Monday, June 26, 2017

New Book: Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era by Frank Thompson

I want to recommend a new book, Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era, by film historian Frank Thompson. Recently published, this is a work of film history, but more specifically, local film history. In that regard, it is a pioneering work -- as well as interesting, entertaining, thoroughly researched, and briskly written. I recommend it highly.

Back in the silent era, there were a handful of regional centers of film making. Films were made in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as in Chicago, Florida, New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, and elsewhere.** As well, just about every town had it's own film company; these local companies shot not only local events of note (parades, visiting dignitaries, civic anniversaries, etc...), but occasionally, if they were a little more ambitious, a drama which utilized local scenery and landmarks as well as individuals.

In Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era, author and film historian Frank Thompson rediscovers a lost era of North Carolina history. Thompson's new book is the first exploration of the films made in and around Asheville from the earliest actualities in 1900 to the final silent film, We're Careful Now, in 1929. Itinerant movie makers as well as major national film companies such as Edison, Selznick, Vitagraph, Metro, and Paramount found Asheville provided the perfect backdrop to all kinds of films from urban dramas to mountain adventures. One allegorical movie, The Warfare of the Flesh (1917), which survives in very fragmentary form, even recreated Hell in a quarry in near-by Swannanoa.

Of the fifty-plus motion pictures filmed in and around Asheville, only one survives today more or less complete: The Conquest of Canaan (1921), starring Thomas Meighan and Doris Kenyon and filmed almost entirely on the streets of Asheville (see image below). Six silent films made in Asheville between 1916 and 1929 were cast locally. Each were sponsored in part by local newspapers. All these films are missing, and presumed lost. Also lost are nearly all the memories of these important pieces of film history and North Carolina history. Thompson, as a kind of film archeologist, has done a superb job digging up the cinematic history of Asheville and environs.

Actor Thomas Meighan steps off a trolley car in front of the Swannanoa-Berkeley Hotel at 45-47 Biltmore Ave in Asheville. Director R. William Neill stands with his back to us, while Harry Perry cranks the camera. Reflectors were used to coax a little more light onto the star. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Library

Some of the other major productions shot in Asheville and documented in this new book include The Foolish Woman (1916), with Clara Kimball Young, The Panther Woman (1918), with Olga Petrova, The Ordeal of Rosetta (1918), with Alice Brady.

As much as Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era is the story of local film history, it is also the story of American film history. So much of what took place in Asheville was also taking place around the country. The book is illustrated with 133 stills, photographs, posters, ads and other imagery, most of which has not been in print for a century and some which have never been published anywhere.

Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era should appeal to those interested in silent film, including fans of Louise Brooks. The star of the most significant film made in Asheville, The Conquest of Canaan, later appeared in the 1927 Brooks' film, The City Gone Wild. And as well, the cinematographer of The Conquest of Canaan was Harry Perry, who shot another 1927 Brooks' film, Now We're in the Air (which included Emile Chautard, who directed The Ordeal of Rosetta). The scenario for The Conquest of Canaan, by the way, was by Frank Tuttle, who directed another Brooks' film, The American Venus, from 1926. I also came across mention of another Brooks' associate, Ruth St. Denis. As skirt dancer Ruth Denis, she appeared in what was likely the first film shown in Asheville, a Kinetoscope made in 1895!

On July 2, The Conquest of Canaan, starring Thomas Meighan and Doris Kenyon, will be screened at Asheville's Grail Moviehouse. It will be introduced by Frank Thompson. 

Thomas Meighan and Doris Kenyon in a scene from The Conquest of Canaan

Asheville Movies Volume 1: The Silent Era will appeal to those interested in silent film, no matter where they live. It is an exemplary book, and one I would love to see others across the country emulate. Thompson’s book is currently being sold in three Asheville locations, the Grail Moviehouse, Battery Park Book Exchange, and Malaprop’s. Copies of Thompson's latest can also be purchased online HERE. Want to find out more, here is a LINK to a review of the book.

** Louise Brooks appeared in films made in and around New York City and Los Angeles, and also went on location to Connecticut and Florida, as well as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Berkeley and Jacumba, California.

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