Posted by Susan Doll on November 15, 2010
TCM’s original documentary series Moguls and Movie Stars continues tonight with Episode 3, “The Dream Merchants,” which chronicles the rise of the major studios in the 1920s—the so-called Silver Age of Hollywood. By this time in American film history, Hollywood had been established as the center of the industry, though films continued to be made in New York, where some production companies maintained offices and studios. I am enjoying this detailed and well-organized series, particularly the lesser-known clips and photos as well as the interviews with descendents of the original moguls.
My only complaint is the short shrift given to other American cities that were important in motion picture history. Some cities were hometowns to film pioneers who made major contributions as far back as the 1890s while other locales vied with Hollywood to be the hub of the film industry during the 1910s. Chicago, my adopted hometown, was mentioned briefly in the first two episodes of Moguls and Movie Stars, but considering that the first large-scale studio was built here by William Selig or that the first bona fide cowboy star, Broncho Billy Anderson, originally shot his westerns on the city’s North Side, I thought it deserved more attention. I have already written about Chicago’s early film history in previous posts, so I won’t revisit that topic. Instead I thought I would touch on another city’s contributions to the early film era—a locale completely omitted from Moguls and Movie Stars.
Of all the cities that could have given Hollywood a run for its money, I would never have guessed that Jacksonville, Florida, was once recognized as the winter film capital. I first learned about Jacksonville’s role in movie history when I coauthored a book titled Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema & Locations a few years back. Florida has a rich association with the history of American movies, though few know about it. Most histories summarize the establishment of the American film industry as a tale of two coasts—the original pioneers operated out of New York and New Jersey and then weather, opportunity, and the Patents Company forced a second wave of filmmakers and companies west to Los Angeles. The ruthless tactics of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust consisting of ten companies who sought to control the burgeoning film industry, included the use of armed thugs, destruction of property, and the threat of violence in order to force small and midsize companies out of business. Stories of Patents thugs brutalizing filmmakers and destroying their equipment with axes and sledgehammers have been endlessly recounted and exaggerated, giving the movie industry’s origin tale a mythic quality that makes for colorful retelling. So, any new information that interferes with the established interpretation is too often cast aside.
When existing film companies began to expand their operations outside of the North, they didn’t flock to the West Coast right away. In those days, the major production companies consisted of multiple units or stock companies, which were sent to various locations in search of diverse landscapes as backdrops for their movies. Many sent stock companies to Florida to shoot movies during the winter months. The first to arrive was a Kalem unit, which wintered in Jacksonville–or Jax–in 1908-1909. The unit included one of Kalem’s premiere scriptwriters, Gene Gauntier, who landed in Jacksonville with director Sidney Olcott. The group settled in the Fairfield neighborhood, kicking up their heels in the Roseland Hotel along the St. Johns River. Kalem produced the first narrative film in Florida, A Florida Feud, or Love in the Everglades, which was a big hit. Trade publications of the day mentioned the location work, which undoubtedly contributed to its success, encouraging the little Kalem stock company to return to Florida the following winter. Gauntier was also one of the company’s top actresses, and she and Olcott prepared a series of adventures movies to be shot in the Jacksonville area called the Girl Spy Adventures, with Gene writing the scenarios and starring as Nan the Girl Spy. Shooting in reptile-infested grasslands and gator-infested waterways, Gauntier led an adventurous life as a movie pioneer in Florida as revealed in her autobiography, Blazing the Trail, which was serialized in Woman’s Home Companion in 1929.
In 1909, the Lubin Company followed Kalem to Jacksonville but also sent a stock company to the West Indies. Lubin, which moved its entire operation to Jacksonville in 1912, gave Oliver Hardy his start in movies in 1914. Known as Babe Hardy, he worked with Lubin and then later Vim Comedies, where he made over 65 shorts. He costarred in the Pokes and Jabbs series as a character named Plump. Hardy had moved to Jacksonville from Georgia after a friend told him colorful tales of moving pictures being shot in the streets of the city. He lived in the city’s modern-style apartment building, the Klutho, as did Tom Mix who made movies for Selig Polyscope’s unit in Jacksonville. Soon Majestic Films, the King Bee Film Co., the Thanhouser Film Company, Gaumont Productions, and Metro Pictures were also shooting in Jax. Many purchased land to build studios or staging areas, including Kalem, which built a glass-roofed studio with a state-of-the-art lighting system in 1914.
Older film histories claim that most film companies left New York and New Jersey to escape the repressive tactics of the Motion Picture Patents Company. Whether the story has them escaping to Florida, Texas, or Hollywood, the Patents Company is generally given as the reason for their departure from the East Coast. However, Kalem, Selig, and Lubin were three of the ten companies that made up the Patents organization. For the sake of accuracy, it is important to note that Jacksonville—and Hollywood—attracted both established companies and the independents, because it sheds a different light on the role of the Patents Company in early film history.
Jacksonville was also home to the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, which specialized in race movies—films with all-African-American casts for African-American audiences. Race movies allowed black actors to play a variety of characters, from heroes to villains, providing an alternative to the standard stereotypes found in mainstream movies of the day. Not many of Norman’s films are left, though I have seen clips from The Flying Ace, which is about a champion aviator who returns from the war a bonafide hero. The story was fiction but it was inspired by the real-life exploits of famous black fliers like Eugene Bullard and Hubert Fauntleroy Julian. Richard E. Norman, the head of the studio, also produced The Bull-Dogger, a film starring legendary African-American cowboy Bill Pickett. Norman began shooting his race films in Jacksonville in 1919, which made him late to the game, but his operation continued to produce films throughout the 1920s, outlasting most of the other studios that had faded or moved by the end of World War I. The buildings that were part of Norman’s studio lot remain intact and have been restored to their original condition, making them the only surviving evidence of Jacksonville’s once-thriving film industry. Plans are in the works to re-open the studio as a museum to showcase Florida’s contributions to the film industry.
At first, Jacksonville appealed to the studios because it was the largest city in the state at the time as well as a financial, transportation, manufacturing, and distribution center for the Southeast. Mayor J.E.T. Bowden supported the film industry because it created jobs, and he lobbied hard for more companies to settle in his picturesque Southern city. Residents and businesses were initially excited about the influx of studios and the production of movies all over town. One major department store even opened a movie department to assist the movie people in their productions. However, the bloom quickly faded from the rose as the wild antics of the movie people turned the residents against them. The staging of crime scenes on Sundays upset their conservative sensibilities, while uncontrolled car chases through the city streets seemed unnecessarily reckless. Moviemakers seemed oblivious to the ill will they engendered when they deliberately set off fire alarms so they could get shots of racing fire trucks for free, or when they spread false stories of tragic events to attract hordes of people for crowd scenes. The film industry also attracted a criminal element, including gamblers, hangers-on, and con men promising to sell stock in non-existing movie companies or to get locals in the movies.
In 1917, Mayor Bowden lost his re-election bid to reform candidate John Martin, whose platform included opposition to the film industry. Jacksonville merchants began overcharging movie companies, instead of catering to them, and banks refused to grant loans or financially support the studios. Without political support or an established economic infrastructure, the industry quickly pulled out of Jacksonville. Hollywood, which had been attracting independent productions companies, stock companies of established studios, distributors, and other movie-related businesses at the same time as Jacksonville, suddenly looked like a more suitable location. Los Angeles supported the burgeoning film industry by offering financial backing, fostering a talent pool of technicians and artists, engineering the support of the merchants, and promoting the industry to attract more companies. In other words, L.A. was willing to be a company town, but Jacksonville was not.
Filmmaking in the Sunshine State did not immediately die with the collapse of the Jacksonville colony. Throughout the 1920s, small production companies and individual filmmakers continued to take advantage of the landscape and weather to make films throughout the state, including D.W. Griffith who shot The Idol Dancer, The Love Flower, and the White Rose in Florida. Many remained convinced that Florida could support a significant part of the film industry. In 1920, developer Paul Gilmore purchased a 40 acre subdivision on Anna Maria Island near Sarasota with plans to construct Gilmore’s Oriental Film City. The Film City was intended to be a full-service studio, because Gilmore thought “Florida was destined to become the moving picture center of the nation,” according to the Manatee River Journal. Gilmore’s idea seemed more than possible after he was tapped to play in a movie made by the Character Picture Corp. of New York titled The Isle of Destiny, shot on Anna Maria Island. Unfortunately, major storms in 1926 and 1928 combined with the Depression ended Gilmore’s dream.
My favorite story regarding attempts to establish an industry presence is about Sun City. My friend, Florida historian Lisa Bradberry, originally told me about this tiny town, 25 miles south of Tampa on U.S. 41. In 1925, during the height of the real estate boom in Florida, an investor named H.C. Van Swearingen purchased 500 acres in and around a town called Ross. Swearingen renamed the town Sun City with plans to build a community around a movie studio—a true movie colony. The actors, directors, technicians, etc., could live in Sun City and work at the studio. In 1925, a Mediterranean-style studio building was dedicated with a lavish ceremony designed to lure buyers to purchase lots in Sun City. Streets were laid out and named after major directors, studios, and stars of the day to add glamor to the colony. Sadly, Sun City collapsed when speculators bought and sold the lots at inflated prices in order to make a quick profit. Only a few houses were built, and when the real estate boom went bust, Sun City was abandoned. In 1932, the studio building was dismantled. Sun City was eventually settled by families and working folk, and the community now consists of resorts and golf courses. However, remnants of the movie colony exist in the street signs of Sun City. A few years ago, I visited the tiny town and drove around until I found Vidor Avenue and Neilan Drive—named after King Vidor and Marshall Neilan. Other streets include Pickford Avenue, which crosses Universal Drive, Fox Place and First National Drive, and Petrova Circle, which crosses Lloyd Drive. Chaney Drive and La Marr Avenue are now private roads. I am sure the majority of Sun City residents have no clue why their streets have the names they do. It was an unexpected pleasure for me to track down this almost-forgotten piece of film history, and I am grateful to Lisa Bradberry for preserving it in articles and lectures.
Other small movie operations sprang up across America during the 1910s, including those in New Orleans, San Antonio, Denver, and even Cuba, but Jacksonville attracted most of the major companies of the era—Selig, Lubin, Kalem, Gaumont—making its story an important one. Leaving out the contributions of cities like Chicago and Jacksonville preserves the “tale of two coasts” interpretation of film history that has been handed down for decades, but it also distorts that history.
Doll, Susan and David Morrow. Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema & Locations. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
Nelson, Richard Alan. Lights! Camera! Florida!: 90 Years of Moviemaking and Television Production in the Sunshine State. Tampa: Florida Endowment for the Humanities, 1991.
Norman Film Studios: Preserving a Legacy. http://www.normanstudios.org/
Ponti, James. Hollywood East: Florida’s Fabulous Flicks. Orlando: Tribune Pub., 1992.
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