Interesting article: “Before Hollywood, another film city thrived”

Thought you’d enjoy this bit of film history, even though it doesn’t directly involve Jeanette MacDonald or Nelson Eddy… yet there is a connection, since it concerns Metro Pictures (later merged into MGM).

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (AP) — Before there was Hollywood, there was Jacksonville.
Norman Studios advertises a silent film that was shot in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1910s.

Norman Studios advertises a silent film that was shot in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1910s.

Oliver Hardy made his debut film there in 1913’s “Outwitting Daddy.”

The first feature-length color film produced in the U.S. — the 1917 release “The Gulf Between” — was filmed in Jacksonville.

It even was the birthplace of Metro Pictures, which later merged with other production houses to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM.

Dubbed the “World’s Winter Film Capital” a century ago when Kalem Pictures moved its offseason production here to escape New York winters, Jacksonville once had more than 30 studios.

“Jacksonville was once the Big Daddy of it all,” said Shawn Bean, a Melbourne, Florida, writer whose new book, “The First Hollywood,” details the city’s rise and fall as the nation’s destination for movie production.

The city’s cinema production thrived for about a decade and survived for a decade more before competition from its California rival, disease, war and clashes with the locals drove the industry from town.

Jacksonville’s downfall started as its California rival took off in the 1920s, complete with the now-famous “Hollywood” sign built into the hills above Los Angeles.

“For Jacksonville, the sign was a gravestone,” Bean writes. “The deceased was a turn-of-the-century East Coast film town that once drew industry elites and wide-eyed hucksters.”

‘Great legacy’

Today, Jacksonville is spending $681,000 to restore four of five of the last remaining buildings from the city’s movie heyday, hoping the Norman Studios buildings can become a silent-film museum and community center.

The city is trying to raise another $2.5 million to finish the structures’ interiors and purchase an adjoining building that was part of the original studio.

“It is a great legacy for my father,” said Richard Norman, the 82-year-old son of the filmmaker of the same name, whose silent films featured black actors and were aimed at black audiences. “He was an exceptional man.”

In the early days, Jacksonville prospered because it offered a variety of backgrounds from sandy beaches and tropical jungles to urban scenes. And the railroad stopped here, making it an easy destination for northern filmmakers.

Among the notable Jacksonville films were the 35 one-reelers in the “Plump and Runt” series made by Hardy and his sidekick Billy Ruge. Many of the films contained Southern, Florida and Civil War stories, including “The Old Soldier’s Story” and “The Escape from Andersonville.”

When World War I broke out, many actors and technicians joined the armed forces or took jobs at Jacksonville’s growing shipyards. The 1918 worldwide flu pandemic struck the city particularly hard.

Filmmakers didn’t help their cause, pulling alarms so they could shoot real-life fire trucks rushing to fight blazes that didn’t exist. Car chase scenes in town were criticized as reckless. Churchgoers didn’t like studios staging bank robberies on Sundays, when the streets were empty.

“Some people felt the filmmakers were taking over the town,” Bean said.

An anti-film mayor was elected in 1917 and by 1930 the city had lost all its major producers.

Filmmakers return

Jacksonville wasn’t the only location where early filmmakers were producing moving pictures, a new and popular medium. Cuba, Arizona and the Bahamas were also the location of some of the films, Bean said.

In 1920, a studio to produce silent films was opened in Astoria, New York, by Paramount Pictures, according to the American Museum of the Moving Image, which is next to the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Recently, however, Jacksonville has reclaimed some of its prior glory — about 60 movies and TV shows shot here, including HBO’s “Recount,” about the disputed 2000 presidential election, the movie “Basic” that started John Travolta and “The Devil’s Advocate” that starred Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.

Film, TV and other media are worth about $100 million a year to the city, officials said.

But the city never regained the national stature it enjoyed for the first part of the 20th century.

“Jacksonville was a shooting star,” Bean said. “It burned really hot and really fast.”