Flickering Florida: The Sunshine State on Film

blogposterOver the weekend, I participated in a conference called Flickering Landscapes, which was organized by Bruce Janz and Phil Peters of the University of Central Florida. The conference focused on the representation of Florida in film and television as well as the state’s extensive cinema history. Florida is unique in the way that its distinctive landscape has affected the state’s identity and image in popular culture. In addition, tourists, vacationers, and Hollywood image-makers have played a major role in shaping that identity—something native Floridians have learned to live with.

I thought I would share some of the history and ideas that I learned at the conference.

I recently wrote about Florida’s role in early cinema history after I discovered that director George Melford had been part of an effort to launch a film industry in St. Petersburg. (See October 26th  post.) I expanded on this piece of Florida history for my part in the conference, and I discussed two other attempts to establish film production on the Gulf Coast. In the mid-1920s, a real estate investor built a beautiful film studio half way between Tampa and Sarasota. Dubbed Sun City, the production center was considered a movie colony, which was supposed to include housing for actors and crew members, a school, a church, a city hall, a power plant, and other facilities necessary to be self-sustaining. The secretary-treasurer of the Sun City Holding Company decided to plat out the streets, pave them, and name them after famous movie stars of the era. He sent maps of Sun City to every Hollywood movie star with a street named after them, hoping they would relocate to Sun City to make films at the new studio. Unfortunately, the land bust caused by rampant real estate speculation destroyed any chance for Sun City to become successful, and the studio never produced a feature film. The only vestiges of this film colony are the town’s streets, which are still named after stars of the 1920s. I am sure current residents have no clue.


A Forgotten Director to Remember: George Melford

blogopener Last Thursday, I was researching early film production on Florida’s Gulf Coast for an upcoming conference. Taking a break from slogging through dozens of Florida newspapers from the 1930s, I decided to read colleague Kimberly Lindbergs’s terrific post on the Turner Classic Movies-Fathom Event for October. This month’s event consists of a double feature of the original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, along with the Spanish-language version, which was shot at the same time. (Movie lovers have another opportunity to see the dueling Draculas this Wednesday, October 28, at a participating theater near you.) When I resumed my research, I was surprised to find multiple references to George Melford, who was the director of the Spanish version of the 1931 horror classic.

Little is known about Melford beyond his participation in this unusual moment in film history when Universal decided to produce two versions of certain titles in different languages. Their goal was to hang onto their foreign markets, who were not keen on distributing English-speaking movies. Apparently, Melford was a veteran director of the silent era, and Universal had faith that he could deliver well-crafted films for the Spanish-speaking markets.


Appreciating W.C.

blogopenerLast weekend, TCM celebrated W.C. Fields in a tribute titled 100 Years in Film. Fields’ first venture into the movies was a century ago in a one‑reeler titled Pool Sharks (aka The Pool Shark). Fields’s granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Fields, cohosted the four-film tribute, which included David Copperfield plus the comedian’s three most popular films, It’s a Gift, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, and The Bank Dick.

Though Fields is justly famous for his vocal inflections, making him a perfect performer for talking films, he did appear in a handful of silent films. And, while I love his classics, I also have a fondness for two of his silent films, which I have been lucky enough to see. Sallie of the Sawdust, a film version of the play Poppy, was directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925. Griffith and Fields seem an unlikely creative pairing, but the legendary director rendered the small-town atmosphere perfectly, capturing the warmth and local color of Americana. I remember the imagery and characters made me yearn for an America that has long since passed, or maybe never really existed.

I discovered It’s the Old Army Game while researching movies shot in Florida, a long-time interest for me. The silent comedy stars Fields as a small-town, drug-store owner with the  indecent name of Elmer Prettywillie. Elmer puts up with the idiosyncratic customers who frequent his store, including the matron who wakes him up in the middle of the night for a two cent stamp and the freeloading firemen who always want soda pops on the house. Elmer is ripe for the pickings when a fast talking real estate speculator talks him into a Florida land scheme.


Immersed in the Sarasota Film Festival

The 13th annual Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) ended yesterday after a weekend filled with events and honors for two stars, Geena Davis and Christopher Plummer, and a producer, Sarah Green. I attended the SFF the previous weekend, and with the festival’s tag line, “Immerse Yourself,” urging me on, I plunged in for a gratifying festival experience.

Unlike Telluride, Sundance, or Toronto, the SFF is a regional film festival, and part of its agenda is to support regionally based films by offering a showcase for movies shot in the Sunshine State. Whether its home-grown horror films with questionable acting or thoughtful meditations on social issues at the local level, I am attracted to regional filmmaking because of the way character and story are so intrinsically bound to locale. Regionalism is important because it can put a fresh face on familiar genres, or bring the concerns and fears of the under-represented to light. Florida has a history of supporting regional filmmaking, most notably the work of Victor Nunez, a native son who has done his home state proud with such films as Ruby in Paradise and Ulee’s Gold.

This year’s Sarasota Film Festival included a handful of narrative films shot along Gulf Coast locales. Mangrove Slasher 2, directed by Sean Haitz, follows a shadowy character with a machete who stalks a group of partiers in the mangrove swamps. More of a send-up of B-movie clichés than a bona fide horror film, MS 2 depends on its locations to create the eerie isolation central to the slasher subgenre. The musical drama Beautiful Noise by Steve Tatone is the story of a young singer who searches for an aging pop star from the 1960s. In addition to these feature films, the festival worked with local organizations to present documentaries that revealed challenging issues facing the community, including The Secret World of Recovery (addiction), Through the Tunnel (high-school football as a tool for integration back in the day), and The Observer and the Observed (mental health).


Luck of the Drew

Lillian Travers (Edith Story) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Dr. Cassadene (Sidney Drew).  But the surprise is on her when she catches him in what sure seems like a comprising position with a wealthy widow.  He makes the requisite apologies, they make up, and it all goes pear shaped again when he blows their next rendez-vous, once again caught with the same widow.  She gives him a third chance—and as she comes out of her house to meet him, there he is, entangled in the clutches of three fawning women.  If this were any other movie, you’d expect Lillian to blow her top and walk out on him, continuing the cycle of sitcommy complications that you’ve come to expect by this point.  Oh, but A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is not any other movie.  And let us uncover its fabulousness in stages:



Hooray for Jacksonville!

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.


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