In the Beginning…
In the last years of the nineteenth century, during the Spanish-American War, both the Edison Film Company and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (which would soon change its name to just the Biograph Company) produced a series of short films in Florida. Many were just clips less than a minute long. At the time, Florida was a training ground for soldiers preparing to go to war (The Spanish-American War). There are clips of soldiers disembarking from railroad cars, boarding ships and training for the war. Films had titles like Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (Tampa), Military Camp in Tampa Taken from Train, Colored Troops Disembarking (Tampa), War Correspondents (Key West), U.S. Calvary Supplies Unloading in Tampa, Florida and Burial of the “Maine” Victims (Key West). All are from 1898 and are available on-line via the Library of Congress. These films are considered to be the earliest made in Florida.
Florida, to this day, has a long history of films being made in the state, or as Hollywood does quite a bit, put a palm tree in the scene and just say it’s Florida, though it was shot in California. However, in the early years of the 20th Century, Jacksonville, Florida came close to becoming the film capital of the world…and then they blew it.
Before Hollywood, New York and the surrounding Metropolitan area was considered the movie capital. Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope; Fred Ott’s Sneeze, a five second film of what else, Fred Ott, an Edison technician, sneezing was made at Edison’s Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Soon film studios were opening up throughout the New York City area, among them, Kalem, Thanhauser and Biograph which would become the home of D.W. Griffith and the Gish Sisters.
New York was a mecca for early filmmakers, but it had its drawback too. Frigid harsh winters in the north were generally not conducive to making films outdoors. Studios began to explore other areas by heading south. Early explorations into Florida included Miami and Tampa. But it was Jacksonville in North Florida, and at the time the state’s largest city, with generally cooler, comfortable temperatures that became the center. Jacksonville also had a welcoming political and local population. The area itself was conducive to a variety of different landscapes: beaches, urban areas and even jungle like scenes. Additionally, the railroad from the north conveniently stopped right there.
The first company to make the move to Jacksonville was the Kalem Film Company. Established in 1907, the three owners were George Kleine, Samuel Long and Frank Marion who took the first letters of each of their last names to come up with the company name. Kalem, during its short life span of nine years, was a pretty adventurous group. They were the first film company to go on location overseas sending a film crew to Ireland. Kalem was also one of the first to explore the west coast establishing a studio in Vendugo Canyon in Glendale, California in 1910. However, before both of these adventures, Kalem, in 1908, established a small branch studio in Jacksonville. Their first film was a short called, A Florida Feud: Love in the Everglades, released in 1909. Other Kalem films made in Jacksonville had titles like The Seminole’s Vengeance: or, The Slave Catchers of Florida, The Orange Grower’s Daughter and The Old Soldier’s Story. Other companies soon followed and by 1916, there were over 30 film companies with offices in Jacksonville, including, Lubin, Selig, Edison, King Bee and Eagle, making it the Winter Film Capital of the World.
Metro Studio opened its doors in New York in 1915. Its first produced film was Sealed Valley made in August of that same year. Metro, also opened space in Jacksonville, and established a backlot in Hollywood that same year. The latter move would turn out to be a bad omen for Jacksonville’s moviemaking future. Soon studios were beginning to move west, opening up backlots in Hollywood during those teen years. By 1919, Metro Pictures had been purchased by Marcus Loew who in 1924 would merge with Goldwyn Pictures and, in 1925, merge with Louis B. Mayer Productions forming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Meanwhile, Richard E. Norman, a name almost unknown today was a film pioneer in many ways. Norman was small time filmmaker out of the mid-west who during the 1910’s made short films with local actors and shown in local theaters. In 1916, Norman made a feature film called The Green-Eyed Monster. It was a financial flop. A native Floridian, Norman moved to Jacksonville a few years later. In 1920, he purchased Eagle Studios changing its name to Norman Laboratories. Around this same time, Norman began to make films aimed exclusively for African-American audiences. Race films, as they were known at the time, were becoming popular within the black communities thanks to pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and a few others. Norman’s first all-black film was a remake of his The Green-Eyed Monster (1919), filmed in Jacksonville, for which he added a comic touch. Once again, the film was a financial flop. Norman went back to the editing room, removed the comedy and released the film as a straight drama. It turned out to be a success and it began a cycle of successful all-black cast films. In 1920, Norman purchased Eagle Studio’s five building complex in the Arlington District of Jacksonville.
Norman wasn’t just looking to make a buck off black audiences. He was a man who was truly concerned about racial relations. He disliked the negative way African-Americans were typically portrayed in mainstream movies: Ignorant, shuffling and sambo. Norman’s films portrayed blacks in a positive and intelligent non-stereotypical way. Unfortunately for us today, most of Norman’s films disintegrated and are gone forever, except for a few clips and one feature film, The Flying Ace (1926). The Flying Ace was inspired by the life of Bessie Coleman, the first black female American licensed pilot.
Of all the more than thirty studios that opened up in Jacksonville, the only one that remains standing today is Norman Studios, now known as The Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, a 501©3 non-profit organization. It’s mission statement, “To collect, preserve, and display artifacts, documents and histories associated with Florida’s role in the development of the film industry with particular emphasis on Northeast Florida; to promote interest in and enjoyment of silent and early films and their histories; and to facilitate the growth of the motion picture industry via educational programs and materials.” The Board of Directors includes Norman’s son, Richard E. Norman. (3)
In 1913, a struggling overweight young actor moved, on the advice of a friend, from Georgia to Jacksonville after telling him a lot of movies were being made there. There was plenty of opportunity. While working nights in local cabarets, he got a job working for the Lubin Film Company working behind the scenes. The following year, Oliver Norville Hardy made his screen debut in a ten minute short called Outwitting Dad. Mr. Hardy made many of his early shorts in Jacksonville. Among them, Casey’s Birthday, Building a Fire and He Won a Ranch. These films, like most of the Lubin catalogue are no longer in existence. Olivier Hardy was not the only movie star in town. There were the likes of John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and pioneering film director, D.W. Griffith, among others who worked in the various Jacksonville studios.
A combination of situations would occur that ended Florida, and particularity Jacksonville, as a viable film making community. At first, the Jacksonville community, at least most, welcomed the film industry. The influx of companies and people working in film was a giant boost to the local economy. However, Jacksonville, always a conservative town, even back then, began to become unhappy with some of the “elements” that had a tendency to follow in the shadows of the film industry: gamblers, loose women, criminals and frauds who attempted to sell land that turned out to be nothing be swamp land. (a) Additionally, locals and city officials were getting annoyed by the consistent use of city streets as a back drop. Staged car chases were filmed annoying locals, especially on church going Sundays. Fire alarms were set off in order to film scenes of fire trucks speeding down the streets. There were staged bank robberies, gunshots, action scenes and once a staged riot with more than one thousand locals that got out of control causing damage to stores and businesses. All uncaringly executed by the filmmakers with little concern for the safety of the local community.
Then there was the fact that some of the films being made as authors Susan Fernandez and Robert P. Ingalls point out in their book, Sunshine in the Dark: Florida in the Movies that did not reflect Florida in a good light. They write, “Early films about Florida occasionally provoked outcries about their alleged distortions of reality. A 1913 movie, The Wine of Madness, tells the story of a Pennsylvania man who goes to Florida after investing in real estate, only to discover that he’s bought an acre of barren swampland…” The authors also write, “The Tampa Morning Tribune published an editorial entitled, Films that Lie, urging Florida theater owners to boycott such pictures because they spread ‘misrepresentation and falsehood throughout the country.’” The list of complaints went on and on. The political climate also changed when a reform and anti-film industry candidate named John W. Martin, beat the current pro-film industry mayor, J.E.T. Bowden, promising to reign in the movie industry. Martin would later run for Governor of Florida and win. Finally, there was the fact that studios, already establishing fronts in Hollywood, became disenchanted with the city and soon began to pack their bags and head west, looking for more friendlier territory.
Filmmakers did not completely leave the Sunshine State. Norman Studios remained, though with the advent of sound, it could not compete and would eventually close its doors. Some film studios set up small shops in Miami and Tampa. Over the years, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and other cities would be favorite locales for filmmakers but the studios were gone and Jacksonville lost its shine as the movie capital never to be.
(a) The so called “loose women“ problem was actually nothing new in Jacksonville. The famed and legal Ward Street Bordello District had been around since before the Great Fire of 1901 which was one of the worst urban fires in the history of Florida. Prostitution was not made a criminal offence until 1953.
(1) Sunshine in the Dark: Florida in the Movies, Fernandez, Susan & Ingalls, Robert P.
(3) COJ.Net Film History of Jacksonville