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O.C.: Best Supporting Player : The county’s lush scenery was the setting in 500 motion pictures for Hollywood’s silent movie pioneers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The reopening of the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood is good news for aficionados of those voiceless flickers that kept America entertained through the 1920s.

But even the most devoted silent movie fan may not be aware that a good chunk of Hollywood’s hand-cranked product was filmed at least 50 miles south of Tinsel Town.

Between 1910 and 1930, 500 motion pictures were shot at least in part on location in Orange County.

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That’s according to historian Jim Sleeper of Tustin, who should know: He researched, wrote and published a 1980 book on the subject, “Great Movies Shot in Orange County--That Will Live Forever [Or At Least Until 1934]” (California Classics), a fully illustrated history of the county’s role in the silent era.

As Sleeper puts it, Orange County was “Hollywood’s most popular back lot” in the ‘teens and ‘20s.

Consider:

The lavish 1917 production of “Cleopatra,” in which the vampish Theda Bara as the bejeweled “siren of all ages,” floats majestically down the Nile in a gilded galley: shot in Upper Newport Bay.

Cecil B. DeMille’s original 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments,” with hundreds of Egyptian charioteers pursuing Moses and the fleeing Israelites into the Red Sea: shot on the Seal Beach shoreline.

Buster Keaton’s 1921 comedy “College,” in which the stone-faced actor leads his collegiate racing crew to a bumbling victory: shot in Balboa and Newport Harbor, which also provided the settings for “The Boat” (1921) and several other Keaton comedies.

Those are just a few of the better-known pictures filmed here when movie companies had names like Mutual, Biograph, Pathe and Selig Poloscope. But Sleeper’s research two decades ago brought to light a galaxy of Hollywood stars who showed up in Orange County during the era when Hollywood had faces--as a certain faded silent film heroine put it in “Sunset Boulevard.”

John Gilbert starred in “Monte Cristo” (1926) in Laguna Beach. Gilbert Roland starred in “The Blonde Saint’ (1926) in Emerald Bay, where an elaborate fishing village was built. Rudolph Valentino starred in “Moran of the Lady Letty” (1921) along the coast and in Santa Ana Canyon. And Fatty Arbuckle visited Seal Beach to film “The Seal Beach Bathing Girls’ Parade” (1917).

That’s not to mention Chester Conklin in Balboa filming “A Tugboat Romeo” (1916).

The allure for heading south was obvious: The variety of landscape, particularly Orange County’s 42 miles of coastline and natural harbor.

According to Sleeper, Rocky Point in Corona del Mar was the most photographed location site, starring as everything from the Klondike to the Rocky Mountains to a pirate isle.

In fact, seven lighthouses were built along the coast during the silent era, including one at Aliso Beach, doubling as the “Cape Cod shores,” for a 1923 film called “Women Who Give.”

Inland Orange County was just as popular. Then, as now, the Orange central plaza and the old courthouse in Santa Ana served as movie backdrops. And Santiago Canyon, the Irvine Ranch and San Juan Capistrano were used frequently for westerns.

Orange County’s romance with Hollywood began on a stormy night in March 1910 when three carloads of actors, film-crew members and cowboy extras pulled into the depot at San Juan Capistrano.

They were members of the Biograph Studios in New York City, who had come out to spend the winter in sunny California. The head of the group was none other than the legendary D.W. Griffith. Among them was an unknown 17-year-old, $25-a-week actress who would create her own legend a few years later as America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford.

According to “Great Movies Shot in Orange County,” the 50 visiting movie folks checked into a two-story wooden hotel, where they made do with 10 bedrooms, two toilets and a single bathtub.

After waiting out the storm for three days, Griffith and company set up their cameras on the nearby mission grounds and filmed an 18th century Spanish romance, “The Two Brothers,” a long-forgotten one-reeler that became the first motion picture ever shot in Orange County.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Some Silent Movie Locations in O.C.

Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1923)

Douglas Fairbanks in “Double Trouble” (1915)

John Gilbert in “Monte Cristo” (1926)

Theda Bara in “Cleopatra” (1917) and Buster Keaton’s “College” (1921)

Dustin Farnum in “Three Who Paid” (1922)


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