New Book: “Silent Films in St. Augustine”


Thomas Graham’s Silent Films in St. Augustine (University Press of Florida, 2017) sounds promising. It centers on the role that St. Augustine, Florida played in early film history before the establishment of Hollywood as film industry hub.

Description: 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.

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