“This richly detailed book tells the story of early filmmakers’ adventures in St. Augustine and captures the excitement of their moviemaking escapades.”—Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, coauthor of One Thousand Nights at the Movies: An Illustrated History of Motion Pictures 1895–1915
“Very few people have any idea that St. Augustine played any role in early film history. This book brings St. Augustine into a much larger film conversation.”—Christina Lane, author of Magnolia
“Through rich and entertaining stories of how St. Augustine lured studios and enriched filmmaking with Henry Flagler’s railroad and architecture, Graham adds new detail to our understanding of the silent film era.”—Rita Reagan, Norman Studios Silent Film Museum
“This absorbing tale, documenting the forgotten history of early movie-making in St. Augustine, is a must-read for film enthusiasts.”—Janelle Blankenship, coeditor of European Visions: Small Cinemas in Transition
“Given that the great majority of these early films are now lost, Graham makes an important contribution to the study of Florida’s image on film.”—Jan-Christopher Horak, author of Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design
“The ‘reel’ history of Florida and its contribution to the development of American film history has been left out of mainstream textbooks and accounts. Thomas Graham’s book is a link in the chain of that history and an important addition to film scholarship.”—Susan Doll, coauthor of Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema and Locations
Before Hollywood, when America’s rising motion picture industry was based on the East Coast, early film stars like Rudolph Valentino, Ethel Barrymore, and Oliver Hardy made movies in St. Augustine, Florida. Silent Films in St. Augustine tells stories of the leading film producers and actors who escaped New York winters—and kept the studio doors open—in St. Augustine’s sunshine and warm weather.
More than 120 films were made in St. Augustine from 1906 to 1926 by film companies such as Thanhouser, Lubin, Éclair, Pathé, Edison, and Vitagraph. The first full-length Frankenstein movie, Life Without Soul, was shot in St. Augustine. Theda Bara became a “vamp” sensation for her role in A Fool There Was. Sidney Drew acted in the gender-bending A Florida Enchantment. Noted directors Edwin S. Porter, Maurice Tourneur, Sidney Olcott, and George Fitzmaurice also set up shop in the beach town.
Filmmakers used St. Augustine’s striking architecture to create backdrops for movies set in exotic foreign locales. The famous Castillo de San Marcos fort, the stone houses on the narrow streets, and Henry Flagler’s Spanish Renaissance palace hotels were reimagined as Spain, Italy, France, Egypt, Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, and Hawaii. Residents of St. Augustine loved seeing film teams in action on their streets and would gather around the camera to watch the actors and marvel at the outlandish costumes.
Describing the lavish sets, theatrical action, and New York movie personalities that filled St. Augustine, this book evokes an intensely creative time and place in the history of American moviemaking.
Thomas Graham is professor emeritus of history at Flagler College. He is the author of several books, including Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine.
Read our exclusive interview with author Thomas Graham as he discusses his experience researching the little-known film history of St. Augustine:
The role of St. Augustine in in silent films is relatively unknown to the general population. What led you to this area of research?
St. Augustine is my hometown. I taught history at Flagler College for forty years, and I have written extensively on the history of our city. While doing research for my most recent book, Mr. Flagler’s St. Augustine, I frequently ran into newspaper stories about movie companies being in town to make a film. So I thought this might be something to look into.
Did anything surprise you while doing research for this book?
I had long known that a couple of movies had been shot in town, but as I continued to search for more information, I was amazed to discover that more than 120 films were shot hereWhile some outdoor scenes were completed here, and the rest of the movie was completed in studio New York or Jacksonville studio, many were completed in town.
What unique characteristic did St. Augustine bring to the silent film industry?
In the earliest days of the film industry, most movie companies were located in the vicinity of New York City. Because of the primitive nature of film and artificial lighting in those days, many “indoor” scenes were actually shot on outdoor stages in front of false interior props. From December to April the cold, dark weather in New York drove movie makers to places such as warm, sunny Jacksonville, Florida, and St. Augustine.
Your book discusses how historic buildings in St. Augustine, such as the Castillo de San Marcos, provided settings for some of the films. In your opinion, how important was the history of St. Augustine to the success of these silent films?
St. Augustine’s unique colonial Spanish houses and the old Castillo made great settings for films that required exotic locations—such as Spain, France, Italy, North Africa, and even ancient Rome. The palatial resort hotels of Henry Flagler, with their Spanish Renaissance architecture, possessed the same other-worldly ambiance. The sand dunes of St. Augustine’s beach sometimes stood in for a desert in African or Arabian movies. However, sometimes, such as in A Florida Enchantment, St. Augustine appeared as itself.
If you had to pick one, what is your favorite film discussed in the book?
A Florida Enchantment is probably the most interesting movie for local folks. For one thing, it survives, while most of the other films shot here have been lost to time. In this movie various locations around town can easily be identified by people who live here.
Who was one of the more famous faces of the St. Augustine film scene?
Theda Bara was St. Augustine’s most prolific movie maker. She starred in four films shot here, most famously A Fool There Was. St. Augustine adopted her as a favorite daughter, and she even ceremoniously planted a tree in the town plaza to commemorate her appearances here.
Your book features a lot of famed film stars such as Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, and Oliver Hardy. Ethel Barrymore, grand-aunt of actress Drew Barrymore, also makes a notable appearance. What impact do you think these silent film stars had on the future generation of actors?
Today few people realize how great a hold movie actors and actresses had on the American public in the days before before radio. As early as the nineteen-teens the “movie star” has become a fixture in the firmament. Yet all but a few of these “big” stars are today almost totally forgotten. In the 1950s movie Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson—who had actually been a star of the silent screen—plays an aging, washed-up silent film star. One of her memorable lines is: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
What quality do silent films have that today’s films, in comparison, just don’t have?
The genre of film that has disappeared from today’s movie houses is the comedy short. In silent film days, the feature movie was usually preceded by a ten minute slapstick comedy. Oliver Hardy cut his teeth on these, and of course went on to film similar shorts in the 1930s. But in the silent movie days all of the gags had to be sight gags.
What do you hope readers will enjoy most about your book?
I hope readers will come away from this book with the reaction: “Wow! I had no idea all that action went on in a small town in Florida a hundred years ago.” I hope they will enjoy the appearance by cowboy hero Tom Mix as a Seminole Indian and Billie Burke as a young bride, long before she played the Good Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz.