graha005_500x500By Thomas Graham, author of Silent Films in St. Augustine

 

As I did research for my book Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine, I frequently ran across newspaper stories about movie companies taking scenes in St. Augustine. It occurred to me that this would be a great topic for a book. To my surprise, once I started serious searching, I discovered more than 120 silent films that were shot in town between 1906 and 1926.

I don’t think many people today realize how important movies were in the days before radio started to compete as electronic media entertainment. Folks used to go to the movies two or three times a week. This generated a tremendous demand for films, and companies would grind out as many as two short films a week to meet the public’s appetite for drama.

At the time, the movie industry was centered in New York and the Northeast. But when cold, dark winter settled over the North, film companies came to Florida to shoot in sunshine and warmth. Movies were made in Florida before they were made in Hollywood! Jacksonville ranked first as a Florida’s movie venue, but just thirty-five miles to the south lay St. Augustine—America’s antique Spanish “Oldest City.” The colonial stone houses, narrow streets, and exotic architecture provided ready-made backdrops for making scenes supposedly set in Spain, France, Italy, and even India, China, and Hawaii. The “tropical” surroundings of the town could stand in for African jungles, while the sand dunes of the beach became deserts of the Sudan.

Watching some of the few St. Augustine films that survive today is especially entertaining because we can recognize locations that haven’t changed much since then. Edison’s actors emote for the camera in front of the City Gates, Thanhouser’s thespians act their parts in the confines of the Castillo, and Rudolph Valentino engages in a fistfight in the courtyard of the Hotel Ponce de Leon.

I hope you’ll enjoy these photographs from an amazingly creative time and place in the history of American moviemaking.

The film crew of an unidentified movie shoot a scene on the front portico of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. Note the reflector held by a technician to focus sunlight on the actors. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
Today the Hotel Ponce de Leon is the centerpiece of the campus of Flagler College. From the collection of Thomas Graham.
Howard Estabrook drags one of his comrades to safety in the deserts of the Sudan—located somewhere on Anastasia Island. From the collection of Thomas Graham.
Producer Frank Powell sits amidst the actors and crew of “The Devil’s Daughter” on St. Augustine Beach. Child actress Jane Lee sits at his feet, and Theda Bara is on his right. From the collection of Thomas Graham.
Actors and film crews sometimes made Flagler’s Hotel Alcazar their headquarters because of its informal atmosphere and the amusements housed under its roof. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
The Vedder House was one of the old Spanish stone buildings that made St. Augustine so attractive to moviemakers. The Edison Company set “A Night at the Inn” there shortly before fire leveled the building along with several blocks of the city. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
From close up the illusion of being inside a great hall is almost perfect, except that the sharp shadows thrown on the floor from the strong sunlight reveal the outdoor set. Helen Lindroth, already an experienced stage actress, would continue making movies through the 1920s. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

 

Graham, Thomas, photo credit Susan GrahamThomas Graham, author of Silent Films in St. Augustine, is professor of history emeritus, Flagler College, and lives in St. Augustine, Florida. He is also the author of Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine.

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