Early West Virginia Cinema:
From Tol’able David to The Night of the Hunter 1921-1955

 By Steve Fesenmaier

Originally published in Goldenseal, Spring 2002


During the first century of the motion picture, filmmaking has become a universal industry. Americans are used to seeing films made everywhere in the world, including their own backyards. West Virginia, despite its geographic isolation (before the age of the airplane and helicopter and interstate highways), has had several important films made in its own backyard. Jim Comstock, the legendary editor of the Hillbilly and WV Encyclopedia, claimed that the first film made in the state was Tol’able David (1921). As he points out, there is a highway marker in Greenbrier County stating that it is the model for “Greenstream County” in the film. The film was in fact filmed in Blue Grass, Virginia, just across the border. Henry King, the director and one of Hollywood’s longest working directors, made the film on location because he loved his hometown of Christiansburg.   I purchased a 16-mm print of the film from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and screened it at a Vandalia Festival. I purchased two tinted scenes from the founder of the Eastman House Film Archive, James Card. This film is the very film that partially established the stereotype of West Virginians as large, dangerous criminals. In the film, the Hatburns travel over the mountains to the idyllic town in Virginia where David and his family live. The film is considered to be one of the most important silent films ever made since D.W. Griffith himself was going to originally direct the film. Richard Barthelmess, the rising star who played David Kinemon, had earlier starred with Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), widely considered to be the greatest “Eastern.” Recently Kino International released a restored video copy of the film that includes an interview with Henry King.  He directed films in Hollywood for more than six decades, becoming one of the few directors who started out at almost the beginning and making successful films into the sixties (Tender is the Night, 1962).

The first actual feature film to be made inside the state is Stage Struck (1925), which was filmed in New Martinsville.  Alan Dwan, a former assistant to D.W. Griffith and his successor, directed the film starring the then most-famous Hollywood starlet, Gloria Swanson. There are more than ten other films with this title, but because of the star and director, it is the best known. Dwan began his career in 1911 with The Yiddisher Cowboy, and directed his last film in 1961 with The Most Dangerous Man Alive. He directed more than 200 films in his career.  Swanson, as noted in the article on “Stage Struck” in this issue of
Goldenseal, was a great celebrity in the country and worldwide.  WWI had destroyed the greatest film industry in the world at that time – in Italy.  Hitler would latter do the same to the most creative one in the world, in Germany.  Stage Struck is a minor film for both Dwan and Swanson, but as one of the few restored rural comedies of that silent era is rare.

During the past decade Kino International has been releasing many other restored silent films, but most of them star someone like Buster Keaton or Lon Chaney.  They have released two of Swanson’s films – Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson. According to Jessica Rosner at Kino, Stage Struck probably won’t be released on home video because it is a studio film – the other two were not. ( James Card snipped out the boxing scene in the Eastman Archive’s 16-mm print of the film. Fortunately, WVLC’s and New Martinsville’s copies include the boxing scene.) Kino will shortly be releasing The Love of Sunya starring Swanson and Queen Kelly on DVD.

There were several notable documentaries made in the state during the thirties, and even earlier. The very first known documentary footage made in the state was filmed by the Army Signal Corps in Nitro. The film, Nitro (1919) is silent with no titles, lasting 15 minutes long. A Florida filmmaker, Jay Gladewell, has been working on a long documentary on his family’s hometown of Nitro, and should include this short.  The most famous “lost film” from this era is a documentary about the hero of the actual Matewan Massacre, “Smilin’ Sid” Hatfield. The film was made in 1920, and legend has it that the only copy of it was stolen from the National Archives. (Daniel Boyd and Steve Gilliland made a “new version” of the film in 2000, using computers to simulate the old grainy look.) 

Various national groups came to the state to document WPA events. One such film has been converted to video – it is called Recreational Resources – State Parks in West Virginia. It shows various state parks, The Greenbrier Resort, the Capitol, and other so-called “recreational resources.” The WPA also produced the first sound film in the state A Better West Virginia (1937), which lasts 8 minutes and 25 seconds.  Another film was made by the Pocahontas Fuel Co. in 1926, showing miners working in their Pocahontas Field.
In 1932 a documentary was made in Charleston called Charleston, the Beautiful on the Kanawha. Hometown son Blundon Wills directed the portrait of the city. There were other documentaries made in the thirties about other towns in the state including Elkins.  There was a film made in Jefferson County called See Ourselves in the Movies. There was a film with the same title made in Elkins – See Ourselves in the Movies (1937), which was sponsored by the local American Legion and photographed by Amateur Services Productions of Akron, Ohio. 

Two other interesting early films that were made in West Virginia by natives include West Virginia the State Beautiful, filmed in 1929 by Rev. Otis Rymer Snodgrass. This was a film tour along U.S. Route 60 from the Kentucky border to the Virginia border.  Also worthy of mention is the short film One Room Schoolhouses, which was photographed in Barbour County about 1935 by the Myers Brothers, who were noted local physicians and amateur filmmakers.  Excerpts from West Virginia the State Beautiful and One Room Schoolhouses were included in the Treasures of  American Film Archives DVD set of rare films from 17 archives assembled by the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2000. 

The next major film made in the state took place in 1955 when Charles Laughton directed his only film, The Night of the Hunter. It was based on Davis Grubb’s bestseller by the same name. Most of the film was shot in California, but the river scenes at the end were made on the Ohio River, near Grubb’s hometown of Moundsville. (Another film based on a David Grubb novel, Fool’s Parade (1971), was filmed entirely in Moundsville, and had its world premiere with its star, James Stewart, in Wheeling that year.)  A newly restored copy of the film, done by the UCLA Film Archive and distributed by MGM, had its world premiere in fall 2001.  During the first six months of this year, theaters around the state will be showing one of only two copies of this film.  Public libraries will be developing reader’s groups around the newly reprinted novel.

We cannot discuss early WV filmmaking without mentioning Pare Lorentz.  Lorentz was FDR’s official filmmaker, directing two landmark documentaries for him – The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937).  Neither film was shot in the state, but the narrator of The River (which is about the Mississippi) does mention several WV rivers. These films showed Americans what FDR and the Congress were doing to end the Great Depression.  Lorentz is a native of Clarksburg and became world famous.  The International Documentary Association now gives out the Pare Lorentz Award to the best socially conscious documentary film made in the world.  

Our state has played an important role in early filmmaking.  There was a whole genre of movies made during the silent era about hillbillies – movies like Tol’able David, which were the Westerns of their day. In-state and out-of-state filmmakers have been filming here since at least the days of Sid Hatfield. Many more films have been made inside the state and about the state. Unfortunately, many of them were not made on location for various reasons. If you want to see a complete list of all the films and videos that have been made about the state and region that are available from The West Virginia Library Commission through any local public library, check out http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/wvvideobib.htm

Thanks to Richard Fauss for info on documentaries made inside the state.


Tol’able David website

Review of the Laserdisc Version  



Pare Lorentz Award


Review of Tol’able David – which says it was made in WV!

Website for restored “Tol’able David” video- Kino Video


Treasures of American Film Archives


Alan Dwan’s famous film of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks


Gloria Swanson Archive at the University of Texas


Best Gloria Swanson website


Another good Swanson site


E Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal, Two-Volume Set

http://www.mesharpe.com/65680335.htm (Broken Link)

The Night of the Hunter – review on “The Greatest Films”


The Night of the Hunter – the screenplay


Film Forum website for restored “Night of the Hunter”


The new book on the film by Simon Callow, printed by the British Film Institute



Additional AppLit Resources: 
Complete List of AppLit Pages on Film

See Also:

Appalachian Film and Television Topics
Dr. Stephen D. Mooney, Instructor, Department of English and Appalachian Studies Program, has compiled a list of film and television shows for his Appalachian Studies Classes at Virginia Tech, VA.   

Appalshop For a complete catalog, contact the Appalshop Marketing and Sales Office at 1-800-545-7467 or appalshopsales@appalshop.org.

Davenport Films and From the Brothers Grimm  
American versions of classic folk and fairy tales, many Appalachian.  Davenport has also made many other Appalachian films.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
, Huntington, WV (
Broken Link)

Press release from September 9, 2002, entitled “World premier screenings at Flooded Out Film Festival
All proceeds from Oct. 10 event go to flood victims”

West Virginia Film Makers Film Festival

Winning Festival Films, background information on the first festival, local history, links to sponsors, links to information on film such as The Griffin and the Minor Canon, The Night of the Hunter, Invasion of the Space Preachers, etc.


West Virginia Filmmakers Guild  

The West Virginia Filmmakers Guild was created in 1985 to provide networking and communication between West Virginia film and video makers and those interested in these crafts in West Virginia. Central to its mission is educating the public and promoting West Virginia filmmakers and their films to the public.



Created:  04/14/2002
Last Update:  07/07/2003 01:25:35 PM
Links Checked:  7/07/2003