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, but the Sunshine State also provided ample lighting for “indoor” scenes, which were shot on outdoor stages with interior props due to electric lighting being unreliable at the time.
Over 120 films used St. Augustine’s diverse, striking architecture and natural landscape to transport moviegoers 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 Hotel Ponce de Leon 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 Hotel Ponce de Leon and the surrounding gardens. Celebrated actress Theda Bara claimed fame by taking on the role of the femme fatale. In A Fool There Was – arguably the most remarkable 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.
Revenge of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955)
The 1955 sci-fi horror sequel, Revenge of the Creature from the Black Lagoon is about an ancient Amazonian “Gill-man” who was captured from the Black Lagoon and put on display as an aquarium attraction.
“Gill-man” is played by Ricou Browning who co-wrote and co-produced Flipperin 1963 and directed underwater sequences on a number of features, including Island of the Lost and Caddyshack.
Revenge of the Creature also features Clint Eastwood’s very first and uncredited moment in cinema history.
The movie was primarily shot at Marine Studios, built in 1937 by Hollywood filmmakers: W. Douglas Burden, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Ilya Tolstoy. The world’s first underwater film studio now operates as one of Florida’s first marine mammal parks known as Marineland, located just south of St. Augustine.
Amazon River scenes were shot along the St. Johns River and several scenes were set in Jacksonville’s Friendship Park.
Illegally Yours (1988)
Set and filmed in St. Augustine, Illegally Yours is a 1988 comedy starring Rob Lowe and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, with the intro song performed by Johnny Cash.
A series of mishaps take place involving a blackmailer, a corpse, an incriminating audiotape, an innocent woman who accidentally picks up the tape, and a pair of teenage blackmail victims.
Built in 1888, the Cordova Hotel was constructed from poured concrete by an eccentric millionaire and architect named Franklin Smith. In 1962, St. Johns County purchased and renovated the building into a courthouse. Today, it operates as the Casa Monica Resort & Spa where visitors can find luxurious accommodations in the heart of historic downtown St. Augustine.
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.