WHEN FICTION BECOMES FACT — Shootouts on Sunday? A mob demolishing property in LaVilla? A car careening out of control downtown? These kinds of events irritated Jacksonville residents — even though they were supposed to have been staged.
Many silent movie companies operated in Jacksonville from about 1908 to 1918. The “Gateway to Florida” also became known as the “World’s Winter Film Capital.” In this Southern town during a more conservative time, however, the filmmakers ruffled a lot of feathers. They managed to produce a comedy of public relations errors.
Here are just a few of their transgressions: In 1916, a filmmaker hired 1,380 local residents. He grouped them together for a mob scene at Davis & Monroe streets in La Villa. To add extra authenticity, he also employed forty policemen with rubber clubs. When the cameras started rolling, unfortunately, some of people in the crowd took their parts too seriously. A real mob formed during the filming and spiraled out of control. It nearly destroyed a nearby saloon and a two-story building. On another occasion, a filmmaker placed a misleading ad in a local paper so as to draw a genuine crowd and avoid paying salaries to actors.
A thrilling scene in one movie required a car to barreled down Main Street. Unfortunately, the vehicle accidentally splashed into the St. Johns River at the ferry dock, which was in the vicinity of today’s Jacksonville Landing. Townsfolk criticized the badly-shaken actors for disregarding public safety. They also grew concerned when producers called in false alarms if they needed fire trucks to liven up their flicks. And when moviemakers shot bank robberies on Sundays, the churchgoers would shake their heads.
In 1917, many Jacksonville residents made their feelings known during a mayoral contest: They elected an anti-film industry candidate. This vote of “non-confidence,” along with other factors, spurred the movie companies to seek greener pastures elsewhere. And the rest is Hollywood history.