Fort Smith Was Location for Silent Films

In an age before television, there was only one way to show people a city without bringing them to it: Film it. Fort Smith's boosters in 1914 and 1915 did that with two films.

In April 1914, "Romance of a Southern Fort" was filmed. The title was chosen in a contest. Advertising of the city was done in the subtitles, according to the Times Record. The newspaper doesn't explain what that means. Perhaps locations and facts were given in the subtitles as the fictional storyline played out in the action above on the screen.

In any case, scenes of Fort Smith in 1861 were depicted. A mock battle was staged between the wharf and the Gould railroad bridge, using the local military company and high school boys as the soldiers. George Sengel of the Business Men's Club arranged for the shipment of arms and a large quantity of black powder from Little Rock for use in the battle. The river and boats on it were visible in the background.

Among the other sites and buildings shown in the movie were:

  • Commissary building
  • W.R. Martin's home on Free Ferry
  • Warehouse district

Two reels were shot instead of the planned one reel. At 11 a.m. on April 16, 1914, the completed film was shown at the Lyric Theatre to good attendance and "it was pleasing to all who attended."

In the summer of 1915, the city fell under the lens again with the production of "The High Road to Fortune" directed by W.P. Wilson. For a second time, a fictional storyline was used to show off Fort Smith and give the facts of its assets. "Miss Raines," a Chicago actress, played the heroine, Euwine Phortune. Hary P. Lyman was the hero, Oliver Thornton, and George Rye was the villain. At Sixth Street and Rogers and Sixth Street and Garrison, Raines did some trick riding for the camera as she was pursued by the villain.

Filming seems to have lasted longer than it did for "Romance" and took in more of the city. Planned as a two-reel movie, it ran to three.

Among the locations shown in its course were:

  • Homes of Scott Robertson, Ben Cravens and James B. McDonough on Free Ferry Road.
  • Wolf-Pollock store
  • Fort Smith, the fort itself
  • Best-Clymer sorghum mill and other industrial plants
  • Merchants National Bank
  • First National Bank
  • Reynolds-Davis buildings
  • Van Buren peach shipping industry
  • Fort Smith Rim & Bow factory
  • Fort Smith Biscuit Company
  • Union Station
  • Carnegie Library
  • Federal Courthouse
  • Speer Hardware
  • R.C. Bollinger Music Company and all
  • Fort Smith churches

The locations were worked into the story line by presenting the hero as an inspector. It included "the legend of the love affair between Betty Taylor and Jefferson Davis" and this was filmed at the fort site. John B. Williams played General Zachary Taylor, Helen Louise Pyle was Bettty and Allen Kennedy appeared as Jefferson Davis.

The film premiered at the Joie Theatre on the morning of Monday, August 16, 1915, to a standing-room only crowd.

The Southwest American said at the time, "Both artistically and as a picture story, the play is far above the average run of movie stories, and as an advertisement of Fort Smith, it was all and more than its promoter had promised."

In the course of the production, the director and George Sengel became locked in a dispute. Sengel became upset, according to Wilson, over some scenes that he thought would be included in the finished product. Wilson said that the scenes were discarded and not even filmed. Sengel appeared to be trying to distance himself and the Business Men's Club from "The High Road to Fortune."

"Romance" was shown at a convention in Toronto, Canada, and in several cities in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Where "High Road" was distributed is unknown.

Sources: "Produce Fine Movie Film of Local Scenes," Fort Smith Times Record, April 5, 1914, p. 7; "Local Movies Pleasing All," Fort Smith Times Record, April 16, 1914, p. 4; "Spectacular Movie Stunts," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 4, 1915, p. 8; "Hair-Raising Movie Stunts," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 5, 1915, p. 8; "Film the Final Scenes of Play," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 6, 1915, p. 1; "Dispute Arises Over Movie Film," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 8, 1915, p. 7; "Movie Films Nearly Finished," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 8, 1915, p. 7; "Movie Producer, W.R. Wilson, Answers Senator Sengel's Statements (advertisement)," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 8, 1915, p. 2; "Sorghum Plant and Others in the Movie Film," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 8, 1915, section 2, p. 3; "The Last Film Made for Municipal Movie," Fort Smith Times Record, Aug. 11, 1915, p. 8; "Fort Smith Movie Success in Every Artistic Feature," Southwest American, Aug. 17, 1915, p. 8.

Note: If you know where a print of either of these films, please let us know.