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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
to Richard Fauss for info on documentaries made inside the state.
of the Laserdisc Version
of Tol’able David – which says it was made in WV!
for restored “Tol’able David” video- Kino Video
of American Film Archives
Dwan’s famous film of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks
Swanson Archive at the University of Texas
Gloria Swanson website
good Swanson site
Encyclopedia of the Great Depression and the New Deal, Two-Volume Set
Night of the Hunter – review on “The Greatest Films”
Night of the Hunter – the screenplay
Forum website for restored “Night of the Hunter”
new book on the film by Simon Callow, printed by the British Film