I've always heard rumors that early silent movies were made on the beach, it turns out that the rumors were true. At least three movies were made, or scenes shot on the beach, two in Miller and one at Dune Park, just 5 miles east where Octave Chanute had done experiments in 1896 and 1897. About all that has been known about these films has been from several pages in Powell Moore's classic The Calumet Region published in 1959. Unfortunately, some of what Moore wrote is confusing and inaccurate, but more about that at the end of this page.
In the early days of movie making Chicago was a center of the new technology. Essanay Studios in Chicago operated from 1907, moved to Niles, California between 1912 and 1915 and then produced films until 1920, some 2000 silent films. Such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery were under contract with Essanay in Chicago and California for a brief period before the movie making capital became Hollywood.
The first movie made in Miller was "Lost in the Soudan," an elaborate short film which surely must have amused the residents of Miller since a number of camels were brought to the beach at Dune Park in the summer of 1910. The film was released on August 11 of that year, but the filming in mid-June of 1910 attracted not only the residents of Miller but a reporter from the Gary Daily Tribune. The reporter didn't really understand the plot but surely enjoyed the spectacle that he described on the front page of the June 15 th issue. He was impressed that "Every character in the drama is made up with as great care as though he were to appear before the footlights of a theater."
The film was the product of William Selig's Polyscope company and featured 30 year old Tom Mix, a roustabout who began his acting career a year earlier with Selig and went on to become Hollywood's first Western megastar, appearing in nearly 300 films, most of which were silent. He made the "Ten Gallon Hat" an icon of Hollywood Westerns. William Selig, known as "Colonel Selig," was one of the pioneers of movie-making and in the second decade of the 20th century had one of the two big movie studios in Chicago, the other being Essanay. Both Selig Polyscope and Essanay closed their Chicago studios by the end of the decade and moved to California.
The film, listed in both the American Film Institute Catalog and The Internet Movie Database has a simple plot of two brother officers in the British Army who are commanded to report for duty in the Soudan but during the trek are attacked, Captain Iris taken captive. Years later as the victorious British army is passing through the Soudan a strange and wild man is seen and although at first thought be an enemy is discovered to be the lost British officer. All's well that ends well.A further summary can been read in The Nickelodeon's August 1, 1910 issue.
A most lavish movie was made on the beach during June of 1912. As the Gary Daily Tribune reported on May 31st "On the Lake Shore Road at Miller are ten Pullman cars in which the company is spending the week while the pictures are being perfected on the lake front." A more descriptive entry appears in the June, 1912 issue of Motography magazine: "After weeks of preparing scenery and costumes, the Essanay Co.'s special train steamed out of Chicago Wednesday morning, May 29th bearing the mammoth company who are to portray "The Fall of Montezuma," a tale of the conquest of Mexico, which will be released in three reels. Over two hundred people are employed in the taking of this stupendous film-pageant, and the "special" will be their home until the completion of the last foot. Besides the company the train carried attendants, physicians and Red Cross nurses to give immediate attention to any who may sustain injury during the staging of the picture, two cameras with their operators, the two producers who are directing the production and a small army of expert clay modelers who will fashion the massive settings required to duplicate the architecture of the ancient Aztec empire...the Essanay Company is sparing neither money or energy in making this great pageant one of the finest masterpieces ever attempted in film history..."
That refrain is echoed over and over again during the succeeding months of 1912 along with advertisements in the movie magazines that it is COMING SOON! but for some reason, unexplained to this day, and despite the entry in the IMDB, the film was never released on it's scheduled release date of September 15th. Neither this researcher nor the film historian of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum have been able to find out why it was never released.
"The Fall of Montezuma" was much anticipated in Chicago and New York. A picture from the film appears in the June 1915 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, and it is mentioned as late as 1930 in a caption in International Photographer magazine. "History Makers of Old Essanay" has a picture of Jackson Rose who is credited with photographing "the first five-reel feature ("The Fall of Montezuma")." Rose, a renown early director of the American Society of Cinematographers (A.S.C.) is credited in the picture caption as being the first cinematographer to use the first Bell & Howell camera.
Clicking here or on this cover of the July 20th issue of Motography magazine will open a PDF of the full article extracted from that issue. (May load slow.) Lots of pictures with a full description of the story and the plot which featured Francis X. Bushman as the star. The other images are courtesy of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum via Pat Wisniewski. One can see how elaborate the sets were that were partially built and then assembled on the beach at Miller.
Another source for a summary of the story is Motion Picture Story Magazine which was a publication aimed at the public with the stories of films but not a trade magazine like Motography or Moving Picture World.
Francis X. Bushman was at the height of his career as America's leading man. The Brad Pitt of his day, he starred in both "The Fall of Montezuma" as Cortez and in "The Plum Tree," as well as a number of other Essanay productions. His co-star in "The Plum Tree" was the young Beverly Bayne with whom the dashing actor was having an affair. Bushman had married Josephine Fladung in 1902 to but had kept his marriage and family of five children a total secret from the public. That all fell apart when his affair with Beverly Bayne became public in 1917. A divorce and then marriage to Miss Bayne spelled doom for his career. They had one child before divorcing in 1925. Interviewed in the January, 1928 issue of Photoplay he said, "marriage murdered my career." You can read it yourself in Photoplay
Released on September 18, 1914, the film was made in co-operation with Ladies World Magazine which had published the story without the last paragraph. A contest was held for the last paragraph which was then the ending of the film.
One scene from "The Plum Tree" was filmed on Miller Beach, but it must have been a doozy. Motography magazine reported in their September 12th issue that ""The entire First Regiment, Illinois National Guard, was used one day last week in one of the big battle scenes of "The Plum Tree," the three-act mystery drama which the Essanay Company is producing. With the permission of Governor Dunne and the co-operation of Major John V. Clinnin, the actors in the drama, together with the soldiers, were transported on a special train to Miller's Station, Indiana. There, in a most picturesque ravine, a sham battle between Mexican "Revolutionists" and "Federals" was fought."
A full summary of the movie can be read in Motography by clicking here, but here's a brief summary from Moving Picture World:
THE PLUM TREE (Essanay— Three Parts- Sept. 18). — Craig Ewell and Norris Griggs are in love with pretty Alice Graham. One night the limited is held up and Craig is accused. He is tried and found guilty. Alice Is stunned by the fate of her sweetheart and is forced into a loveless marriage with Griggs. Ten years later, Craig is freed and wanders heartbroken to the Pacific coast. Criggs has become the financial leader in a Mexican revolution plot. One night Craig is discovered watching a Rebel ship being loaded with contraband arms and is put to work on the vessel. He overhears the revolutionist's plot, and, after a terrific hand- to-hand battle, swims to shore and gives the alarm. The Federal troops, guided by Craig, rush to the scene and a battle takes place. Griggs and Ewell, not recognizing each other, engage in an encounter in which Griggs is mortally wounded. Craig carries him out of the line of fire to a hut. Here Griggs summons a padre and confesses to having planned the train robbery to implicate Craig and to get him out of the way. Hearing his name mentioned, Craig hastens to the bedside and the two men recognize each other. The shock kills Griggs and Craig is left with a written confession. He then returns to Alice and a beautiful reunion takes place under the old plum tree.
There are some amazing resources online for anyone interested in film history. The Internet Movie Database and the American Film Institute Catalog are online. It is interesting that IMDB had all three movies whereas the AFI is missing "The Fall of Montezuma" and "The Plum Tree."
But perhaps the most amazing is the Media History Digital Library which provided so much information. Movie magazines and trade magazines date from the very beginning of moving pictures, and this digital collection of scanned and searchable magazines is incredible.
Powell Moore could have benefited from these resources when he wrote several pages about movies at the end of The Calumet Region. He used only newspaper accounts and he was mis-lead by a reporter for the Gary Evening Post who wrote on June 13, 1910 that "The Sand Dunes of Lake county are to be dramatized. The heavy villain - otherwise known as the car bandit - will be pictured in his sandy (sic) and the dunes will become famous on the billboards." Neither that reporter nor his editor had a clue and Moore was led to believe that this was a movie about the infamous "Car Barn Bandits" who terrorized Chicago in 1903 but were caught in Northwest Indiana after killing a number of people. See the American Hauntings article on those serial killers. It was "Lost in the Soudan" which Moore then likely confused with a movie he called "Lost in the Dunes" made in 1919. Moore used an undated clipping telling the story of an actor, having fallen asleep when his company returned to Chicago, got lost in the dunes. The reference to Bedouins and British soldiers surely places the actor as one from the 1910 "Lost in the Soudan." I've never found a movie named "Lost in the Desert."
Many thanks to Pat Wisniewski for her help passing on some of the pictures used and to David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum