Movie making in Natchez is older than you may think

Published 11:27 pm Saturday, January 12, 2008

In the mid-19th century Natchez was one of the most prosperous cities in the United States because of the cotton trade, and as early as the 1860s the city boasted as having more millionaires than any city in America.

Though some may argue that this boast was bit of an exaggeration it is hard not to think that this might be true with all the numerous mansions of that period that have survived to the present. In many parts of the South the ravages of the Civil War saw the loss of many homes like those in Natchez. However, Natchez survived much as it was before the Civil War.

It was as if time had passed Natchez by, and for many years the city billed itself as “Where the Old South still lives.” By 1914 this time capsule of a city caught the eye of a maker of a new form of media called motion pictures, which by that time were called movies.

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In the early 20th century the phenomenon of the motion picture was sweeping the nation. It was called motion picture because it was process whereby a series of photographs were taken in quick order to create the illusion of motion. This illusion of motion could then be placed in a device that with, the help of a light, projected the image on to a wall or screen. This medium had been evolving since 1826 when Henry Fitton, an English scientist invented a toy that consisted of a paper disk with a picture of a cage on one side, and a picture of a bird on the other. Each side had a string attached to it on opposite sides. When the card was twirled between the strings, the bird looked as though it was in the cage.

This simple toy inspired many other inventors to experiment with pictures in motion. A major innovation was the invention by an Austrian named Franz Uchatius, who in 1852 invented a device to project pictures on a wall. By the late 1880s many inventors had made many other great strides in this medium. However, it was George Eastman’s development of flexible celluloid strips in 1889, which became known as film that allowed a series of pictures to be photographed rapidly.

The famous American inventor, Thomas Edison, was one of the first inventors to take advantage of Eastman’s film with his invention of the kinetograph. The film was located in a cabinet, and a person could look through a peephole and watch the film.

However, other inventors in America and Europe soon developed systems that could project the film onto walls and screens. (Uchatius invention could not use Eastman’s film.) It was because the early films moved that they soon became known as movies. At first these movies were mere curiosities and were showing such things as a man sneezing, or the waves of the ocean. However, people began to want more, and soon whole stories were being told by film, though it was done without sound.

By 1907 almost 5,000 theatres, then known as nickelodeons, were throughout the country. The motion picture phenomenon bloomed into multi-million dollar industries. It grew from films being shot by amateurs in backyards and alleys to special studios with professional crews to satisfy the public needs.

Even though studios were constructed to make these silent movies in a more environmentally controlled atmosphere, it was soon learned that sometimes films could be enhanced by shooting some of the scenes in authentic locations. It was because of this that Natchez caught the eye of one these early film makers. The William A. Brady’s World Film Manufacturing Corporation in 1914 decided to make a film called “A Gentleman from Mississippi.”

It was based on a successful 1908 stage play called “The Gentleman from Mississippi.” The play was about a senator from Mississippi named William H. Langdon who fights political corruption.

The film like the movie starred noted stage performer Thomas Wise, and in a supporting role was Douglas Fairbanks.

At some point in the planning it was decided that city of Natchez was the place to film part of the movie.

No reels of the movie are known to have survived to the present, and it is not known what parts of Natchez were used in the film.

However, The Daily Democrat has an article in its Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1914, edition about the film coming to Natchez on Oct. 27 and that part of it was filmed in Natchez. In the Oct. 20 edition there is another short article about the film and how it was mostly made in Natchez. Finally in the Oct. 27 edition there is short sentence about the photo-film being shown on Tuesday at the Baker Grand and that it was filmed in and around Natchez.

This was the first of many films and movies that were shot in Natchez. A tradition that started during of the height of the silent film era of the 1910s and that continue to today.

H. Clark BURKETT is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.