Access Hollywood   Chicago: Silent Movies on Miller's Beach

The Three Movies:

None of these films will be found anywhere to view!
Page is for historical clarification.

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 between Miller and Dune Park to the east. Previously, 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. Yet even before Essanay was the Selig Polyscope Company founded in 1896, and it was Selig who made the first movie in Miller in 1910. (Footnote: More about Selig and Essanay in the sources section of this page. )

Lost in the Soudan - 1910 (Selig)
   Scenes shot in June between Dune Park and Miller.

Poster in The Moving Picture World (Footnote: Lost in the Soudan Poster: MPW, Vol. 7, No.8, page 433. )
A humorous antecdote from the filming:"Camels Too Frisky for Motion Picture Takers."
Indianapolis News, June 15, page one.

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, with the actual filming done somewhere between Dune Park and Miller. 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 15th 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."(Footnote: "Troop of Camels For Dune Park", Gary Evening Post, June 13, 1910;
“Trip of Caravan Through Desert”, Gary Daily Tribune, June 15, 1910;
“Gary Scene of Realism Galore Today”, Lake County Times, June 14, 1910, page 5;
“Michigan’s Shores See Wild Doings”, Lake County Times, June 15, 1910, page 6. )

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.

Tom Mix Ad in Moving Picture World Magazine.

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. See the sources below for links to its listings in the AFI and IMDB.

A further summary can been read in The Nickelodeon's August 1, 1910 issue.
Screen capture from the Nickelodeon Article
Image from the Westchester Historical Society. Camels, along with either native residents or movie officials.

The Fall of Montezuma - 1912 (Essanay)
    Scenes shot in Miller in June.

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..." (Footnote: Motography Vol. VII, No. 6, June, 1912, page 269 )

By late June the filming was finished and "The Essanay Company announces the completion of their great subject “The Fall of Montezuma,” a tale of the conquest of Mexico, which will be released in three reels. Only the finishing touches remain to be added to the stupendous feature, and these will be made at the Chicago studio. The company returned to Chicago a few days ago, having spent nearly a month in portraying the film. No inconvenience whatever was experienced, as the cast lived in their "special" train, comprising twelve sleeping cars, a diner and two baggage coaches, during the entire portrayal of the pageant. The preliminary exhibition of the developed film reveals wonderful photographic quality throughout, the handling o the large ensemble is excellent, the scenic effects massive and thoroughly in keeping with the splendor of the ancient Aztec empire." (Footnote: “Essanay Finishes “Conquest of Mexico,” The Moving Picture World, Vol. 12, No. 13, June 29, 1912, page 1231, )

Sadly, despite the massive advertising during the succeeding months of 1912 and into 1913 that it was "COMING SOON!" for some reason, unexplained to this day, the film was never released on its scheduled release date of September 15th, nor ever evidently. It is not listed in the American Film Institute's catalog, but has an entry in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). 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")." (Footnote: "History Makers of Old Essanay", The International Photographer, May, 1930, page 46. ) 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.

Click here for the July 20th issue of Motography magazine - will open a PDF of the full article extracted from that issue. (May load slowly.) 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.

The best source for the story is Motion Picture Story Magazine which was a publication aimed at the public with the stories of films, not a trade magazine like Motography or Moving Picture World.The image below is from Motion Picture Story Magazine.

The Plum Tree - 1914 (Essanay)
   Battle scene filmed in August on Miller beach.

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." (Footnote: "Essanay Stages Battle" Motography September 12, 1914. )

Beverly Bayne & Francis X. Bushman - co-stars.

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. More about that below.

The "Sham" battle staged on Miller Beach.

September 12th ad in The Movie Picture World advertising the movie, the story, and the competition.

Perhaps one of the most innovative gimmicks was the collaboration of Essanay and The Ladies World magazine. The magazine published the story of the movie before its release, but with the last paragraph omitted! If you wanted to know how the mystery was resolved, well, you had to shell out your money to see the film. The Ladies World also offered prizes to its readers who submitted the best concluding chapter.

Newspaper Scrapbook:

In August the Times reporter had a ring-side seat during the filming.
Chicago Tribune movie reviewer Kitty Kelly got a kick out of Bushman's beard in reviewing the movie on September 19th.
In October the Buffalo (NY) paper published the whole story as printed in The Ladies' World prior to the film being shown in a local theater.

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 [Bushman] and Norris Griggs are in love with pretty Alice Graham [Bayne]. 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. Griggs 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. (Footnote: Moving Picture World Vol. 21, July-Sept 1914, page 1694. )

More on Beverly Bayne and Francis X. Bushman:

I’m not immune to ‘Hollywood gossip’ stories evidently. The two stars of The Plum Tree had worked together since 1912, eventually working together on 74 films and featured in two “Screen Snapshots” documentary films. (Footnote: Francis and Beverly’s collaboration using IMDB’s Collaboration search: ) As mentioned, Bushman and Bayne were having an affair. Bushman had married Josephine Fladune, AKA Josephine Fladine Duval, (Footnote: Most sources say "Duval" but her death certificate posted on several genealogical sites names her father as Martin Fladune. ) in 1902 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

About the sources and Powell Moore's The Calumet Region

One can get lost in the wealth of movie magazines in the early 20th century, and they have been, along with newspaper articles, the primary source of information. Two internet databases have some information, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and the American Film Institute (AFI). The IMDB has all three, AFI has only one. Links below open in a new window or tab.

Movie Magazines / Research Centers

Referenced in the text in most cases, chief among the movie and trade magazines were Motography, Moving Picture World, Motion Picture News, Nickelodeon and The Motion Picture Story Magazine. These scanned volumes are in largely scanned by the Library of Congress’ Program of Audio-Visual Conservation. Another repository is the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research which has a tremendous collection if you are looking for a rabbit hole to go down.

Internet Movie Database (IMDB)

Three of the big stars of these movies have IMDB pages as well as Wikipedia articles. These links are to the IMDB pages:

The Photoplay article on Francis' divorce and career end is in, but on two separate pages (36 & 88) and loads VERY slowly to get to page 88. Both these links below open in a new window, so maybe open both if you want to save some time and enjoy Hollywood gossip.

American Film Institute (AFI)

Essanay and Selig Polyscope

Powell Moore and the legends of movie making in Miller:

One of the first things about movie making in Miller I ever heard was that “Christopher Columbus’ landing” was filmed here on the beach; decades of hearsay no doubt the cause of confusion. Close, but no cigar: it was Cortez, not Columbus. But as mentioned at the top, Powell Moore did devote two pages to the movie making in his Calumet Region classic on pages 591-593, but relying on newspaper reporters, most of his history of movie making in the Dunes is confused.


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



Page created 2019 and updated November, 2022

© Text copyright: Steve Spicer

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