The History of Lowcountry Filmmaking
Josephine Pinckney [1895-1957] S.C. novelist, poet, essayistJosephine Pinckney [1895-1957] S.C. novelist, poet, essayist
Her book 3 O’clock Dinner was purchased by MGM in the 1940’s at a price that set the record for the studio at that time. It was never made as the story involved a Divorcee in a torrid affair – and the subject matter was too racey to pass muster with the Hayes Committee whose approval was needed for any Studio Production at the time.
By Peter Wentworth
Artistic necessity and historical inspiration have drawn filmmakers to Charleston for over 100 years. As a back lot for stories about the Civil War (The Southerners 1914 – Cold Mountain 2002), high sea adventure films (Peg of the Pirates 1918 – White Squall 1998), to small town milieu films (Pied Piper Malone 1924 – Radio 2002) the Lowcountry has offered a look sufficiently distinct to consistently attract filmmakers from around the world. While much has changed in Charleston’s century of cinema, the fundamentals remain the same: film is a good business for the Lowcountry and when supported by the community, a consistent one.
The first hand-cranked images were captured at the Charleston Exposition of 1902. Intended to promote the city of Charleston for tourism and business, the exposition was poorly attended, but did set the foundation by attracting a newsreel crew from the Thomas Edison Company. These one-reel documentaries are comprised of a single shot, ranging from one to three minutes, and are visible today at the Library of Congress Website. The sleepy wreckage of Charleston’s once glorious past left an impression, as the Edison Company returned a decade later to shoot four films back to back and establish the Lowcountry’s only film studio to date. However, over a decade passed before the first feature film was shot here. Subsequently, a number of events from 1908 to 1914 contributed to the Lowcountry’s eventual popularity to filmmakers of the silent era.
The demand for one and two reelers created an insatiable market by 1905. Production and exhibition required small amounts of capital, far less expertise, and attracted hundreds of entrepreneurs to the flickering image business. Abundance of light and consistent weather conditions was among the most difficult requirements which made Florida the motion picture capital of the world, during the winter months until the mid-teens. In 1910, Jacksonville was home to over a dozen studios including, Kalem, Majestic, Thanhouser, Selig, Lubin and Gene Gautier Feature Players. But in an era before movie stars, exotic stories in exotic places were a very important distinguishing factor for film goers.1
Southerners: Civil War melodramas, were second only to Westerners as a historical genre growing in popularity, from thirteen in 1908 to twenty-three in 1909, thirty-four in 1910, and over a hundred per year from 1911 through 1916.1
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, was set in reconstruction South Carolina and was the first box office blockbuster. At six reels, it earned in excess of $1 million dollars in rentals in 1915 (today’s equivalent is estimated as high as $600 million), forever altering the thrust of motion picture production from unscripted improvisational situations to scripted three to five reel feature films.
The Edison Company, when it returned in 1914, had several films set for production which were appropriate to Charleston at the time, and, they were seeking a place to establish an on-going studio facility.
The Southerners, A Warning from the Past, The Two Van Rebels and The Days of Slavery, were three of the other films made by the Edison Company and were shot partially in their studio located behind the Princess Theater on King Street. While the production’s proximity to the theater might appear quaint, it must also have proven convenient as all four films were exhibited in town within a few months of shooting.
The Southerners (a two-reel film) based on a novel by William Brady, required the use of David Farragot’s famous war ship, The Hartford, which was docked not in Mobile, Alabama, the site of its famous battle, but rather at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Discovering the ship was in an unsuitable condition for filming, the crew opted to build a scale model. The Edison Company did find the condition of the Citadel’s corps to be in far more suitable condition and used them as extras in exchange for a donation to their athletic fund.
Best selling author Rex Beach, who also worked as a scenarist for Edison, is credited with several documentaries partially shot in the Charleston Area in 1915. Beach’s book, “The Spoilers”, was made into a movie three times before he was paid for the rights. Films produced by Dr. Edward A. Salisbury Company (dentist turned film financier), produced several adventure documentaries off the Carolina Coast dealing with the area’s history of piracy. These titles include, On the Spanish Main, The Footsteps of Capt. Kidd, Wild Life of America and Pirate Haunts. All featuring Beach as host, these travelogues gave Charleston its first brush with filmmaking celebrities. The Auction Block was shot in Charleston in 1924 despite the fact that the story was set in New York City.
The Edison Company’s presence in town, including the two-month stay of 12 cast and crew members coupled with Beach’s swashbuckling in the vicinity, was the likely combination that caused Charleston to recognize the economic benefits that accompany the motion picture business. Much like today the continued presence of the Edison Company and the excitement that accompanied the production of motion pictures in the Charleston area, contributed to the Chamber of Commerce’s film recruitment efforts which began as a full time effort in 1916. C.M. Benedict, director of the Chamber’s tours and conventions department, initiated funding for the publicity department to come to Charleston to make pictures. In 1917, E. Joyce Milberry was salaried at $250 per month plus expenses to campaign full time. The city also provided photo albums of the city’s views to producers and entertained many prominent film people of the silent era.
The Mathew Brady Company arrived in 1916 to shoot Wanted A Mother.
Prior to the growth of narrative films, the most successful films of the early silent era were boxing films that charged premium prices and typically enjoyed sell-out audiences. Brady, a successful sports promoter, is a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. Brady’s financial success with boxing films led him to continue his dabbling in the industry by producing narrative films.
The Pathe Company, who brought How Could You Caroline to the Lowcountry in 1918, is today one of France’s leading motion picture distributors. In 1918, the French Company’s recognition of obstacles from language differences in the silent era, was representative of the movies early promise to be a technological tower of Babel. Early silent films had no title cards and later when more sophisticated story lines required them, producers found replacing them to be a minor challenge.
In 1920, Bab’s Candidate – vita graph, based on a story in Harpers – shot in Charleston & Savannah (also known as ABS and Gumshoes 4-B) starring Cornice Girth and George Faucet, was directed by Edward Griffith. George Faucett, a character actor known for his portrayal of a southern patriarch in Gone with the Wind, returned to Charleston in 1924 to direct Dorothy Gish in Little Miss Rebellion. Other Silent Films mentioned in either the Post & Courier or the Chamber of Commerce’s annual report for the 1920’s include: Peg of the Pirates, How Could Your Caroline, The Eye of Rau, and in 1924 The Valley of Hate and The Auction Block.
In the present day, the magic of a small town taken over by the movies was most recently experienced in Walterboro, SC with the production of Radio. The cast and crew were common sights on Main Street both during the hours of production and during the time off. Georgetown, SC experienced a similar experience in 1923 when the Meigan Company, under the formidable umbrella of parent Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, arrived via train and stayed for three weeks for the production of Pied Piper Malone. On November 6, 1923, a train consisting of four pullmans and a baggage coach arrived with the cast and crew of the film. The town turned out in force to greet the movie company and Mayor J.W. Wingate provided one of several speeches for the occasion. Having insufficient hotels, the actors and crewmembers were dispatched to homes all over town for their stay.
Based on a Booth Tarkington original screenplay, Pied Piper Malone, is a whimsical tale about a sailor who proves himself innocent of bad conduct to win the heart of the girl he loves and the respect of the townspeople. Director Alfred Green searched for the proper location throughout the preceding summer. Although Pied Piper Malone was set in New England, Green realized that the approaching winter would make filming difficult, so he headed south down the East Coast looking for a stand-in and found it in the charming little coast city of Georgetown, SC.
Filming began Wednesday Nov. 7, and focused on the lowly waterfront and North Island that was accessible only by boat. Before leaving on November 26, the Meighan Company returned the city’s hospitality by presenting a benefit performance at the Winyah School Auditorium. The admission price of .50 for adults and .20 for children went toward the health fund of the civil league, a fund for caring for undernourished Georgetown children. The theatrical evening earned $700 for the fund of which Meighan kicked in $100. Filmmaking in the Lowcountry all but ceased by the late 1920’s – as did most filmmaking outside of Los Angeles and New York. The conversion to sound required the used of noise buffeting studios and cumbersome and unreliable sound recording equipment. As the studios’ facilities, theaters and real estate holdings were the collateral for financing motion pictures, investment in permanent facilities was at the foundation of the industries’ financial operations. Charleston, nevertheless, retained a foothold in the industry through the group of writers who comprised the Literary Renaissance in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
1 Chadwick, Bruce The Reel Civil War Mythmaking in American Film
Copyright 2001 Alfred A. Knopf
Dorothy Gish on the set of “Little Miss Rebellion.”
Rex Ingram, star of “The Southerners,” later turned director of many silent classics.
High sea adventure brought Cecil B. DeMille to film in Charleston in 1941’s “Reap the Wild Wind.”
Silent star Bessie Love was featured in “How Could you Caroline?”