1908: The Birth of Movies in New Orleans

After the Louisiana legislature passed tax incentives to lure movie productions to the state in 2002, New Orleans has emerged as "Hollywood South". Even before then, we have long enjoyed regular visits from film crews using the city as the setting for movies both notable and forgettable, and most of us enjoy seeing New Orleans on the big screen. As far back as 1961, former Times-Picayune critic Frank Gagnard wrote "Narcissus was a piker when compared with the New Orleanian’s love of a reflection of his own city" in the movies. But no one alive remembers, and few today may even know, that 2008 is the centennial of feature film production in New Orleans.
The early years of the American motion picture industry were a cinematic gold rush. Dozens of small movie production companies around the country quickly went to work churning out "product" to fill the programs at theaters packed with audiences eager to see this new entertainment medium. The first movies were "actualities", brief slice-of-life vignettes that didn’t have a plot and whose titles - The Kiss, Pony Races at Coney Island, etc. - summarized exactly what the audiences would see. "Moving pictures" were enough of a novelty that at first the subjects didn’t matter.
Different companies used variations of the same basic cameras and projectors to make and display these early movies. But because Thomas Edison had perfected the use of celluloid film to create moving pictures, he believed that any competitor who used a similar system was infringing on his patents and soon his lawyers were filing suit against any and all offenders. But the further away movie makers were from Edison’s headquarter in Menlo Park, New Jersey, the more likely they were to avoid litigation.
From the early days of the movies, New Orleans had had its own actualities. Scenes of the 1898 Mardi Gras were filmed and short movies of a Navy Parade on Canal Street and a fire brigade racing down St. Charles Avenue thrilled local audiences. A few years later, movies began telling actual stories and some, like The Great Train Robbery and A Trip to the Moon, showed audiences things they didn’t see in real life. One early producer was William Selig, a businessman and sometime performer, who had seen the commercial possibilities of the movies and started making short films of his native Chicago in 1896. Trying to avoid Edison’s lawyers, he later traveled over the mid- and south-west making movies and by 1908 he had subsidiary production units in several locations, including New Orleans. And it was in April of that year, just over a century ago, that the first narrative feature film was made in the Crescent City.
Selig sent one of his directors, Francis Boggs, and a group of actors to New Orleans to film a single-reel version of the Faust legend, Mephisto and the Maiden. A contemporary review of Mephisto noted that "the technical quality of the film is excellent" and "the acting is all that could be asked in a picture of this sort." Because the standard reel of film at the time took about fourteen minutes to crank through a projector, the reviewer also noted that familiarity with the story would help to fill in what had been omitted. ("Feature" films were necessarily brief in the early days of cinema.) Selig’s New Orleans unit made only a few other movies after Mephisto, one of which was a short news reel of President Taft visiting the city, and by 1909 most of the company’s efforts were centered around his new California facilities.
About this same time, Edison and nine of the biggest competing studios around the country decided that movies were so profitable that the ongoing patent litigation was counter-productive. They formed an umbrella company to licence Edison’s inventions and pay royalties for their subsequent use. With legal action by Edison no longer a threat, the amount of movie production around the country increased and soon other studios came to New Orleans and began incorporating local settings and traditions into their films.
Descriptions of movie-making in New Orleans circa 1910 are familiar to anyone who has watched film crews working on Twelve Rounds, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, or any of the other movie productions we’ve had in town recently. Even back then, filmmaking fascinated New Orleanians. Crowds gathered to watch the strange proceedings with all the unusual equipment and they jostled each other to get as close to the scenes as the crew would allow. The work was long and difficult, and one contemporary news account noted how the production was extremely tedious, with the same scene filmed multiple times from multiple angles and hours spent setting up equipment and waiting. The reporter speculated that audience members would be surprised at all the time, effort, and expense that went into making their evening’s entertainment.
As today, early movie makers saw the appeal of filming in New Orleans. One producer noted that "there isn't a city in the United States that can give the local color New Orleans can." Another booster predicted that "New Orleans, with its wonderful climate, scenery, and atmospheric conditions should take its place in the front rank of the gigantic motion picture industry."
A few years after Selig, the Kalem studio was the next major production company to work in New Orleans. Kalem was more systematic at making movies: their New Orleans studio, set up in 1912 on Moss Street along Bayou St. John, was the last of its six units around the country to start production and the goal for each of the six was to make one single-reel drama during each of fifty weeks out of the year. Another mandate was for production units to make full use of any notable scenery and unique characteristics of their locations. Two of Kalem’s New Orleans movies from 1912 did so with both their settings and storylines.
In A Mardi Gras Mix-Up, two husbands sneak out on their disapproving wives to join the carnival festivities. The wives discover them gone and, familiar with their husband’s costumes, go looking for them. Unbeknownst to all four, a pair of "two escaped lunatics" are also in the crowds, coincidentally wearing the same costumes as the husbands. The wives encounter the lunatics, and, thinking they’ve found their spouses, humor them and join in the celebration. Then the husbands see their wives cavorting with strange men and, as one review put it, "the many laughable situations which arise and the novel scenes of the Mardi Gras make this original comedy highly entertaining." The Kalem studio’s The Belle of New Orleans is notable as an early period piece set in mid-nineteenth century New Orleans. It’s a romantic drama of a daughter who rebels against the marriage her father has arranged for her and elopes with a man of apparent limited means. The father and the spurned fiancé ride to intercept the newlyweds and when the daughter throws herself between the ex-fiancé’s raised pistol and her new husband, she reveals him to actually be a titled French nobleman. The relieved father, of course, now accepts his new son-in-law and thus provides the movie with a happy ending. Less successful than A Mardi Gras Mix-Up, one reviewer panned The Belle of New Orleans as "a conventional love story, not at all convincing either in atmosphere or action."
Besides national studios that made films here during the early twentieth century, at least one native New Orleanian entered the movie business in the first years of the industry. William James Hannon had been successful in several fields, including shipbuilding and insurance, before he founded the Nola Film Company in 1915. The lure of the movies was strong enough for him to sell his Esplanade Avenue mansion to finance the venture and with the proceeds he bought property on Moss Street to build a studio that was designed to be "large and modern in every respect." (Hannon must have followed the Kalem studio’s lead in deciding that the area around Bayou St. John back then was particularly well-suited for filmmaking.)
The Nola Company’s first effort, The Folly of Revenge (1916) was a morality tale centered around the romantic triangle among an artist, his favorite model, and the rival for her affection. It was, to use a modern movie term, a bomb. Variety described it as "the champion worst feature of the year" and more specifically noted that "the acting cast is bad, the story is bad, the direction is bad" and that even the dialogue titles were laughable. One possible reason behind the failure in the story and titles department was that Hannon, though he brought in professionals for most of the film-making responsibilities, let his son, William Morgan Hannon, write the script for the film. Hannon Junior’s only qualification, though, was a book he had written about the "art of the photoplay", i.e., screenwriting. He wrote the book, though, before he had, technically, ever written an actual movie script.
Despite the bad reviews in the national press and limited screenings around the country, The Folly of Revenge was a modest hit in New Orleans. This was due, at least in part, because in the interest of supporting the fledgling local film industry local newspapers more-or-less reprinted the company’s press release about the movie. It screened at twenty-five local theaters (a contemporary tally counted a total of sixty-five movie theaters in New Orleans), was held over after its original release in at least one of those, and played to record crowds. The thrill of seeing New Orleans on the big screen must have been a big draw to local audiences even in the early days of the movies.
The Nola Film Company’s subsequent efforts, The Link, about a burglar who is inspired to turn from his criminal ways through the intercession of a child, and The Man Who Lost, an intrigue of romance and espionage set during Mardi Gras, were perhaps better critical successes but failed financially. Hannon’s major obstacle at this point was that the national company that had distributed The Folly of Revenge had gone out of business. The Nola Film Company was only one of many small studios around the country and it failed to secure any further distribution deals. Playing its movies only in New Orleans was not enough to recoup their costs and soon the city’s first movie studio went out of business.
Undeterred and, undoubtedly, deep in debt, Hannon soon tried again with the formation, in 1917, of the Diamond Film Company. Listed as a vice-president of the new firm, it is likely that Hannon’s major investment and contribution was the former Nola Film Company studio on Moss Street. Distribution of Diamond’s movies outside of New Orleans was, like for its predecessor company, problematic and reviews for the two movies Diamond is known to have made were modest at best. Way Up in Society involved a pair of "tramps" who try to, yes, move "way up in society" by stealing a rich man’s clothes and crashing society balls. One reviewer described it as a film that would "amuse a limited class of spectators." His Fatal Fate, a comedy about a boarding house for actors and other show business people, got similar tepid reviews. Diamond didn’t last much longer than the Nola Company and Hannon’s eventual obituary in 1930 made no mention of his life’s most ambitious undertaking and significant accomplishment - the establishment, though briefly, of the first native production companies in New Orleans.
Hannon’s efforts to get these local studios established weren’t the only movie production New Orleans saw during this time. Motion pictures had matured, both as a business and as an art form, and New Orleans’ value as a production location was considerable. An early actress of this era said the city "is the most remarkable and distinctive of any in the States" and New Orleans’ geography was extolled as ideal for film-making because "under the soft light of the South’s autumn days some of the best effects in photography are obtainable." This second factor was important because contemporary electric lights weren’t bright enough to properly expose early filmstock and movies had to be filmed outside in natural sunlight. Even interior sets were constructed outside with exposed ceilings to allow for sufficient lighting. Because temperate climates allowed year-round outdoor filming, early production companies were attracted to the warm parts of the country. Besides New Orleans, several locations in Florida were frequented by early movie makers as was, of course, a certain small town in southern California.
The praise for New Orleans’ distinctive character and soft autumn lights were reported by the Times-Picayune during the production of Metro Pictures Corporation’s 1918 movie Revelation, in which New Orleans doubled as Paris and parts of the French Quarter served as Montmartre. Revelation told the story of an artist’s model and former dancer who redeems her wicked ways as a Red Cross nurse during "the Great War." A reviewer wrote that Revelation was "one of the strongest pictures yet produced" and was "gripping from start to finish and filled with laughter and tears."
A second, contrasting movie during this period was The Lone Wolf, which had New Orleans again substituting for Paris. Contemporary reviews focused on the action scenes and make the movie sound like a predecessor of the summer action blockbusters of today, where stunts and explosions are secondary to the plot and the performances of the actors. The thrilling highlights of The Lone Wolf included airplane dogfights and a scene where the trailing car in a chase fails to make the jump over an open drawbridge and plunges into the canal below. An actual crash by one of the stunt planes - from which the pilot luckily survived - was also worked into the final cut of the movie because of the serendipity of catching the accident on film. "A rattling good melodrama" is how one critic started off his enthusiastic review.
By some accounts, early movie production in New Orleans was part of a coordinated effort to make the city a major movie center back in the industry’s early days. Though the major appeal was the mild temperatures and unique settings and character that New Orleans offered, one factor beyond the control of producers and local business promoters doomed this effort. Needing bright sunshine for filming, early producers eventually learned that in New Orleans, as one writer covering the industry noted, "it rains here too often". So in the end, it wasn’t dumb businessmen or stupid screenplays - the movie industry has had plenty of both in the decades since - but the rain that lost New Orleans its silent-era aspirations to be the movie production capital that Hollywood, with over three-hundred and thirty days of sunshine a year, is today. And because early movies were just a commodity used to fill an evening’s bill and get audiences into the theaters, few people thought they had any artistic value and the prints weren’t considered worth saving once they had circulated to enough theaters to make a profit. So Mephisto and the Maiden, A Mardi Gras Mix-Up, The Lone Wolf and other early feature films, like the local "actualities", all appear to be lost, and their memory only serves as a footnote to the history of movies in New Orleans.