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Distinguish Jacksonville: The Silent Film Industry

For nearly 20 years, Jacksonville was the perfect film location for the movie industry. Several production companies, including Kalem, Selig, Edison, Lubin, Vim, King Bee, Encore, and Eagle operated studios locally. Local politics forced the industry to relocate out west, turning a sleepy town called Hollywood into the new modern film capital of the United States. Today we pay homage to another unique and often forgotten part of Jacksonville’s history: The Silent Film Industry.

Published February 27, 2007 in History      7 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article



Fresh in the midst of a building boom, resulting from the destruction of the Great Fire of 1901, the city quickly became the home to a new modern industry. Beginning around 1907, and largely because of the city's climate, the region became the movie industry's winter filming capital, outside of New York, which is where the industry was then headquartered.

Kalem Studios, out of New York, became the first company to open a permanent studio in the Tallyrand area of Jacksonville in 1908. By doing so, it became the first studio to film year-round, due to the First Coast's mild climate. This studio made the first adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. After Kalem's success, many more followed due to the region's natural setting and it's bustling downtown area, which offered vibrant crowds, cooperative civic leaders, cheap real estate, inexpensive labor, and readily available talent.

Famed Comedian Oliver Hardy, who started as a ticket taker, became the city's most famous film star during this era.

By 1916, Jacksonville boasted more than 30 movie studios. One of those studios, The "Metro" in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) began in a small studio alongside the St. Johns River, where Metropolitan Park now stands. In 1917, "The Gulf Between", the motion picture industry's first Technicolor movie, was filmed in Jacksonville.

While Jacksonville and the movie industry seemed to be a great match for each other, the relationship would not last. Many residents didn't like the industry's reckless ways, such as using fire alarms to get people out of buildings for crowd scenes, and considered the films vulgar. In 1916, incumbent J.E.T. Bowden lost the election to an anti-movie candidate named John Martin. By 1920, most movie companies fled Jacksonville for a new place of business called Hollywood, and the rest is history.


Norman Studios, in Arlington, is said to be the only silent film facility still intact. The five-building complex was constructed as Eagle Studios in 1916. By 1920, the property had fallen under the ownership of Richard Norman. Between 1920 and 1928, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company produced eight unique "race" films. Although Norman was white, his films countered common racial stereotypes with all-black casts and crews in romance, action and adventure stories, such as "The Bull-Dogger, with rodeo star Bill Pickett.


Today, the complex stands in disrepair. However, help may be on the way. In 2002, the City of Jacksonville bought the property for $260,000. Future plans include restoring the block full complex to contain a silent film museum and community center. While this is a far cry from what could have been, if the city hadn't chased this multi-billion dollar industry off 90 years ago, it is a major departure from the demolition first attitude leaders and local visionaries have had for the downtown core over the last 50 years.

The main production building faces Arlington Road. During it's silent film making days, it was where Norman developed and screened his films and where wife Gloria Norman held dance classes following the filmmaker's death.

This restored building once housed the complex's stage. Today, it’s owned by the Circle of Faith Ministries. The city hopes to purchase this property at some point in the future.

Other structures still standing include a generator shed, a prop storage shed and a small cottage, where actors changed costumes.



Told You So

February 27, 2007, 05:55:49 PM
Looks  like a good investment for the taxpayers......If I owned it I would try to unload it to the COJ too. The restriction on it being a historic structure make it cost prohibitive to repair.


February 27, 2007, 11:41:41 PM
That is why most of our historic structures are gone forever.

Douglas F. Cox Jr.

February 28, 2007, 09:40:43 PM
I was born and raised in Jacksonville and have done alot of traveling since. I really love this town and most of all find the history of Jacksonville amazing. I often find myself spending hours on end reasarching and learning about our past. Thanks for all of the resarch you have provided and hope to contribute in the future.


March 15, 2008, 04:12:36 AM

I have lived in J-Ville now for over twenty.  Originally from Louisiana.  I travel to L.A. Cali. every other year to the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo.  I have known of Norman Studio's Company now for over ten years, and proud of our city and its  restoration project.  I have met a couple of the family members of the Normans, and what a blast that was for me.  Not only significant is the structure, but what actually took place there.  All African American cast and crews?  There are stories that Richard Normans son ( who played on the lot as his father filmed; if I'm remembering correctly now) could tell you of local men and women that actually work in some of the moving pictures as extras, and other character support.  Oh; Jacksonville; we not only have the physical structure to utillize in a positive & productive manner for the great city that we are blessed to be a part of, but also the history of what that particular setting; propoerty; treasure had offered to the art; and film industry.  There is much more to say on this, than I have time for right now. 
I would like to see the project completed.  I would support the plans of the city to use this facillity as an education, and enlightment center.  I beleave it could also be the stage for attractions of the industry too.  Jacksonville could also make this a cultural arts center for young and aspairing production people, with some of the current big name African American stars to come by and support, by invitation lectures for students and industry guest.  I know persons in Hollywood that would  lend an ear in support.  I know a few actors personnally, they all ride horses, and all know of Bill Picket ( and are cerimonial guest of the Bill Picket Rodeos), and most only heard some one say that Bill Picket was in  moving pictures; but don;t know the fact of the matter.  They do not know of Norman Studio's, or that it's still here even more; the restoration effort of this famous history capturing facility.  We have a national Historic treasure here, with a grand future if we seize the moment in time now, by assembling all the grandure of reconition this property holds.  Lets start an effort to let Hollywood know of our treasure and lets extend invitations A.S.A.P.  I 'm also a student now at FCCJ video production.
GO JAGS>>>>>>>>>>>>>>


August 07, 2009, 11:30:28 PM

Patrick McGilligan’s Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only—The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker (HarperCollins, 461 pages, $29.95) opens a door into a secret past, the world of black Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. McGilligan, a biographer of Robert Altman, James Cagney, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, discussed his book on the legendary Micheaux from his home in Milwaukee.

The story of Oscar Micheaux—filmmaker, novelist, black pioneer, and shameless self promoter—is so amazing that one wonders how he could have been forgotten more than half a century after his death. Why has he had to wait so long for a definitive biography?

Micheaux has been in the process of being reclaimed ever since the late 1960s, but the reclamation began primarily in scholarly circles and among African-American historians and scholars in particular. It has taken time to bring his legend to the general public.

There are many reasons. Since Micheaux never set foot in Jim Crow Hollywood, he didn’t benefit from the studio record-keeping and public-relations machinery that other (white) directors of his era took for granted. He drew attention and reviews from the black press only, and the black press has dwindled today. The film-critic establishment is still predominantly white and oriented toward Hollywood, so even now critics either know little about him or don’t care. Hopefully that will change. Many of his films are lost; the prints of those that survive are tattered. He had very few prints of his films made to begin with, compared with the films of major Hollywood studios. And Micheaux did not have children or close surviving relatives to speak up for him after his death. That death transpired a long time ago, more than 50 years ago; few people are alive nowadays who can claim to have known him first-hand or to have experienced his films. This is true of many who worked in “race pictures,” the bulk of which are lost.

To a certain extent Micheaux lived a flamboyant life, but at the same time he covered his tracks with mystery and secrecy to elude the creditors who dogged him. So even though there were some good interviews on record with people who worked with him, and even though scholars have done a lot of very good digging into his life story and career, there were large gaps and blank areas. Most people warned me that a biography of him couldn’t be written. That intrigued me all the more. I liked the challenge.

Do you like Micheaux himself? You seem to be intrigued by him, but he certainly seems to have been something of a scoundrel. It’s said that every biography at one time or another must come to terms with whether or not he likes his subject. How do you feel about Oscar?

I like and admire him without qualification, and the journey of the book convinced me of his greatness as well as his likeability. I have written about Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, both of whom have exhibited questionable behavior in their private lives, to put it nicely. I ended up disliking one of them. Fritz Lang, another of my subjects, is believed to have shot his first wife; he flirted with Nazism; and he was a devotee of prostitutes and call girls. On the set Lang was a tyrant who bullied people. Hollywood is full of scoundrels and worse. People are always trying to cheat other people out of their rightful share of credit and money. Micheaux had to cope with racism and poverty, and he had to make his own way in life against tremendous obstacles. In order to write his books and make his films—very personal works with brave social commentary—he had to lie, cheat, and steal on occasion. The very definition of an artist!

Do enough of Micheaux’s films survive to give us an accurate sense of his ability as a director? Is there anyone in mainstream Hollywood you might compare him to?

Only about one third of Micheaux’s nearly four dozen films survive, and those that do survive exist in truncated form, largely because Micheaux could not afford to manufacture numerous prints of his films, and the handful that circulated were diminished by censorship and by usage. His first heyday was the silent era, and those films are the rarest. However, two of his most famous silent pictures survive in fair condition: The Symbol of the Unconquered, from 1920, and Body and Soul, from 1925, the first motion picture to star Paul Robeson. Judging these two films on content and style, they are indeed stellar works. Content-wise because they depict black America at a time when Hollywood didn’t have a clue, and because they touch on important racially-sensitive issues—from Southern peonage and lynching to religious hypocrisy and miscegenation. Style-wise, in spite of low-budget limitations, they are very sophisticated films, showing the influences of both German Expressionist and Soviet editing ideas.

His casting was as sharp as his stories, and he launched many, many performers from different areas of black show business into film careers. This shouldn’t be underrated.

Micheaux had a very good run after sound came in the early 1930s, and two of his most enduring films from this decade also survive: Lem Hawkins Confession, from 1935, and God’s Stepchildren, from 1938. The first is an ingenious all-black (all his films are all-black) retelling of the real-life Leo Frank case from 1913, a murder mystery that fascinated Micheaux. He had passed through Atlanta at the time of the controversial trial. And the second was his consummate parable about “passing”—black people passing as whites—one of his obsessive themes. Both have flaws; both are exceptional films.

I think of Micheaux as an “auteur” before the French coined the word. Not only did he write and direct all his films, (often editing them and making small on-camera appearances too, but many of his stories were unmistakable allegories of his own life. In this respect, too, he was important and unique. I really can’t compare him to anyone in Hollywood. Maybe you could think of him as a combination of Roger Corman and Spike Lee, ahead of their time. I try not to rank or rate people that way in my books, and Micheaux was not only great, he was singular; hence the title of my book: The Great and Only.

A film about Oscar Micheaux’s life would be an opportunity to rediscover a lost world. I suppose the inevitable question is who should play him in a film on his life. And who would direct?

I agree with you that a film about Micheaux would have the attraction of a lost world, and it would give back a folk hero to America. So the lead character would have to be acted by a man able to display genius and charisma as well as human failings. His second wife, Alice B. Russell, is also a major part. Often she was his lead actress, sometimes his co-writer, usually his producer, always his muse. Mrs. Micheaux loomed in her husband’s career more significantly than any of the dutiful or invisible wives of Hollywood directors.

Someone like Will Smith could play Micheaux to the hilt, I’m sure. But there are also many young black actors and actresses nowadays, some just beginning to make their names in film or crossing over from pop music, so it is just as likely that a relative newcomer is lurking out there, whose name we do not yet know, who would be perfect. I should add that we are already getting feelers from film companies. Micheaux’s inspiring story of struggle and conquest is a natural for a movie.

Who should direct? It could be anyone from Spike Lee to Spielberg to someone like Taylor Hackford, who brought Ray Charles’s story to the screen and made a very good Chuck Berry documentary. I don’t think the color of a director’s skin is as important as their passion for the subject, but I think the script would benefit from a screenwriter with the imagination to fill in some of the mysteries of that lost world, someone who can empathize with Micheaux’s predicament living in a Jim Crow world. And that should really be someone either African-American or who can strongly identify with African-American history.


April 24, 2013, 12:10:05 PM
Came across this image today:

"Oliver Norvell Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia, in 1892. He began his career in movies as a projectionist at a theatre in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he spent much of childhood. Oliver "Babe" Hardy moved to Jacksonville in 1913 and made 50 short one-reeler films for Lubin Studios. After moving to New York he returned to Jacksonville around 1915 and appeared in more than 60 comedies for the Vim Comedy Company and the King Bee studios where he worked with Charlie Chaplin imitator Billy West and comedic actress Ethel Burton Palmer. Hardy followed the King Bee studio to New Jersey and then to Hollywood, where he would first begin his celebrated partnership with Stan Laurel in 1921."


February 17, 2014, 08:55:28 AM
I don't know if this has been commented on but this silent film was made in Jax in 1916. Perhaps a shrewd eye could recognize some locations.

(the 12 minute full legth is at
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