News Column

The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va., David A. Maurer column

June 9, 2013


June 09--Second of two parts.

After many days of anticipation, the movie cameras finally started filming "Charlottesville's Hero" on the afternoon of Feb. 11, 1930.

For as long as he could , director Don O. Newland kept everybody guessing about the actors he'd picked to be in the two-reel comedy. He was particularly careful not to announce his leading lady until the last moment.

Just before the start of filming, Miss Clifford Hanckel was given the nod to play the leading role of Baby Ethel. The hero would be portrayed by John Brooks, and his rival by James Bowen.

The part of Katrinka was to be played by Miss Nancy Doner, and Charlottesville's mayor, J.Y. Brown, landed the part of Mr. Henpeck. Marjorie McLachlan got the part of Mrs. Henpeck.

The initial filming took place in front of the downtown post office as throngs of people watched. The crew then packed up and moved to other "scenic sites" throughout the city to film other exterior shots.

All the interior filming was done inside the Jefferson Theatre, where a set had been built on the stage. The public was allowed access to see and learn "how a real movie is made."

One of the most interesting things for the audience to watch was the makeup artists transforming their neighbors into Hollywood stars.

"In less than 10 minutes, director Newland and his assistants, with cold cream, greasepaint, face powder, lipstick and eyebrow pencils, had added to the faces of the players that bit of artificiality necessary for good screen faces," a Progress story stated.

Having Hollywood filmmakers plying their trade in Charlottesville was a big deal. At every filming location, hundreds of people would assemble quickly to watch the action.

The biggest crowd turned out to watch what had been heralded as a high-speed, head-on crash of two automobiles on Main Street. What actually occurred was an example of movie magic.

Instead of a metal-buckling impact, the two cars eased up to each other as the camera rolled. When the front bumpers met, a crew member created a flash and a cloud of smoke by setting off some gun powder.

A few of the actors were them filmed biting down on cigars and gripping their hat brims. The two cars then were put in reverse and quickly backed out of the scene without a scratch.

A seriously smashed-up car was then hauled in and rolled onto its side in the street. More flash and smoke appeared, followed by actors stumbling out of the wreck.

Newland found it necessary to explain things to disappointed onlookers, who were expecting a real collision. He assured them that when the scene appeared on the silver screen, they would see two cars racing down the street, collide, upset and throw some of the occupants out.

"It's all in knowing how to trick the camera," the director said.

After several days of filming, the raw footage was rushed off to New York City to be edited. In a turnaround time that would be unheard of today, the tin canisters containing the finished movie were back within a couple of days.

The two-reeler had been produced and bankrolled by The Daily Progress to show their readers how a movie was made. That might explain why "an honest-to-goodness reporter" played the part of the rival.

The scribes at the newspaper couldn't have been more pleased with the result. And Newland was wowed by the local talent as well.

"It's a million-dollar cast and worth every cent of it," Newland gushed before the film was shown for the first time on Feb. 17 at the Jefferson Theatre.

The film played for three days, before starting its quick retreat into obscurity. While "Charlottesville's Hero" enjoyed very limited distribution, apparently it was a big hit locally.

Following the premiere, a story appeared in The Daily Progress reporting on how the comedy had been received.

"Not a word of criticism of the Charlottesville-made film was heard," wrote the reporter who covered the event.


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