“Lights, Camera, Action!” The Role of Jacksonville in the Silent Film Era

Before Hollywood became the hub of the worldwide entertainment industry, Jacksonville was the epicenter of the movie world in the early 1900s

Everyone is familiar with the three words that signal the start of the filming of a movie. But what you may not know is that these words were heard over and over again in the early 1900s in none other than the City of Jacksonville, Florida. Production studios were built in a day, silent-film stars could be seen strolling down Main Street, and crowds would spontaneously gather in the street to watch. Here’s how it all happened.

Early Move to Jacksonville

In the first decade of the 20th century, the nascent motion-picture industry was based primarily in New York City. Thomas Edison owned most of the industry’s patents, while Eastman Kodak owned the patent on raw stock film. In 1902, Edison began notifying distributors and exhibitors that they would be subject to litigation if they did not use Edison machines and films exclusively. In 1908, Edison and his principal competitors, along with Eastman Kodak, reached an agreement known as the “Edison Trust.” The Trust established a virtual monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking, including where films could be screened, the content of film and methods of cost control, using federal law enforcement officials and “thugs” to prevent any unauthorized use.1

According to Dr. Nadia Ramoutar, filmmaker, film historian and professor, “it was largely against this background that independent moviemakers began looking for a new location to film.”2 As Dr. Ramoutar explains, the independents were “attracted to Jacksonville with its warm climate, exotic locations, diverse architecture, excellent rail access (the end of the line at the time), local political support, and cheaper labor.”

Kalem Studios was the first to open a permanent studio in 1908, and over 30 silent film companies followed within 10 years. Kalem produced 18 films during its first winter, including Civil War yarns and numerous sensational stories about Florida “crackers” drinking, killing and cheating. Jacksonville earned the title of “The Winter Film Capital of the World” and became a thriving tourist destination with luxury resorts and high-rise buildings.

In 1914, Oliver “Babe” Hardy, later of the comedic film duo Laurel & Hardy, began his motion-picture career in Jacksonville. Silent-film stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and, by some accounts, Mary Pickford, also made their way to Jacksonville. In 1915, Theda Bara, a.k.a. “The Vamp,” filmed the movie A Fool There Was almost entirely in St. Augustine.

That same year, Joseph Engel started Metro Studio, later merging with another production company to become the now-famous studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In 1917, the first feature-length movie made in Technicolor, The Gulf Between, was filmed in Jacksonville. In total, more than 300 silent films, mostly short, one-reel movies, were made on the banks of the St. Johns River over a 10-year period.

Bringing Film to Segregated Audiences

Around the same time, Jacksonville also played a crucial role in bringing the film industry to African-Americans. In 1920, the former Eagle Studios and its five-building complex were sold to Norman Laboratories. Richard Norman, a producer of films from nearby Middleburg, made the complex his creative center. Norman, who was white, had been bothered by the way black movie actors always appeared in subservient roles; he also saw an untapped market for segregated black audiences.

Norman began to make movies that portrayed black actors in a more positive light and utilized black crew in all aspects of production. Known as “race movies,” these African-American films continued to be made by Norman Studios throughout the 1920s. One of those films, The Flying Ace, was shot in 1926 in both Mayport and rural Arlington. Still in existence, the film is archived at the Library of Congress.

But Jacksonville’s silent-film production eventually dwindled. Norman Studios lasted almost 10 years more, but never made the transition to “talkies,” even though it touted the equipment to do so. The five buildings comprising Norman Studios are still standing and may be seen from the Arlington Expressway. The studio buildings recently were added to the National Register of Historic Places, largely due to the efforts of a local nonprofit group.3 That group has been actively renovating the buildings in an effort to create a silent-film museum and greater national recognition for the contributions Norman made to the industry.

Demise as a Film Production Center

In the beginning, the political climate of Jacksonville favored the growing film industry. After the Great Fire of 1901, Jacksonville eagerly sought to rebuild and embraced the film industry as a way to stimulate its economy. However, for a variety of reasons, the film industry lost its original glamour and by 1915 it took the successful re-election of J.E.T. Bowden, who had been mayor during the Great Fire, to see that the film industry survived in Jacksonville for at least another two years. Bowden was a big booster of the film industry and held election parties hosted by Oliver Hardy.

But, by 1917, even Bowden could not save the industry in North Florida. As Dr. Ramoutar explains, “Jacksonville’s relatively conservative residents had enough of the disruption of their daily lives by the never-ending film crews, the number of swarthy individuals who took advantage of the less sophisticated citizens, and the far too risqué nature of the filmmakers and their stars.

“For example, some filmmakers pulled fire alarms so they could capture speeding fire trucks on film. One advertised a parachute jump from a tall building so he could draw the large crowd he needed. Another drove a car into the river, not letting on that it was just a movie. And on Sundays, when everyone was at church and the streets were empty, that’s when they could shoot the shootout at the O.K. Corral. There was no air-conditioning then, church windows were open, and the mayhem could clearly be heard from the pews. The women wore pants and they all frequented bars, and their mob scenes would routinely get out of hand. It was more than the good citizens of Jacksonville could stomach.”4

During this time, Jacksonville also began to build reputable insurance and banking industries and no longer needed to rely on the film industry to support its economy. Moreover, the Edison Trust, having now made its way down to Florida, continued to enforce its patents, often heavy-handedly, causing filmmakers to look for a new location.

Finally, Los Angeles (Hollywood), with its warm weather and increased rail, and later air, service, began to lure filmmakers westward and, lacking any other dominant industry, promised filmmakers a place where they could mold the film industry to their desires. When John Wellborn Martin challenged Bowden in the 1917 mayoral race, Martin ran his campaign on the promise that he would not be ruled by the shady filmmakers and, as a result, won the election. The die was now cast, and the move west began in earnest.

In 1918, the transition was further hastened by an influenza epidemic in Jacksonville, which made moviegoers reluctant to mingle in theaters. Also, the Great War had disrupted transportation and stripped the film industry of much of its work force. More than anything, Hollywood just had too many advantages over Jacksonville. The West Coast’s glamour and momentum became unstoppable. While Jacksonville’s loss of the silent-film industry was Hollywood’s gain, according to Dr. Ramoutar, the real loss lay in the demise of the silent-film industry altogether. “The film industry always had sound in the form of background music and effects. But when language was added to film, the moviegoer lost almost 70 percent of the message being conveyed by the actor.”

Jacksonville and the Film Industry Today

Despite the industry’s westward transition, Jacksonville enjoyed something of a film-industry renaissance beginning in the middle of the last century. In the 1950s, Jacksonville and environs hosted the filming of several movies, including the gritty film noir Under the Gun, the science fiction cult-favorite film Zaat, and the infamous horror flick Creature from the Black Lagoon.

In 1979, Florida Governor Bob Graham created a favorable atmosphere for the development of film and TV production, and shortly thereafter Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold authorized the creation of a Film Office to attract movie crews to the town. In the 1990s, Jacksonville once again became a hot spot for high-profile productions of movies, TV shows and commercials, including G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore, The Devil’s Advocate starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, and Tigerland starring Colin Farrell. Several episodic TV shows also were filmed there.

More recently, Jacksonville has hosted several major productions, including the Emmy Award winning Recount, Basic, The Year of Getting to Know Us and Lonely Hearts, starring Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Jared Leto, Salma Hayek, James Gandolfini, Jimmy Fallon and Sharon Stone.5

The Florida Film Offi ce, the local film offices and various industry organizations are currently working to secure additional tax incentives and other advantageous tax treatment to help secure Jacksonville’s continued place in the annals of motion picture history.