Most people know Hollywood as the destination for the film industry, but did you know America’s motion picture history began on Florida’s Historic Coast? Directors, producers, and actors came to St. Augustine, Florida to escape the cold New York winters and continue studio operations from December to April. Not only was the warmer weather better for film reels, the Sunshine State provided ample lighting for “indoor” scenes, which were shot on outdoor stages with false interior props because electric lighting was unreliable at the time.
Over 120 films used St. Augustine’s diverse, striking architecture and natural landscape to transport movie goers to exotic places. Between 1906 and 1926, filmmakers reimagined the dunes of Anastasia Island as Sudan and the Sahara Desert, the Castillo de San Marcos as Ancient Rome, and Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel as scenes of Brazil, Spain, Italy, and France. Read on to learn about some of the notable directors, actors, and actresses who almost made a cinematic hub out of Northeast Florida!
A Fool There Was (1915)
Director Frank Powell came to St. Augustine with many scenes that look to be located at the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the surrounding gardens. Celebrated actress Theda Bara claimed fame by taking on the role of the femme fatale. In “A Fool…” - which is arguably the greatest performance of her career - Bara plays a modern vampire who romances a millionaire to his detriment. The area loved Theda so much that she was invited to plant a ceremonial palm in the Plaza de la Constitucion.
Four Feathers (1915)
In this drama, Anastasia Island beach dunes serve as the backdrop for Sudan desert scenes. Howard Estabrook plays Captain Harry Faversham, the son of a celebrated general who attempts to redeem himself in the eyes of his peers and love interest after an order of service scares him into resignation. Three fellow officers send him white feathers, and his fiancee plucks the fourth feather from her fan. He sails for Egypt to return the feathers, enduring trials and torture on his journey.
Distant Drums (1951)
Oscar-winning actor Gary Cooper plays Captain Quincy Wyatt in this Warner Brothers American Western action movie. After destroying a Seminole fort, soldiers and their rescued companions brave the dangerous Everglades and fight off Native Seminoles to seek safety. The Castillo de San Marcos stood in as the Seminole fort and while most of the shots are here, “Distant Drums” is a cinematic patchwork of Florida’s landscape.
Safe Harbor (1999)
Emmy winner and Golden Globe nominee Rue McClanahan stars in this TV drama about a widowed sheriff and his three sons living in Magic Beach, Florida. The town may be fictional, but the hotel owned by Grandma Loring (McClanahan) is very real! The iconic and unmistakable Magic Beach Motel is located on Vilano Beach and operates as an intentionally kitschy art deco lodging option with available bookings.
If you would like to learn more about St. Augustine’s impact on modern cinema, we recommend Thomas Graham’s book Silent Films in St. Augustine.