Durham has seen its share of moviemaking, with dozens of films produced in the city over the last decade. But few people realize that the film history of Durham stretches back more than a century.
In 1914, North Carolina cameraman F. L. Plaisance produced a cinematic tour of the city, filming many prominent locations from Trinity College to Watts Memorial Hospital to Duke Memorial M. E. Church.
In 1917, “The Princess Visits Durham” was produced by Empire films which made a series of city movies in which a “Princess” (actress Agnes Laing) toured towns all over North Carolina.
But the two films I’m most concerned with were filmed, respectively, a century and 91 years ago. Both were made by itinerant filmmakers who traveled from town to town, all over the United States, filming the same scripts over and over and casting the films entirely with local people. In each case, they partnered with local newspapers to ensure that the productions received plenty of press.
The films are “A Romance of Durham” (1916) and “Durham’s Hero” (1925).
Today, almost no trace of either film remains. Because so few issues of the 1916 issue of the Durham Sun survive, we know next to nothing about “A Romance of Durham.”
“Durham’s Hero,” on the other hand, was covered in depth in the pages of the sponsoring paper, the Durham Morning Herald. In addition, a single photograph survives, depicting a comic car crash which was filmed at the corner of Corcoran and Main.
I am an author and film historian whose next book is about the silent era of filmmaking in North Carolina, 1900-1927. I’ve traveled to libraries, archives and historical societies all over the state (including Durham) and have gathered nearly 4,000 pages of research and more than 300 photos from silent films produced from the Blue Ridge to the Outer Banks.
But I still hope to find more on “A Romance of Durham” and “Durham’s Hero” – especially photos.
“Durham’s Hero” was the brainchild of an industrious itinerant filmmaker named Don O. Newland. He made “___ Hero” films throughout the 1920s and ’30s in many cities across several states. In North Carolina, he also made “Salisbury’s Hero,” “Wilmington’s Hero,” “Greensboro’s Hero” and “Winston-Salem’s Hero,” all in 1925.
Newland engineered exciting public events – such as the aforementioned dramatic car crash. He shot “interiors” live on the stage of the Paris Theatre between features. He engineered scenes filled with babies and young children, and other scenes of bathing beauties filmed at local country clubs or public swimming pools. Newland publicized each event in advance, drawing huge crowds everywhere his film crew went. By the time he was finished, The savvy diector had made sure that everyone in Durham not only knew of the film but was excited about it.
Many official photos were taken by the movie company and the Durham Herald. And since the location scenes were attended by thousands of people, it is logical to think that there were many snapshots taken of these exciting events.
So, this is my plea to the people of Durham to check your attics and photo albums. There may be pictures there that you couldn’t quite identify or which seemed to make no sense: a car crash, a parade of bathing beauties, a gaggle of babies posing cutely for the camera. Your great grandparents – or great, great grandparents – might have been movie stars.
The cast of “A Romance of Durham” included Florence Green, D. W. Davis and J. H. Southgate.
The cast of “Durham’s Hero” consisted of Elizabeth Card, Alfred Griggs, Thomas O. Doyle, Mrs. W. S. Lockhart and J. Mallory Hackney.
“A Romance of Durham” and “Durham’s Hero” are lost films from a century ago. I would like very much to make sure they survive, at least in memory.