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Movies & Million-Dollar Mansions, Behind the Scenes at the "Flying A," & Silents on the Islands


Image: Reel Life, May 8, 1915

Gondolas in Montecito, CA


Montecito was a stand-in for scenes in Europe in a silent movie about a wealthy young American man with plenty of time and money on his hands. He is ready for adventure – especially if it involves an attractive young woman. This "Flying A" film – The Lure of the Mask – was released on May 17, 1915.


Several locations in Montecito were used, including the Crocker-Sperry Ranch known as "Las Fuentes." The site of this ranch is now the Birnam Wood Golf Club.


"The reservoir at the Crocker-Sperry Ranch in Montecito will be used for a Venetian scene . . . A crew of workmen yesterday afternoon took out a bunch of specially prepared scenery and placed this in such a manner that the desired effect will be secured. Gondolas will also be employed to add the truer atmosphere." – Santa Barbara Morning Press, February 27, 1915


No copies are known to exist.


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Image: Film Fun, December 1917

Dodo Newton is a Hit

The "Flying A" silent movie Soul Mates was released on May 8, 1916. It takes place on the East Coast, but was filmed at the Casa Buenaventura – one of the million-dollar estates in Montecito, California.

This movie should have been called Married, But Not to Each Other, or maybe Sour Mates. It's all about infidelity and suicide, and a six-year-old Santa Barbara girl had a part. Hopefully, they kept her in the dark about the film's theme.

"Little Dodo Newton, the clever girl who is well-known and loved by many in Santa Barbara, will please many of her friends by her work in "Soul Mates" . . . She plays a strong-boy part through the five reels." – Santa Barbara Daily News & Independent, July 24, 1916

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Image: Reel Life, April 24, 1915

Wife Wanted in Montecito

Miramar Beach on the coast at Montecito, California was the scene for Wife Wanted, a one-reel silent film released on April 28, 1915. (This is one of the few films made in this area that was not made in a million-dollar mansion.) Most of the scenes take place at this upscale beach resort.

He's a rich young guy in search of a wife. We know he's a rich guy because his last name is Fortune. That's easy to understand, but it's not clear why he needs to advertise for a wife. Naturally, he is flooded with replies and photos, including one from a mysterious young lady in a swimsuit who writes "Find Me."

He goes to Miramar Beach in Montecito where he dives off a pier and rescues a drowning woman in his spare time. In an amazing coincidence, Miramar is where the young lady is. (If you watch enough movies, you get used to amazing coincidences like this.)

This is another of the many films that are "lost."

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Image: Moving Picture World, May 25, 1919

The Tiger's Trail on Santa Cruz Island

On April 20, 1919, the first episode of the 15-part silent serial called The Tiger's Trail was released. Ruth Roland was the star. One episode was filmed on California's Santa Cruz Island.
A group of Hindu tiger worshippers and a gang of Western outlaws try to cheat a young woman out of rich mines that belong to her. In one episode, she is put into a cage with a live Bengal tiger, and in others she is the victim of kidnapping attempts. And since there are 15 episodes in this serial, she does a darn good job of defending herself.

"In order to familiarize herself with boxing . . . Ruth Roland spent several hours each day . . . learnin' to jab and uppercut in the correct style – and she learned. She knocked the villain cold, and he had to be sprinkled with water mixed with equal parts of ice." – Film Daily, April 4, 1919

This serial is one of the many lost silent films.

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Image: News (Chattanooga, Tennessee) May 18, 1918

Russian Actress Stars in Adventure Serial


The first episode of The Woman in the Web was released on April 8, 1918. Hedda Nova played the lead in this silent serial. A young European woman of noble birth is expected to marry a man in her class, but she loves an American man instead. Somehow, she gets involved in a series of dangerous missions and is helped along the way by the American.


Some of the 15 episodes were filmed on California's Santa Cruz Island. Amazingly, it snowed while the film company was there, and they were able to get some beautiful footage of this rare weather. Unfortunately, this is one of the many early films that did not survive.


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Image: Screen shot

Lois Weber & Anna Pavlova connect


On April 3, 1916, the silent film The Dumb Girl of Portici was released. The title sounds insulting to modern audiences, although a century ago, "dumb" simply meant "mute" or unable to speak. In the opera, which is the source, the mute girl dances and pantomimes, so it's not much of a stretch to have a prima ballerina – Anna Pavlova – play this part. Pavlova plays the sister of a humble fisherman. She spends much of her time dancing on the beach, instead of doing something useful like cleaning and gutting fish.


Lois Weber directed this eight-reel movie, and filmed the beach scenes on California's Santa Catalina Island. Other scenes were filmed at one of the million-dollar mansions in Montecito, CA.


Good news! This film survives and can be seen on Youtube.


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Image: Exhibitors Herald, April 26, 1924

The Shooting of Dan McGrew


This 7-reel romantic adventure silent movie was released on March 31, 1924. The story opens with a cabaret dancer in South America named Lou who is hoping for a big break in her career, and a shifty guy named "Dangerous Dan" McGrew who claims he can help her.


The opening scenes were filmed on California's Santa Catalina Island with Barbara La Marr as the star. The scenes that take place at the Malamute Saloon in Alaska were filmed elsewhere.


(There are no known copies of this silent film.)


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Image: Reel Life, March 13, 1915

The Quest for Love

The silent film The Quest, was released on March 22, 1915. In some ways, the theme for this movie seems like it would have fit quite well in the 1960s. It takes place in the present day on an island that time forgot. A wealthy young man is shipwrecked and ends up on this island inhabited by folks who look like they are wearing costumes from a high school production of Julius Caesar. At first, he can't wait to escape, but eventually he falls in love with a young lady, and decides to spend the rest of his life with a young lady who doesn't have a problem with guys wearing skirts.

Some scenes were filmed on California's Santa Cruz Island, and a million-dollar estate in Montecito. (Only a portion of this silent movie survives.)

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Image: Moving Picture Weekly, April 23, 1921

The Diamond Queen & her injuries

The first episode of this 18-part serial was released on March 15, 1921. Some scenes were filmed on California's Santa Catalina Island. The serial stars a young woman whose father, a diamond merchant, has just committed suicide due to some financial finagling by a gang of criminals. She tries to find them to bring them to justice. At the same time, they pursue her to obtain incriminating documents that her father gave her.

The star, Eileen Sedgwick, managed to survive several injuries during the filming. "Working absolutely without a 'double' and not availing herself of 'trick' photography to cover up a hesitancy to risk her life, Miss Sedgwick does hair-raising feats of skill and daring throughout the entire 18 episodes." – Moving Picture Weekly, April 23, 1921

"Eileen Sedgwick's arm is in a sling as the result of an accident during the filming of a fight scene in the Universal serial, The Queen of Diamonds." – Camera, August 7, 1920

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Images: Photoplay, February 1920, & Library of Congress

The New Faith in Montecito

The earliest commercial movie that was filmed in Montecito, California dates to 1911. The New Faith, a religious film, was released on March 4, 1911. If you look closely at the two photos, you can see the place on the "El Fureidis" estate where it was filmed.


(This silent movie predates Santa Barbara's "Flying A" film studio since that group did not settle here until 1912.)

The local paper wrote, "James Waldron Gillespie's Italian villa in Montecito was used as the background for a Roman play, The New Faith."

This million-dollar estate was one of the most popular locations for movies made in Montecito. (Copies of this film no longer exist.)

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