20 silent films from the early 20th century

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Many of the silent shorts made in Jacksonville over 100 years ago are lost or disintegrated, gone forever. But there are a few left, and a researcher at Florida State College Jacksonville’s library has collected some of them in one place online for everyone to see.

Jennifer Grey, public services coordinator for the FSCJ libraries, is sure there are others and is looking for them. So far, though, she’s found 20 that were made during Jacksonville’s heyday as a winter movie destination. They include slapstick comedies, civil war stories, and jungle adventures set in Africa (featuring leopards and an elephant known as Toddles, or sometimes Toodles).

They can be found at guides.fscj.edu/jax/silentfilm.

The films offer a first-hand look at Northeast Florida in the early 20th century – a very different place, of course, than it is now – and you can’t help but gaze at the scenery to try. to understand where the scenes were shot.

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A 1910 photo shows members of the Kalem Co. studio, including actress-screenwriter Gene Gauntier (front row, second from left) who came to Jacksonville to make silent films.  A few of their films survived the decades that followed.

Gray began collecting them while doing research for an FSCJ course on Jacksonville history beginning this fall. “It was a nice change from some of the heavier work I’ve done,” she said.

Although not always easy to find, the films are already available to watch. Many of them were already posted on YouTube and others were found in various film archives, including one from the Netherlands.

Some of the films were obvious: Their ties to Jacksonville are well known.

The poster for

One is “The Flying Ace,” which was filmed in the 1920s after other filmmakers had left town. It was made by Norman Studios in Arlington, where white filmmaker Richard Norman created films for black audiences. At a time when many films portrayed black people as comical or menacing, he regularly cast his actors in sympathetic and heroic roles, much like the war hero (played by Lawrence Criner) in this film.

Another well-known film that survives is “Bouncing Baby”, a comedy starring a young Oliver Hardy as a very big baby/con man who wreaks havoc wherever he goes. Hardy, who grew up in Georgia, started his career in Jacksonville after hearing about the opportunities there.

It took some digging to find some of the others, Gray said, because some of the people who posted the films online didn’t particularly know or care that they were shot in Jacksonville.

Oliver Hardy, before the days of Laurel and Hardy, did many comedies in Jacksonville.

Gray began researching the films by reviewing research already done during Jacksonville’s time as a silent film mecca, which spanned about a decade from 1908. “The First Hollywood,” by Shawn Bean, was helpful , as well as some academic writings and dissertations. or biographies of some of the filmmakers who have come to town – including those on Hardy, Tom Mix, Miriam Cooper and Gene Gauntier.

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Gray also went looking for evidence in the movies themselves.

She joked, “One of my highly academic processes is, if I can see Spanish moss, it was probably shot in Jacksonville.”

The wide Saint John River is another clue: “They liked to drop people off in canoes and then throw them into the river.”

It is also easy to find counter-evidence. “If I see a mountain? Clearly not Jacksonville,” she said.

“A cinematic paradise”

Gauntier was a writer/actress from Kalem Co., a New York film studio that pioneered filmmaking in Jacksonville when it sent a crew to the city in 1908 to take advantage of its warmer climate and sunshine. .

Gene Gauntier, an actress and silent film screenwriter, was part of a New York-based film crew that came to Jacksonville in 1908.

In a 1928 memoir in the Woman’s Home Companion, she recalled her first impression of what her winter home would be like:

“We got off in Jacksonville, which in 1908 was very different from the bustling metropolis it is today. The main street was more like that of a country village than the thoroughfare of a city of some sixty thousand inhabitants.”

It was an exotic place, she wrote, of jungles and beaches, sun and breeze. “You will see that we had discovered a film paradise.”

Other film crews followed the Kalem Co., producing hundreds of films in the city.

Among those that survive are comedies such as “Bath Tub Elopement”, featuring comedians Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with many downfalls and great laughs. There are a few adventures set in Africa, filmed at the beach, including Grey’s favorite, “Lost in the Jungle”, in which star Kathlyn Williams is attacked by a leopard (she is said to have been slightly injured) and then rescued by the elephant Toddles, or Toodles, who picks her up by the trunk and carries her to safety.

A magazine cover promotes a scene from

Other surviving films featured Civil War stories told from a Confederate perspective. They had an influence on society beyond entertainment, claims a researcher.

Gray cited research by David Morton, who teaches history at the University of Central Florida. In 2020, he examined Jacksonville’s film history in a Florida Historical Quarterly article titled “A Year-Round Playground Twenty-Seven Hours from Broadway: Re-Assessing Jacksonville’s Legacy as an ‘Almost Hollywood'”.

“Kalem’s emphasis on the Confederate ‘lost cause’ narrative reversed the northern perspective of American Civil War films,” he wrote, “and set a trend that inspired later groundbreaking films. set in the Civil War era, such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone with the Wind” (1939).

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Some of these Civil War films made by Kalem featured female spies, like the one played by Anna Nilsson in “Darling of the CSA.” Among her exploits, she steals secret papers from under the noses of Union soldiers, scribbles a cheeky note—”Thank you”—on an officer’s tent, then escapes by posing as a Northern soldier.

Actress Miriam Cooper was a member of the Kalem troupe in Jacksonville who later starred in DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” In her autobiography, “Dark Lady of the Silents”, she wrote about her time in the city.

She was only 18 and homesick, but the filmmakers kept her busy: “Maybe because it was the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, we did a lot of war photography. running together in my mind. We would do one a week.

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