The silent film industry revolutionized the entertainment world in the early 20th century. St. Augustine, Florida proved to be the perfect location for films of the era that required an “exotic” locale. The city’s stunning architecture, beautiful beaches, and lush landscapes served as an ideal backdrop for many of the films of the time. Such a setting was so appealing that over 120 films were made in St. Augustine.
As the film industry evolved, the technology that recorded pictures on film improved significantly. Projectors operated more smoothly, and lenses captured images with remarkable clarity, creating an unforgettable experience for viewers. By 1907, people across the United States could walk into theaters and watch motion pictures playing almost continuously all afternoon and evening. By 1913, movie actors and actresses were no longer anonymous performers. The public had come to recognize certain personalities they saw on screen and wanted to know just who they were. This led to the rise of Hollywood celebrities and the birth of fan culture. Below are just a few historical examples of just how big the silent film industry became in the quaint coastal town of St. Augustine.
In the winter of 1913, a group of “gypsy” movie makers from Lubin, the company that produced the pioneering Florida film Honeymoon through Snow to Sunshine three years earlier, came south and set up shop at the old Florida Yacht Club in the Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville. George Nichols, who had been the director for Thanhouser in St. Augustine the previous winter, brought a few of the Lubin crew to St. Augustine. Ormi Hawley, Earl Metcalfe, Marguerite Ne Moyer, Irving White, and Edwin Carewe made The First Prize, using the town as the setting. Nichols’ next film exploited St. Augustine assets to the maximum. Scenes for Women of the Desert were taken on the beach, at the Villa Zorayda, on the grounds of the Hotel Ponce De Leon, and in Fort Marion.
In March that same year, fourteen members of the American Éclair Company checked into the Hotel Alcazar to spend some time shooting scenes for Sons of a Soldier, the most ambitious film made locally to date. This three-reel epic follows the exploits of the Primrose family from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War to a hypothetical future war with Japan.
The 400th anniversary of Juan Ponce De Leon’s discovery of Florida in 1913 was a significant event in St. Augustine, and the city staged a three-day extravaganza. Universal Films used two reels of film to record the revelry and rushed a copy to Jefferson Theatre just a few days after the event.
The evolution of film technology during the silent film era, coupled with the simultaneous rise of Hollywood celebrities, changed the way we see entertainment today. The impact of the silent film era can still be felt in the entertainment industry today, and St. Augustine remains a popular choice for modern filmmakers.
Written by Shelby Fox, Flagler College Graduate
SAHS Research Library Vertical Files Folder: Drama and Theater Miscellaneous (includes correspondence).
SAHS Research Library Vertical Files Folder: INDUSTRIES Movies 2 of 2 Silent Films.
Blum, Daniel. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953.
Graham, Thomas. Silent Films in St. Augustine. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017.
McGuire, William, ed. “William Dean Howells in St. Augustine” El Escribano Vol. 35 (1998).