Diving down rabbit holes: Fledgling 19-teens’ silent film industry proved distracting

Above: “Boy Playwright Shows Talent,” San Antonio Express, July 6, 1913, UNT Libraries, The Portal to Texas History

Seeking the feel of an era when trying to write historic fiction requires time-consuming research, but distracting detours are so seductive and somewhat justified as snippets gleaned slip into the pages you type.

Take Oliver Perry Wilson Bailey (1897-1978), tagged with an ambitious-sounding name. The 1910 Census, when he was but a lad of 12, recorded him as a professional rabbit-raiser living on South Alamo Street, now part of Hemisfair, in San Antonio. By 1913, he was an accomplished screen writer. Yes, the son of a reporter of the San Antonio Express already had sold screenplays to three different companies.

Jean the Dog

Inspired by the on-screen adventures of Jean the Dog, Bailey penned The Mysterious Thief, which was purchased by the Vitagraph Company. The newspaper reported:

It deals with a series of mysterious robberies in a hotel. The valuables of guests disappeared at night in a manner that perplexed everyone…. A private detective…obtains the position of night clerk in the hotel…. He succeeds in discovering the thief in the person of a dog and by keeping watch on it arrests a woman in a room on the top floor of the hotel. She had taught the dog to enter rooms through the transoms and windows and bring to her any valuables he might find.

Bailey was prolific, turning to the pages of his father’s paper for ideas for the plays he churned out weekly. Looking to the future, the Express reported:

Unlike Peter Pan, the boy who wanted never to grow up, Oliver is impatient to grow up. “The thing I lack most,” he says, “is experience in life. That will only come with years. As I become more mature my work will naturally become better, and that’s what I want I want above everything else.”

That was more than enough detail than I needed for a paragraph or two in the novel I was writing, but did I stop looking for him in existing film credits from that period? No, and I failed. Did I stop trying to find Oliver rolling in wealth in the hills above Hollywood in his later years? No, and I failed. Because Oliver Bailey wound up as an adult making his living as a botanist and lecturer in Dallas.

The 1911 filming of The Immortal Alamo must have particularly pleased the men who owned both Hot Wells Resort and Pearl Brewery – the men, including the one who was shot, featured in An Ostrich Plumed Hat, And Yes, She Shot Him Dead. In addition to that Alamo release, Star Film Ranch used the studio next to Hot Wells for dozens more productions. The cast members filled rooms, and the “buzz” was good for business at the fashionable resort.

While reels of The Immortal Alamo might be lost, a film with some of the same stars, produced at Star Film Ranch in 1911 under the brand name of Wild West Film Company, can be viewed. Click on the title to watch Billy and His Pal.

Additional excitement was generated in 1913 when the Taylor Moving Picture Manufacturing Company, with its crew and actors numbering 27, began shooting a movie a week based out of its studios near Mission San Jose. According to the June 28 edition of the San Antonio Express:

Southern drama and comedy are portrayed, cowboy scenes, hair-breadth escapes from the rapidly flowing stream and many incidents connected intimately with life in and about San Antonio…. One scene may be staged in the river bottom, another on top of the Mission San Jose and another in the center of the city. Just at present the company is working on a film which includes a scene in an amusement park, where the members have a great time falling off and climbing on the merry-go-round. Another scene shows a drowning man being hauled out of the river…. A man who is trying to escape from some impending evil will fall into the swirling waters of the river just below St. Mary’s Street, and if he is not drowned in the mud before he is pulled out a thrilling rescue from a watery grave will be shown on the moving picture films.

The Chamber of Commerce endorsed these endeavors enthusiastically.

So, as an example of how these distracting wanderings worm their way into the book: Pearl’s Vice President, Otto “The Colonel” Wahrmund, always suggests ideas to partners Otto Koehler and John Stevens that sounded harebrained in the 19-teens but would become standard marketing practices for companies in later years, such as product-placement. His partners might dismissively chuckle at him, but Wahrmund was a man ahead of his times. Peter Pan‘s author, J.M. Barrie, inspired this one espoused by The Colonel:

The next time Star Film Ranch wants to use our facility, couldn’t we obligate them contractually to feature Pearl? The Carreras Family reaped a fortune from sales of their tobacco mixture after the free advertising J.M. Barrie gave it in his book, My Lady Nicotine (The easily distracted, ever curious blogger’s interruption: M.B. Prendergast’s accompanying drawings alone are worth a detour from whatever you are currently doing). How memorable are the author’s poignant musings extolling the pleasures of smoking over those of matrimony. He points out how marriage results in an additional bedroom, decorated in pink and gold, the door of which seems to be locked more often than not. But I digress. I envision a much improved story of the Alamo flickering on the big screen: Davy Crockett gasping for his last breath,” the Colonel gasps. “But not before he manages to raise himself up… to savor… the last remaining drop… in the bottle of Pearl on the nightstand.”

The fanfare surrounding the grand opening of The Empire Theater drew both Hedda Burgemeister, the “she” who shot, and Otto Koehler, the “him” who perished. Lots of distractions there, from the world’s tallest organist to the eye-popping nude-seeming swim scene of Annette Kellerman, the “Diving Venus,” starring in Neptune’s Daughter.

The book version of Otto Koehler explains the sensational appeal of Kellerman, a famed swimmer who recently had attempted to cross the English Channel:

After her arrest for indecent exposure on the beach in Boston, Miss Kellerman redesigned her scandalous swimsuits to skirt the law. They still cling to her body, revealing every curve. Technically, she keeps most of her skin covered, if one considers black stockings sufficient cover. Yet, her justification for skimpy clothing does seem reasonable. After her arrest, Annette said, “I cannot swim wearing more stuff than you can hang on a clothesline….” In Neptune’s Daughter…. the illusion is created that she wears absolutely nothing at all underwater.

And Thomas Edison’s talking pictures were beginning to show throughout the country. There were one-minute newsreels of speeches by women Suffragettes recorded on a Kinetophone that purportedly left some not-in-agreement vaudeville audiences howling uncontrollably. Hedda and Dr. Peter Herff’s nurse went to watch some of Edison’s talking pictures at the Grand Theater on Alamo Plaza one evening.

So many rabbit holes. No wonder this “Ostrich” took so long to hatch.

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