A few weeks ago the Academy Awards were held, and I wondered, what was the first movie ever filmed in Palm Beach County? The Palm Beach County Film Commission maintains a list of films shot in Palm Beach County, but it only goes back to the 1960s. Then I got a clue from the book “Loxahatchee Lament”, a collection of pioneer tales from
the Jupiter area. One of the articles in the book was based on excerpts from a scrapbook kept by Mrs. Frank Shuflin. In the scrapbook she clipped an article about a “moving picture”being filmed in the Jupiter area in 1923 starring Dorothy Dalton, a major star of the silent film era. In the movie being filmed, they needed a tropical swamp for a scene. The article describes how they could not find a suitable location in West Palm Beach, so they headed up to Jupiter for filming. They filmed at the Pennock Plantation and the Lainhart orange grove west of Jupiter.
The article did not mention the title of the film, but did mention the director, Irvin Willat.
A bit of Internet searching revealed that the film was entitled “Fog Bound.” The AMG movie guide provides the following synposis: “Pretty Dorothy Dalton co-stars with the handsome but not as stellar David Powell in this action-packed Paramountdrama. The wealthy but idle Roger Wainright (Powell) finds himself falling in love with Gale Brenon (Dalton), a modern, independent young lady who manages several Florida orange groves. While Wainright is enjoying himself at a local gambling resort, the place is raided by revenuers and Sheriff Holmes (Jack Richardson) is killed in the ensuing gun fight. Wainright escapes and Gale hides him, later helping him to escape into the swamp. But the dead man is her father, and when she discovers that Wainright is suspected of being the one who discharged the fatal shot, she leads the posse to him. At the last moment, her love for him causes her to weaken, but he turns himself in anyway. A friend, Mabel Van Buren, reveals that she witnessed the killing, and that it was another officer, Deputy Brown (former matinee idol),who did the dirty deed. Evidence backs her up, and Wainright and Gale are reunited.”
Further searching in the Palm Beach Post provided two more movies made in 1923. A comedy called “The Heart Raider” starring Agnes Ayres, was shot in Palm Beach. Time Magazine provides a short summary of the film: “Agnes Ayres proceeds through this picture as a society siren against whose heart of gold other hearts, of lesser, masculine metal, shatter themselves by scores. Then one day in walks a misogynist. On board his yacht heart-of-gold meets heart-of-iron.The cast is pleasantly supplied with Mahlon Hamilton as the misogynist and Charles Ruggles as supplementary clown. All in all the results justify two hours expended in their inspection.”
The third film to shoot that spring was “The Exciters” starring Bebe Daniels. This comedy’s plot is as follows, from Moviefone “The Exciters is the old one about a footloose heiress who must marry by the age of 21 or forfeit her fortune. The girl (Bebe Daniels), an
inveterate thrill-seeker, chooses as her mate a handsome gangster (Antonio Moreno). Lots of thrills and laughs occur as a result of this shaky union. The gangster eventually reveals that he’s an undercover cop, and the girl finally agrees to curb her craving for excitement. Veteran scenarists Sonya Levienand John Colton adapted The Exciters from a novel by Martin Brown.” Bebe Daniels returned in 1926 to film “The Palm Beach Girl”, where many locals served as extras at a train station scene in the movie. Another scene with a train was shot in Jupiter, where a train rammed a prop car.
I wish I could provide clips from these films, but only The Heart Raider exists in a private
collection. It is estimated that 60-80% of the silent movies filmed are no longer in existence (http://www.silentera.com/lost/index.html). Films of this era were made with a type of material called cellulose nitrate, which was extremely flammable. Old black and white movie film also contained quite a bit of silver, so thousands of movies were destroyed for their silver content. This kind of film is no longer used; it was replaced by “safety film” which was still stamped on film and negatives well into the late twentieth century. The George Eastman House has a Czech copy of The Heart Raider in its collection, and it would be interesting to see the Palm Beach and West Palm Beach of 1923. I don’t know if indeed these are the oldest movies ever made here, but they certainly are among the earliest.