Few realize there was a time nearly a century ago when the San Francisco Bay Area almost become a second Hollywood. Then, the Bay Area's best hope in rivaling the film colony only just developing in Southern California lay with the California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), which was based in San Rafael.
In the coming week, Bay Area movie goers will have the rare opportunity -- in fact the first in nearly a century -- to see a film widely considered one of the most emblematic of the Bay Area's long-forgotten movie-making past.
On Saturday, September 22 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen Salomy Jane (1914), the first, most acclaimed, and only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane will
also be shown on Sunday, September 30 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The two screenings mark only the second time the film has been shown in the Bay Area in the nearly 100 years since it was made.
Set during the California Gold Rush and based on the famous 1889 story by San Francisco writer Bret Harte, Salomy Jane tells a melodramatic story of love, murder, and mistaken identity -- all of which whirls about its feisty female heroine. The film's screenplay was penned by Paul Armstrong, who also authored a popular stage adaptation of Harte's story in 1907.
Along with its Western-themed story, Salomy Jane offers viewers images of Marin and northern California as it looked in 1914. Locations for the film were spread along the coast as far north as the Russian River near Monte Rio -- for the leaps into the water and the final chase, and as far south as the San Lorenzo River near Santa Cruz -- for the stage robbery. Closer to the CMPC studio in San Rafael was the Lagunitas Creek location for the final kiss under an arching tree, which frames Mount Tamalpais. California's giant Redwoods and other local landmarks are also seen.
A scene from Salomy Jane -- Image courtesy of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
Also of note is the film's cast and crew. The title role is played by Beatriz Michelena, a San Francisco singer and star of the musical theater who began her film career with this local production. Michelena, a local celebrity described as "California's most beautiful actress," was married to George E. Middleton, a prominent San Francisco auto dealer who founded the CMPC in 1912 for the purpose of shooting promotional footage of the cars he was selling.
Determined that his wife would succeed in the movies, Middleton starred Michelena in 11 features for the San Rafael studio between 1914 and 1917. The actress achieved a certain degree of national renown, even appearing on the covers of national magazines, but never became a major star like her contemporaries Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford. In 2002, Michelena's role as a pioneering Latina actress was nevertheless recognized in a proclamation made by President George W. Bush during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Besides Michelena, Salomy Jane co-starred matinee-idol House Peters as Jack Dart, "The Man." This English-born stage actor was popular in his day, and he was referred to as "the actor with a thousand emotions." His career before the camera lasted until 1961.
Salomy Jane featured other veterans of the stage, including Harold Entwistle in the role of Larabee. He was the uncle of doomed actress Peg Entwistle. Also appearing in the film, in an uncredited part as a cowboy playing solitaire in a saloon, is future Western star Jack Holt.
San Francisco-born cinematographer Hal Mohr, only 20 years old at the time, shot the film. Mohr went on to a distinguished career and two Academy Awards. His films include the The Jazz Singer (1927), widely regarded as the first "talkie," the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando.
Salomy Jane, which reportedly took six months to make and cost more than $200,000, was big news in the Bay Area. The film was first shown at an invitation-only, gala event on October 8, 1914 at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Attended by leading members of society, the San Francisco Chronicle likened the event to opening night at the opera.
Salomy Jane debuted to the public on October 25, when it opened for a week's run at San Francisco's Portola theater. The Portola secured the honor by having invested in the production. Newspapers reports from the time stated crowds were so great that hundreds were unable to secure admission. At the beginning of November, motion picture houses in 26 other cities presented the film simultaneously across the United States and Canada.
The second city to show the film was Oakland, where it played at the Broadway theater for a full week. The Oakland Tribune reported, "In order that every seat may be available, as advance orders indicate another record-breaking attendance next week, the Broadway management has moved the picture screen back 35 feet on the stage and placed it in a huge shadow box, so that even the first rows of orchestra seats affords a splendid view."
This 1914 newspaper advertisement appeared in the Oakland Tribune
Moving Picture World, one of the leading film journals of the time, praised the film's "exceptionally fine photography" as well as "the love story that becomes more and more interesting toward the close." Variety stated, "The scenario is a model of clarity, despite its emphasis upon swift and frequent incident." The New York Dramatic Mirror summarized the film this way: "Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty of Salomy Jane."
More recently, UC Davis film historian Scott Simmon noted, "The visual beauty and directorial sophistication of Salomy Jane upend assumptions of what a first feature by an untried regional company ought to look like."
Salomy Jane, its star Beatriz Michelena, and the California Motion Picture Corporation (which ceased operations around 1920) all deserve to be better known. The reason they're not is because in 1931 all of the prints and negatives of the CMPC went-up in flames at the studio's then abandoned Marin County home. The studio, its stars and films faded into oblivion.
In 1996, a sole surviving print of Salomy Jane was found in Australia. That print was repatriated to the United States, where it was preserved by the Library of Congress. In 2011, the restored print, with recreated tints, was released on DVD by the National Film Preservation Foundation as part of an exceptional anthology titled Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938. The tinted 35mm print will be screened in Niles and Marin.
Each of the Bay Area screenings of this historic work are co-sponsored by the Marin County Free Library, and each will be accompanied by Berkeley musician Bruce Loeb on the piano. Additionally, preceding the Rafael screening, there will be an introductory talk by film historian David Kiehn and librarian Laurie Thompson. Kiehn is an author and co-founder of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and early film buff, and the director of the Louise Brooks Society, an Internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, and introduced Brooks' films around the world. Gladysz will be in conversation with Ty Burr discussing Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame on September 29 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif.