market.)


Further nerd alert: you can tell the AI-aided colorization isn’t perfect. For one thing, the auto license plates (see still frame below) show as white, but California didn’t issue white plates in this era. A check of this great Wikipedia page, though, along with blowups of still frames, confirms the year as 1932, when the plates were actually yellow. (The yellow parking signs and Wiley “Birdcage” signals also generally read as white here). Also, as seen in the photo at the top of this post, both the Muni and Market Street Railway cars appear to have gray window sash, though in 1932, both companies had red sash (the total White Fronts, sash and all, came a few years later).

Purists, feel free to rant in the comments, but for those of us not yet born in 1932 (meaning less than 88 years old), the colorized version is a lively partner to the original, though in our view better listened to with the sound off. The film was shot as silent, and the fellow who added the SFX clearly doesn’t know what streetcar gongs sound like (hint, not like the whistle of the Blackpool boat trams).

We saw this colorized version a couple of weeks ago, but got beaten to the publishing punch with this article at sfist.com. Well worth checking it out; it will send you down a (colorized) rabbit hole, not only with this film, but more technical details and other colorized films including the famed Miles’ Brothers Trip Down Market Street, shot just days before the 1906 earthquake (below).

One other thing about these altered vintage films. Though the upscaling and colorization are interesting technological achievements, they don’t add any context to what you’re seeing. Read through the comments on YouTube about these kind of films and you’ll find a lot of guessing and misinformation. That’s why we created the only fully-narrated version of the Miles Brothers’ film, explaining where you are and what you see on every block. You can watch our narrated version here, or purchase a DVD exclusively at our online store for your very own.

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