Monday, February 19, 2018

Hollywood before there was a Hollywood: A Brief History of Florida in The Movies

When I was a kid, I heard a rumor at school that a creepy haunted castle had appeared on a hill outside of town. It sounded like bullshit, the kind of ‘my friend’s cousin’ story that you hear all the time at that age. But still, when my mother picked me up, I begged her to drive out to where I heard this castle was. It’s a weird feeling, when something that you suspected was a lie turns out to be true. There it was, sitting on one of the hills over Blanton ravine, a strange silhouette, more mansion than castle, and most definitely haunted. We went to see it several more times, until one day it was just gone- it disappeared just as mysteriously as it had appeared.

I didn’t think of it for a long time after that, it was just a thing that happened once. Me and my brothers used to tune in HBO, put a long-running blank tape in the VCR, and record all night to see what movies we could get. On one of these tapes, we ended up with an odd movie, something that didn’t fit right in any genre I was familiar with- it was sort of like a horror flick in some ways, but it was also funny, and just kind of weird to my 11-year-old brain—but early in that movie there was a shot of a familiar silhouette- the mansion-castle that I had seen with my mother, out on a hill over Blanton ravine. That movie, of course, was Edward Scissorhands and in-spite of all the snow, much of it was filmed in Florida. Those candy-colored suburbs were in Lutz and Spring Hill, that wild retro-style shopping center is in Lakeland, and the castle was a fa├žade built on a hill outside of Dade City. Edward Scissorhands is still one of my favorite movies, and this memory always warms my heart (which will always be 14 and Goth). 

In the early days of the motion picture industry, Florida’s abundant sunlight drew film studios from New York. Thomas Edison’s Kalem Studios set up in Jacksonville in 1908 and filmed several popular early silent films. This was all before Hollywood was the center of the industry, before there was a Hollywood- and by World War One, Jacksonville was home to over 30 film studios. The industry grew so rapidly in Jacksonville that it touched off a backlash against the ‘Movie People’ who were taking over the city, and local politicians ultimately drove out the industry-- back to New York, and out to the West Coast. Yes, Jacksonville was Hollywood before there was a Hollywood.

Though the outside film studios were effectively banished from Jacksonville, a local man named Richard Norman saw a unique opportunity and started a home-grown studio that specialized in what were then called ‘Race Films.’ Throughout the 1920’s, The Norman Studios produced eight feature-length films that featured all-Black casts. Their movies were primarily action-adventure and romance genre pieces, including Westerns starring real-life rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett. Unfortunately, only one of these films still exists in its entirety- The Flying Ace- the story of a World War One fighter pilot who returns home to a dangerous job as a railroad company detective. While Norman’s films were very profitable and popular, the studio was ill-equipped for the transition to sound films, shutting down in the 1930’s. While we may assume that Richard Norman (a White man) was perhaps primarily interested in cashing in on the untapped market of Black moviegoers, he also expressed his interest in improving how minorities were portrayed in this new media. Norman stated that the mission of his Florida studio was to “give the Black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres.”


Posters for the Norman Studios Films The Bull-Dogger and The Flying Ace.

It was that mainstream portrayal of Black Americans that prompted the creation of another studio, and the beginning of another Florida-based film production. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is now considered a problematic cultural artifact, but in the time of its release in 1915, it was a massive blockbuster hit. Today we look back and cringe at the films white actors in blackface makeup, and its hero-worship of the likes of John Wilkes Booth and the KKK, but in 1915 it was the first movie screened at the White House. The Success of Birth of a Nation prompted Emmett Jay Scott, a journalist and academic, and one of the founders of the Tuskegee Institute, to enter the movie business. Meant as a rebuttal to Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Race begins with a dramatization of the biblical story of Genesis, then goes into a family drama of two brothers who fight on opposite sides in the First World War. For the Genesis section, the banks of the Hillsborough River in the Sulphur Springs section of Tampa were cast as the garden of Eden. While Birth of A Race was plagued by production problems and became, supposedly, a far different film than what Emmett Jay Scott originally intended, it’s still a fascinating landmark in the history of Florida film.

 Advertisement for the film Birth Of A Race, where the banks of the Hillsborough River played the Garden of Eden.

The sound era of the early 1930’s saw a renewed interest in Florida as a film location and the Lupe Velez melodrama Hell Harbor was shot in Tampa (largely around Ballast Point and what is now MacDill Airforce Base), making it the first sound picture shot in Florida. In 1932, Olympic Swimmer and sometimes-Floridian Johnny Weissmuller starred in the first of many Tarzan movies filmed at Silver Springs, north of Ocala, taking advantage of the jungle-like landscape and the clear springs (ideal for newly-developed underwater filming techniques). This area would again play the part of deep jungle in the classic monster movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Since that time, Florida has been an intermittent film location, ebbing and flowing with public policy, incentives, and taxes. The 1970’s saw B-movie and grindhouse studios frequently using Florida as a backdrop for schlock classics like Empire of The Ants (Joan Collins fights giant ants in The Everglades, it’s a good time), and Pick-Up (where a guy named Chuck picks up two hippie hitchhikers and they go to the Everglades and take a lot of LSD then stumble upon a strange occult ritual in the swamp- it’s also a good time). That decade also produced The Norseman, where we get to see a Viking longboat sail through Hillsborough River State Park (A full survey of favorite Florida-filmed B-movies might be a future article) . In the 80’s and 90’s occasional notable productions like Cocoon, and the afore-mentioned Edward Scissorhands would film in the Sunshine State, and Disney and Nickelodeon would build their kiddie TV empires in the Orlando Area. 

Posters for Hell Harbor (filmed in Tampa) and Empire Of The Ants (Filmed in the Everglades)

More recently, the story has been that many films that should have been made in Florida have been made in other places. Most notably Ben Affleck’s Ybor City-set Live By Night found it more economical to rebuild Ybor in Georgia than to film in the real thing (I think this cursed the movie- the book is excellent- the movie… well… yeah… don’t see the movie). The creators of the forthcoming film Annihilation, based on the Southern Reach novels, gave up on shooting in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee (the landscape that directly inspired the book) due to the dense vegetation in the area.

Florida’s long history in motion pictures is likely far from over. In recent years, we’ve seen the immense success of Georgia as a center for film and TV production, and more people in Florida seem to be taking notice of the fact that the lack of incentives for filming in Florida are hurting the state financially, and that more filming in Florida could be a huge boon to tourism, and while Georgia now lays claim to being The Hollywood of The South, at least for a little while, Florida was Hollywood before there was a Hollywood.


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