Blair Miller, Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2013. ISBN 97-0-761-5995-6 Paper 146 pp. $19.00
“I coulda’ been a contender!” laments washed-up boxer and dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan): “I coulda’ been somebody!” Blair Miller sets out to make the same argument for Jacksonville, Florida, suggesting that the one-time home to over 30 turn-of-the-century film companies could have become what Hollywood is today, the center of the motion picture industry.
Why was Jacksonville even in the running? Some of the reasons are obvious; others, less so. Miller reminds us that for an industry relying heavily on natural light for production, Florida provided a more amenable environment than did New York and New Jersey. Days were long and, for the most part, clement. Filming—and profits—could continue even through winter. And except for mountain ranges, a variety of settings surrounded the city. Further, Jacksonville was a major stop and winter home for vaudeville performers, who were among the first to participate in the burgeoning film industry up north. Railroad tracks running from New York, as well as St. John’s River along Florida’s eastern coast, offered logistical advantages, making the transport of cameras, sets, costumes, and casts and crews fast, efficient, and economical. Further, Jacksonville’s estimable mayor, J.E.T. Bowden, along with numerous municipal groups and commercial boosters, all aggressively touted these benefits, often through articles, editorials, and open letters in the local newspapers. And therein lies the only scholarly value—and a needlessly diminished one, at that—of this short study.
Miller mines archived editions of the Florida Times Union and the Sunday Metropolis to allow the reader to “gain an appreciation for how the movie company people thought, acted and interacted with the early residents of Jacksonville” (3). After an introduction describing the city’s successful campaign to draw film companies to Florida, the author follows with ten chapters, each relating the rise, occasional takeover or merger, and inevitable fall of one studio after another.
The Vim Comedy Company, for example, arrived from New York in November 1915, leasing a building that had once belonged to the Florida Yacht Club. Oliver Hardy, then neither famous nor paired with Stan Laurel, was among their stable of talent. Indeed, he was then known as “Babe Hardy.” Miller’s archival work provides an amusing and astonishing contemporary explanation for the comedian’s rise, as an excerpt from the 20 February 1916 edition of The Florida Metropolis reveals: “Babe came up to all expectations and qualifications of the type for which he was selected, as he weighed over three hundred and fifty pounds, was six feet nine inches in height and at that time only nineteen years of age” (52). Vim achieved a great deal of success in a short time, by June 1916 employing three film company units and operating a 35,000 square foot outdoor stage. By 1917, however, the company had folded, the victim of mismanagement and payroll shortfalls. [End Page 68]
Other chapters follow a similar track—often embellished with Hollywood-style portrait and cast shots of the relevant stars, movie posters, and images of the buildings used as studios—but all demand too much of the reader’s indulgence. Though thanked by name, Miller’s editor did the author no favors. Much of the newspaper source material is appropriated en masse, with no attempt to extract only the essential. Some passages occupy pages when the useful matter might have been summarized in a paragraph. Transitions to and from these excerpts are artlessly written: “The book Papers: The Jacksonville Historical Society, a publication of the Jacksonville Historical Society. Jacksonville, Florida, 1947, provides an account of this early period of time in Jacksonville’s history…” (14). One article, submitted in full in the introduction, from the 14 June 1916 edition of the Sunday Metropolis, is substantially repeated in the first chapter only 15 pages later, this time attributed to the 14 May 1916 edition of the Florida Metropolis. Newspaper and film titles are inconsistently italicized and periods...