This Day in Jewish History

1913: Action! Hollywood's First Feature Starts Filming

Director Cecil B. DeMille and Jewish producer Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) made history, exactly 100 years ago.

December 29, 1913, marks the day that filming began on “The Squaw Man,” the production credited with being the first full-length motion picture made in Hollywood. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille (his first movie) and Oscar Apfel, “The Squaw Man” was produced by Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and his brother-in-law Jesse L. Lasky. It premiered on February 12, 1914. (Lasky and Goldfish were both Jewish; DeMille, though raised Episcopalian, had a Jewish mother.)

DeMille biographer Scott Eyman writes that “The Squaw Man” is more correctly called “one of the first features made in Hollywood,” since there had been at least one other full-length movie made there earlier the same year. Nonetheless, “The Squaw Man” qualified for a number of records as the “first”: It was Cecil B. DeMille’s first foray into moviemaking; previously he had worked as a writer and director for Broadway. It was the first movie produced by Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, the company that later became Paramount Pictures. And it certainly was the first of three versions of “The Squaw Man” that DeMille made between 1913 and 1931, the third one being a talkie.

“The Squaw Man” was based on a successful stage play by Edwin Milton Royle, about a British military officer, Capt. Wynnegate, who gallantly takes the blame for an act of embezzlement carried out by an unscrupulous cousin. Wynnegate flees England for the American West, where he weds a Ute Indian princess, Nat-U-Rich. Later, after the death of both Nat-U-Rich, and of the knavish cousin, who confesses his guilt before dying, Wynnegate returns to England to inherit the family title and estate.

In general, Westerns were a popular genre for early motion pictures because they could be shot outdoors, for relatively little money. Dustin Farnum, a popular and busy star of the New York theater, agreed to take the role of Wynnegate, on the condition it could be shot across the river, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. However, when the Motion Picture Patents Company, the trust established by Thomas Edison that controlled most movie-making in the U.S. and which was opposed to feature films (they didn’t think audiences had the patience), threatened to disrupt filming, it was decided to move production to Arizona.

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DeMille, Apfel and the film cast and crew took a train from New York to Arizona, with the two fledgling moviemakers writing the treatment as they headed west. When they stepped off the train in Flagstaff, however, DeMille didn’t like the quality of the light, or the nature of the scenery, and he ordered everyone back on the train, whose final destination was Los Angeles. He had heard that the light, terrain and weather in California were auspicious for moviemaking.

On arrival, the team rented a barn in Hollywood, near the corner of Vine and Selma. There, over the next three weeks, they shot the interior scenes of “The Squaw Man,” with various exteriors being shot at sites like Mt. Palomar and San Pedro. Filming ended on January 20, 1914. Total cost, aside from the fee paid for the rights to Royle’s play, was $15,450.25, according to Scott Eyman.

The movie had its premiere screening for exhibitors on February 17, 1914, and within two weeks had been sold in 31 of the 48 states. It eventually made a profit of $244,700 – 25 percent of which, by agreement, went to leading man Farnum. 

Today, after having been physically moved twice, the “Lasky-DeMille Barn” where “The Squaw Man” was shot serves as the Hollywood Heritage Museum, and is situated next to the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen