We Ought to Be in Pictures

 

A new book explores the wild-and-woolly early years of Florida filmmaking—and why they ended.

The First Hollywood: Florida and the
Golden Age of Silent Filmmaking
By Shawn C. Bean
University Press of Florida. 194 pages. $27.50
upf.com

Nearly a century ago—long before anyone had ever used the term “Hollywood East” to describe Orlando—Florida came within an ingénue’s eyelash of becoming America’s movie capital.

Like Southern California, we have the sort of warm, sunny weather that filmmakers have always coveted, as well as a range of locations that can double for other places. In addition, we are a lot closer than California is to New York, where movie moguls were based in those days.

In The First Hollywood, Shawn C. Bean explores the burst of Florida film production that occurred at the dawn of the cinema, much of it in the Jacksonville area. He writes about the Florida films of pioneer director D.W. Griffith (whose classics, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, were made elsewhere). And he discusses the Florida oeuvre of Oliver Hardy, who later teamed with Stan Laurel to form their immortal comedy duo.

Unlike many authors who attempt pop-culture histories, Bean is a lively writer. A former arts reviewer, he writes for Florida Travel & Life and Miami magazine, and twice has been named Writer of the Year by the Florida Magazine Association.

Bean’s weakness is that he isn’t really a movie guy. He tends to get sidetracked—lapsing into, say, a digression about the origins of World War I or an extended bio of a particularly colorful mayor. But the author is so entertaining that, more often than not, you’re inclined to go along with him.

Besides, his book is worthwhile if only for its fascinating section on Richard Norman, a white filmmaker who made silent movies in Florida with African-American casts, films that we’re told were “free of the racial stereotypes typical of the era.” The author also explains how—through a combination of factors, including “greed, war, an epidemic, and changing morals”—our state lost out to the one out West as the nation’s movie mecca.