In 1843, Karl Marx decided he would move away from Cologne to a land that would be more open to his ideas, more open in every way possible: Texas. Not yet a part of the United States, the Republic of Texas offered bountiful tracts of land for cheap to anyone who was willing to work the land. There was no harsh winter and no taxes. Johann Friedrich Ernst, an early German immigrant to Texas, wrote back to those in his home country that working a small parcel of land for one of the German kingdoms paled in comparison to working your own ranch in this new utopia. Though his praise was overblown, Ernst’s words began a series of migrations from Germany, as families followed their neighbors to the big sky idyll. Perhaps Marx saw Texas as a possible break from the historical events that formed capital and inequality in Europe, or perhaps he thought of Texas ranch life as a Rousseauian utopia. Regardless, he did not follow his friends and neighbors. He instead moved to Paris, where he would forge the friendships that would create the Karl Marx that history knows.
Texas, its geographical shape branded in the mind of every American, was as much a metaphor as a place. Because of its ports and proximity to New Orleans, East Texas could grow and house all who believed in the freedom of the West without risking the dangerous trek to California or Utah. Single families could own a kingdom’s worth of land, and yet there will still be land left over. For many white settlers, the land was freedom incarnate: it was a chance to start over after leaving a politically unstable Europe or a bureaucratized United States. Most importantly, the landscape itself, varied but flat and with infinite sky, gave the impression of a blank canvas. This potential was enough to bring in artists, who would use Texas’ horizon lines to mythologize a sacred West, and land developers, who would hang those artists’ paintings in their skyscrapers. Combined together — the vast landscape, the developing economy, the myth of the West, the (relative) friendliness to foreigners, and, as the Germans knew, the climate — these factors were perfect for a burgeoning industry looking for a home outside the city: filmmaking. And it was none other than the brother of Georges Méliès who brought the film industry to Texas.
Gaston Méliès was not a filmmaker — at least, not at first. While his brother Georges experimented with the new carnival attraction, he and his older brother Henri took the more responsible route by running the family’s shoe factory. Steadily, Georges’ hobby garnered international attention while the shoe factory shut down due to supply costs. All of a sudden, what was considered “responsible” and “the family business” shifted, and Gaston found himself second-in-command of a filmmaking company in its infancy. Worse yet, Georges’ Star Film productions, made in France, were being pirated and exhibited in New York. So, while Georges would continue to make films with his unit in France, Gaston planted himself in the United States in 1902, mostly to defend his brother’s copyright. By 1907, the Méliès brothers joined Edison’s Trust (something closer to a protection racket than a mere collection of businesses), which allowed them to continue making films and importing negatives. However, there was a catch: every member of the Trust must submit at least one reel a week in order to assuage distributors and theaters hungry for what we’d now call “content.” This did not bode well for the Star Film Company, as Georges’ time-intensive special effects and longer runtimes precluded such a prompt delivery. So, it was decided: the Parisian factory manager would make movies.
Gaston rented out space in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn (18th Ave & 61st St. in Bensonhurst) for his utilitarian productions, running his newly-formed troupe as he would a factory. Though Gaston likely didn’t think of his work as art, he was still clever in his production methods, such as offering cash in a screenwriting competition in order to keep his myriad stories fresh and interesting. This worked until it didn’t: winter was approaching, and filmmaking at this time required shooting outdoors. Gaston needed a warmer location in order to meet the Edison Trust’s quota, but not just any warm place would do. The winter studio of Star Film needed to be near enough to a major city in order to pick up supplies and mail reels of film, but the cramped rooftops of the Fort Lee studios proved urban filmmaking to be a hassle. Perhaps it would be even better if the landscape of the studio looked nothing like other films of the time. Perhaps it would be perfect if it were a blank canvas.
In 1910, Star Film Ranch, the first movie studio in Texas, was founded in the Hot Wells neighborhood of San Antonio, in an area now known as Padre Park. They did not make the first films in Texas, nor were they the first film studio in the Southern United States. They were one of many studios in a time that film historians call an “intermediary period” between the birth of film and the studio era. That label downplays the experimental nature of filmmaking at this time — the freest commercial productions would ever be — and promotes the skimming of these bizarre stories. It’s worth mentioning again a fact that reads like film geek fanfiction: the first studio films made in Texas were helmed by Georges Méliès’s brother. It’s as bizarre as, say, Karl Marx writing his Manifesto from a ranch after a day of cattle rustling. But, it was also short-lived. The Ranch was abandoned for California just one year later, making this bit of Texas film history a mere blip compared to the location shooting of, say, Wings just a decade later. But, the one-reelers of Star Film Ranch were the first films that portrayed Texas to a national audience; they were films that sold Texas qua Texas. And, of course, they were Westerns.
Make no mistake: San Antonio was not chosen such that Star Film could make Westerns. Westerns were chosen because they were in San Antonio, where the dilapidated Missions and forts could serve as a backdrop to the action. Though Gaston brought a troupe of actors and technicians along with him to Texas, he also hired local cowboys to play cowboys. The result was a corpus of films that didn’t quite fit into the Lumière/Méliès dichotomy: though these films are fictional, they also intend to show the real Texas (sometimes a stand-in for Mexico) and real Texans. It shares some ambitions with the staged anthropology films of Robert Flaherty such as Nanook of the North or Louisiana Story, but there’s hardly an educational aspect to the Star Film Ranch productions. Nevertheless, here is San Antonio, the Missions, the famed Texas land, a glimpse of bluebonnets, and yes, possibly, The Alamo.
The Ranch itself was a two-story house and a storage building, located directly across from Hot Wells Hotel, famous for its rejuvenating water. Unlike every other movie troupe of the period, they were accepted by their host city and regularly attended local events without issue. Compare that to Jacksonville, Florida, where a new mayor was once elected partially on a campaign promise to kick the drunken movie people out. Perhaps since Star Film Ranch was a small troupe, perhaps since they shot outside the urban sprawl, and perhaps since they were willing to integrate San Antonio locations and people into their productions, they were treated kindly. To maintain their standing with the Trust, the Star Film Ranch shot and delivered one reel a week, hardly ever deviating from stereotypical Western or war narratives. William Paley, one of the first camera operators ever, shot these films without embellishment or complicated editing. As a result, these films look typical of other surviving films of the era (“filmed theater”), but the location shooting proved an exciting challenge as nature rather than a set decorator could determine blocking and composition.
Like John Ford’s Stock Company decades later, the Ranch was composed of a tight-knit group of established actors and crew, each member having carved a niche for themselves. Edith Storey, one of the youngest actors but a Vitagraph veteran, was likely chosen for her ability to ride horses and take a fall; she even acts in drag when a young male role is required. William Haddock, not Gaston Méliès, served as director, though that role was something more like a middle manager position at the time. Paley, a veteran among veterans, shot most of the footage as well as maintained the gear. Anne Nichols played the roles that Edith Storey didn’t and likely collaborated with scenario writing. And Francis Ford, older brother of John, served as a male lead and as what we’d now call an associate producer. This was his first time shooting Westerns out West in something like a stock company environment — it’s not a stretch to assume that old Bull Feeney would seek to emulate his brother’s idyllic work environment in his own time. Together, and with a stand-by crew of a few more, the Star Film Ranch made dozens of standard Westerns in the San Antonio winter, just like making shoes in a factory. The films were well-received and successful, but none changed film history. In 1911, Gaston moved to Santa Paula, California; most of the company followed him.
Unsurprisingly, hardly any of the seventy films made at Film Star Ranch survive. Additionally, the ranch itself was so ephemeral that barely any information on it, save local reporting, exists. However, when one researches Star Film Ranch now, one name appears again and again: Frank Thompson. He’s written the only study on the ranch, The Star Film Ranch: Texas’ First Picture Show, which serves as one of the only sources for this article. The book also illustrates the making of the company’s biggest film, The Immortal Alamo, which exists now only as a series of photographs that, Thompson says, all but confirm they were not able to shoot at the Alamo itself. Thompson’s detective work with these photographs is representative of silent movie scholarship, as old newspaper articles only tell us so much and inferences must be made. But, the lack of resources, the lack of scholarship, and the unfortunate placement at the least-studied years of film history seem to have doomed Texas’ first film studio to obscurity. The average San Antonian has never heard of Star Film Ranch and has no idea that the older brothers of two of the most famous names in film history chose Padre Park to capture Texas. Is there anything to do?
When I talked to Frank Thompson recently, we discussed location shooting, Gaston’s inventing new scenarios based on the nearby landmarks, and the company’s relationship with San Antonio. However, what most struck me was his dedication to the preservation of Star Film Ranch and the uphill battle one has to fight to get film history recognized outside academia. He spoke of locating the original house based on the few photos, then proposing a simple sign in Padre Park to mark San Antonio’s contribution to early film history. After twenty years, the sign was finally approved with Thompson assigned to write the text, only to be overruled shortly thereafter. In the meantime, a surviving copy of Star Film Company’s Billy and His Pal was discovered in New Zealand, which, only because he had recently sold his house, Thompson was able to digitally transfer and preserve. To this day, it’s the only publicly available movie from the Ranch. Now, Thompson tells me that he’s continued researching the Ranch and will soon release another book, co-written with film scholar Kathy Fuller-Seeley. Thompson considers this work on the Ranch to be the most important work that he’s done.
The story of Texas’s first movie studio will forever be overshadowed by the exciting turn toward independent filmmaking that Austin took in the late ‘80s. That makes sense. But the story of Star Film Ranch is also one about alternative ways of making film, one in which a community can be a part of a production and choose how they’re represented. It’s a story about working alongside a location and environment, and letting them pick the stories for you — it’s why Francis Ford’s youngest brother kept showing us Monument Valley. Star Film Ranch may be gone, but the dirt of Billy and His Pal still swirls around the cowboy boots of Padre Park. Make a wish and maybe you’ll see a sign.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 3.