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- SAVED YOU A SPOT: Queer Performance and Inclusivity in Miami
Miami’s Silent Film Industry, 1910-1926
Monica Uszerowicz & Domingo Castillo
Later, after shooting was complete and all the sets were destroyed, he would commission architect August Geiger to design a home infusing the architectural visions provided by The Jungle Trail with heightened fetishized exoticism. Once built, the house gave so much character to Spring Garden that even the 12th Avenue bridge’s tender structures emulated the same dome-like qualities the home displayed. Designated a sight of historical significance, the Hindu Temple is located at 870 NW 11th Street.
Regarding The Jungle Trail: There’s no way to see the temple in its first incarnation. Films were shot and reprinted on nitrate film stock until the early 1950s, and you’ll find a pretty apocalyptic description of the material on Kodak’s website. In short, it can become a fire hazard in large quantities. If the film can is sealed, it can spontaneously combust, and off-gassing might attack nearby acetate and polyester base films, essentially obliterating itself and taking others with it. Even if these filmmakers wanted to keep their films, the material itself was against them. By astonishingly catching on fire, the film expressed the attitudes of many directors—to make the most spectacular production at any cost.
In some Yoruban mythologies, Obatala—the Sky Father, the creator of land and of bodies—plants the palm nut that sprouts into the first palm tree. It’s the earliest sign of life on Ife, a city in southwestern Nigeria, and the holy sight of the world’s origins. Palm trees lend themselves well to myth: they’re luscious enough to decorate a landscape, thin enough to reveal what’s behind it, resilient enough to withstand hurricanes. Traveler’s palms, stretching like limbs, look like archways to the sky. They sway like hair.
Palm trees were arguably the first lure used to inveigle tourists and filmmakers alike to Florida. The coda of a 1910 film, A Honeymoon Through Snow to Sunshine, featured sequences of palm trees shot in Miami and Palm Beach, solidifying both places’ warmth, exoticism, and usefulness as a stand-in for the South Seas. “As early as 1910, the area was typecast,” says Richard Alan Nelson in his essay, “Palm Trees, Public Relations, and Promoters: Boosting Southeast Florida as a Motion Picture Empire, 1910-1930.” Honeymoon was produced by the Lubin Manufacturing Company, a Philadelphia-based production company; Arthur Hotaling, a director working with Lubin, announced his intentions to bring a group of actors to Miami and make comedy films. In what would become the first in a series of failures related to the city’s silent film industry, Hotaling did not make good on his claim. He went to Jacksonville instead, where an industry was already thriving.
Later attempts at establishing local film enterprises were just as fleeting, characterized by smooth talkers and emphasizing image and promise over substance. The believability of Miami as a viable location for the industry was contingent, it seemed, on the moods of its purveyors and the city’s weather. Plenty of moneyed businessmen were eager to make movies or dole out cash in hopes of massive returns, but few stayed. They cited the weather, production delays, and a general lack of professionalism as deterrents.
In 1914, following a deal with local businessman J.D. Dill, Charles C. Field, president of New York’s Prismatic Film Company, arrived in Miami in his personal railroad car with a crew of cameramen and actors. He detailed to newscasters plans to permanently move the company to Miami, and promptly began production on their first local film, The Magic City of the South. Two days after the film finally premiered, Field declared they’d be moving to Los Angeles. The weather, he explained, was better there. Yet he returned just two years later (one wonders what happened in California) and established the Field Feature Films Company, building a studio on South Miami Avenue at 25th Street with the help of Dade County’s “tomato king,” Thomas Peters. The catch: The Field Feature Films Company would have to produce a documentary of Peters’ farming techniques. The company’s first film, starring Irva Ross, was The Human Orchid. Directed by Field himself, it’s about a girl whose life resembles that of a flower’s. The concept is dreamy, the reality dreamier still—the authors were unable to locate the film.
Several studios would crop up in the area throughout the early 1920s, but it was Miami Studios, Inc.—also known as Hialeah Studios—that would solidify Miami’s reputation in the silent film industry, if only temporarily. The space was the brainchild of Everest George Sewell, the president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce and later the city’s mayor. To bring it to fruition, Sewell partnered with Glenn Curtiss—the aviation pioneer and founder of Opa-locka and Miami Springs, and co-founder of Hialeah—and Miami Herald publisher Frank Shutts. Promotional films showcasing the city’s beauty, combined with the ramifications of Prohibition, helped make the studio’s development possible. People couldn’t drink, but they were happy to watch movies showcasing intrepid protagonists in hot climes.
According to a later issue of The Miami Herald, Miami Studios was located on a massive lot purchased from the Bright Brothers Farms, at the northwest intersection of West 9th Street and West 2nd Avenue in Hialeah. A 1921 article in The Miami Metropolis states: “Each building will be 80 by 250 feet in size, each stage will be 60 by 125 feet [. . .] The best workmen only are employed in moving picture studios.” It was 250 feet by 60 feet, large enough for several movies to be filmed at once; Ted Bevis, a director and studio designer, stated in the same article that he intended to “have every facility for the making of pictures that the best studios in the country afford.”
Upon receiving word of the studios’ construction, David Llewelyn Wark “D.W.” Griffith, the director of The Birth of a Nation and the man whose name became weirdly synonymous with Hollywood itself, wrote Sewell a letter detailing his enthusiasm and caveats in equal parts:
We understand you’re about to establish a motion picture studio near Miami, Florida. Certainly Miami needs one [. . .] Florida has a great many advantages in picture making, but primitive conditions there compared to the very modern facilities in California argue against Florida. Despite very crude and unpleasant handicaps, picture makers have repeatedly gone to Florida, and we believe their visits would be materially increased, were there adequate and reasonable studio facilities.
His ominous note would become prophetic in just a few years’ time, but Griffith was speaking from previous experience: he’d filmed The Idol Dancer in Nassau, Bahamas and Fort Lauderdale in 1919; the crew’s boat trip from Miami to Nassau was perilous. Despite this, once the studios were established, Griffith also shot part of his 1923 film The White Rose in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Unable to work with a landscape that was becoming increasingly developed, he left to finish the film in Louisiana.
Miami Studios officially opened in March 1922 to much acclaim, and moviemakers were quick to take advantage of the new facility. Allegedly, Hamilton Smith’s South Seas romance, The Isle of Doubt, was slated to be shot at the studios. It is unclear whether the movie was shot there in its entirety and like so many others from the same decade, the movie seems to have been lost. It’s reported that the film’s stage manager, Harold Haliday Costain, was ultimately disappointed with Miami Studios’ technicians, declaring them decent, good listeners, but unsophisticated in regards to moviemaking.
The studios needed a manager. John Brunton, who was the well-known manager of Brunton Studios in Hollywood, swooped in to help. This move is mentioned in the Film Year Book, 1922-23, stating “John Brunton to head to Miami Studios, Inc. Life work of Thomas A. Edison to be filmed.” There is no trace of the Edison film, if it was ever made. Brunton hoped to make Miami Studios an independent company that also supplied studio space to others, in addition to making films in-house so the company could guarantee its stability two-fold.
To ensure this happened, Brunton helped establish agreements with various financiers around Florida, forming several smaller production companies, all of whom could borrow resources from each other. It was a self-supported ecosystem that cost an awful lot of money. Brunton went on to oversee the first film produced in-house, Outlaws of the Sea, starring the baby-faced French actress, Marguerite Courtot. That same year, he invited the famed Irish director, Rex Ingram—known for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—to film a movie at the studios. Ingram would utilize Miami Studios to shoot Where the Pavement Ends, a 1923 film produced by Metro Pictures and one of his best-known works. The majority of the film was shot in and around Miami, and interiors were shot “under difficult conditions” at Miami Studios.
Ingram was already known as a world-class director when he was persuaded to shoot in Miami—he wanted to get away from “the direct studio supervision of Hollywood,” and Miami seemed fitting. Where the Pavement Ends became a kind of literal and metaphorical catalyst for the demise of Miami’s film industry. Set in the South Seas, a location trope of the time that Miami was always able to moonlight as, minorities were hired to play the “natives,” a job that, compared to other options available at the time, was better paying and less physically taxing.
After a miserable shooting schedule—plagued with rain delays and inexperienced stagehands—ended in Miami, Ingram spent ten days in Cuba filming the waterfall scenes needed for the end of the film. Immediately after shooting concluded he gave an interview with The Miami Herald, slamming the Miami Studios, detailing the waste of time, money, and materials due to inexperienced crews and technicians. Still backed by American studios, he moved his entire filmmaking enterprise to the French Riviera, where he would continue making movies until the advent of “talkies.”
Ingram would never make another film in America.
Like Ife in Nigeria, Greece’s Mount Olympus is replete with myth and magic. In the mid-1920s, the city of Olympia in Hobe Sound, Florida, an unincorporated area in Martin County, was briefly named Picture City by developer Charles L. Apfel of the Olympia Improvement Corporation. Apfel hoped to establish a city designed for filmmaking; movie stars and the crew would live there during production. Producer Lewis J. Selznick (whose son, David O. Selznick, later produced Gone with the Wind) predicted massive success and entered into a contract for Picture City’s development with Apfel; they received backing from Henry Daugherty, a Sinclair Oil tycoon, who financed the city with a loan of about $1.5 million.
Years prior, the city’s streets, parks, and islands had been named for Greek gods and goddesses (Adonis St., Mercury St., Athena St., Jupiter Island, Zeus Park, Olympia Beach), which Picture City founders felt was perfect for their new endeavor. In keeping with the theme of all of Florida’s fledgling silent film industry, it seemed like a good idea at the time. In 1925, The Miami Herald published a story stating that an Arctic current off the coast of California would freeze the state’s landscape, driving moviemakers east toward Florida. Apfel supposedly heard this from scientists himself, so the jury’s out regarding who, precisely, planted that story.
Florida’s land boom at the time drew real estate salesmen and filmmakers alike to the state, all seeking what appeared to be a sound fortune. It’s difficult to determine how much money was invested and lost in both these sorts of ventures by the time the land boom imploded. A lack of loan payments and the 1926 hurricane rendered Picture City an abandoned project, left to become a ghost town visited by film buffs and “weird Florida” adventure nerds. All that remains are its concrete light poles (some surrounded by grassy overgrowth), its sidewalks, its school and above it all, those signs bearing godly names. The curved arches of the school’s structure recall Miami Studios’ architecture, welcoming and vaguely majestic.
Any place that retains traces of a forgotten history has a preternatural creepiness, inklings of ghosts and lost narratives. How appropriate that in Hobe Sound it becomes clear that the form of Florida’s silent film industry matches its content: ephemeral, quick to burn, all but disappeared (there are few traces left of Jacksonville’s industry, too). This is where the pavement ends. There’s a story that’s still being told, one about a city’s imagery and how to sell it, about what is real and what is not and how dreams—either through movies or half-witted promises—are made into realities.
Much of the information in this story comes from Leonhard Gmür and his book, Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen, Richard Alan Nelson’s article, “Palm Trees, Public Relations, and Promoters: Boosting Southeast Florida as a Motion Picture Empire, 1910-1930,” Stuart B. McIver’s book, Dreamers, Schemers and Scalawags: The Florida Chronicles and materials sourced from the HistoryMiami Museum archives.
Monica Uszerowicz writes and takes photos in Miami. She is the film and performing arts editor for the Miami Rail.
Domingo Castillo is a human being. In 2010 he founded the end / SPRING BREAK, a nomadic artist-run project space in Miami, FL with Patricia Margarita Hernandez with frequent contributions by Cristina Farah and Kathryn Marks. In 2013 he founded the gallery Noguchi Breton (F.K.A. Versace Versace Versace F.K.A. Guccivuitton) with Loriel Beltran and Aramis Gutierrez. In 2015 they were joined by Jonathan Gonzalez.