2017-09-07 / Top News


Silents were golden in St. Augustine for two dazzling decades

¦ “Silent Films in St. Augustine” by Thomas Graham. University Press of Florida. 198 pages. Hardcover, $24.95. ¦ “Silent Films in St. Augustine” by Thomas Graham. University Press of Florida. 198 pages. Hardcover, $24.95. This totally engaging, compact treatment of early U.S. film history is packed with information and a lot of fun.

Before Hollywood was crowned the movie capital, St. Augustine was right up there. More than 120 movies were filmed in whole or part in the northeast Florida city, revealing the talents of major producers, directors and actors. The fledging silent film industry made St. Augustine - sizzle in the winter, when filmmakers and performers escaped the unpleasant New York weather to enjoy themselves in a town that seemed to have been created to provide the kind of scenic beauty cameramen feasted on.

Though the span of St. Augustine’s life as a home to the film industry ran from 1906-1926, its heyday was much briefer. Author Thomas Graham surveys the first 11 years in a single chapter. The core years were 1912-1919; the last few years of this period undermined by World War I. There was at least one good year with many productions in the early 1920s, but the fade had begun. New York film industry investors were moving west, as was the talent pool for movie making.

GRAHAM GRAHAM While it lasted, the comings and goings of the film people brought a great deal of excitement to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors. Most of the films needed “extras” for crowd scenes and brief walk-on parts. Even more fun than having the camera look your way would be the follow-up thrill of seeing yourself and your fellow townspeople on the screen when the movie was shown. St. Augustinians got a kick from their brush with fame.

And the brush with fame included being in the company of notable performers and other celebrity movie folks. You might get to open a door, in real life or screen life, for Ethel Barrymore or Norma Talmadge. You might have to avoid staring too hard at that iconic vamp, Theda Bara. You may have laughed at Oliver Hardy, either on screen or in person.

You could mix with, or at least hear gossip about, the heads of studios and their senior staffers — people who could write stories, design costumes or turn St. Augustine into almost anyplace you could imagine.

St. Augustine’s fascinating architecture and its natural beauty —along with its desirable weather and ability to house and feed the film crews and players — is what drew the studio heads there and kept them coming back. Some even toyed with constructing permanent facilities in this most historic city. Names like Thanhauser, Lubin, Éclair, Pathé, Edison, Fox and Vitagraph were constantly in the local news. So were esteemed directors, including Edwin S. Porter, Maurice Tourneur, Sidney Olcott and George Fitzmaurice.

Business tycoon Henry M. Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon was one of several large structures in Spanish Renaissance style that, with a bit of movie magic, stood in for exotic locations in Europe, Egypt and Arabia (a nearby island beach took care of the need for desert scenes).

The 84 black-and-white photos that Mr. Graham has assembled underscore the versatility of St. Augustine. Its flora and buildings could provide all the exteriors and interiors that any film could need — with the help of some carpenters and painters, of course.

Mr. Graham has provided a scholarly book that is at once informative, authoritative and a lot of fun. Following the main body of his study, he presents an alphabetical appendix of movies made in St. Augustine and another list of actors who appeared in these movies. Those who wish to learn more can benefit from detailed chapter notes and generous bibliography.

The author, Professor of History Emeritus at Flagler College, lives in St. Augustine and is the author of “Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine.” ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, has written 20 books, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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