A poster for “Heart of California,” courtesy of Dwight Manley.
In honor of Brea, California’s Centennial Celebration, a fraction of Dwight Manley’s stunning silent motion picture poster collection is currently on exhibit in that city. Containing everything from one-sheets to 24-sheets (billboards) to photographs and paperwork, the exhibition includes posters from Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks films, as well as many from lesser known or even unidentified films.
One six-sheet in the exhibit, titled “The Heart of California,” remained virtually unidentified until now. Thanks to detective work, I have discovered that it is a lost Art Acord title, one documenting California rodeo stars, cowboys, and the history of the state. Rodeo organizer F. J. Griffin shot actual cowboys in action at the Bakersfield Rodeo in 1914 to capture their talents and skills, with former 1912 world steer bulldogging champion Acord starring in the picture.
Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.
Art Acord in Motion Picture News, Jan. 29, 1916.
Per newspapers, Frank J. Griffin resided in Salinas, California, where a city directory lists a butcher by that name. The San Francisco Call reported in 1910 that he served on the historical landmarks committee for the Native Sons of the Golden West. He began organizing rodeos around 1910 in the northern part of the state. The September 17, 1914 Sacramento Union review of the film calls Griffin the “father of rodeos.” He produced large scale shows lasting three to five days, full of bronco busting, roping, steer wrestling, and mad bull riding, demonstrating the great athletic skills and physical strength of cowboys and ranch hands.
Some time in late 1913 or early 1914, Griffin conceived the idea of filming his grand upcoming rodeo in Bakersfield scheduled April 21-25, 1914 in order to capture the cowboy exploits and accurately depict the actual history of the state. He offered guaranteed total prize money of $10,000 to the winners in each category. Obtaining money from the Merchants Association of Bakersfield, per the July 7, 1914, Morning Echo, the producer hired Smythe Addison, a director for such companies as Santa Barbara, Essanay, Horsley, and Keystone to film the action and create a story line around these rodeo scenes, employed the cowboy as stars as well as rodeo performers, and hired a stillsman to capture action as well. Filmmakers hired Dorothy Worrell to portray the Indian woman Nokomas in the moving picture.
Griffin also appears to have joined in partnership with Eli Harter, a San Francisco salesman who listed himself as motion picture manufacturer with an office in the Hearst building in the 1915 San Francisco City Directory. Acord and Addison would play up participating in the Bakersfield shooting of “The Heart of California” in their 1916 Motion Picture News studio directory listings, and photos show that Addison acted in the film as well.
Boss Griffin appears to have prominently played up Acord’s participation, including him on the left in the six-sheet, prominently mentioning his name in advertisements, particularly in western towns, and featuring him in several photos sent to newspapers. Born Arthemus Ward Acord, Acord parlayed his great ranch talents into acclaim as a rodeo star, earning fame as a steer and bronco busting champion. Per the September 22, 1916 East Oregonian, Acord stumbled into moving pictures when he married actress Edyth Sterling, switching back and forth between frontier shows and moviemaking until the latter began earning him large salaries.
Upon completion of production, Griffin hired prominent San Francisco printer Schmidt Lithography Co. to design and create elaborate stone lithography key art to promote the film in cities where it gained exhibition. Founder Max Schmidt immigrated to this country from Germany, working his way up through various businesses before organizing the major printing company, one which survived the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire to print everything from posters to menus to can and fruit labels.
The film premiered in San Francisco per the July 7, 1914 Morning Echo, before playing in Bakersfield July 10 and 11. Advertisements in the Bakersfield paper stated, “See yourself in motion pictures.” A newspaper editorial approved of the rodeo and Kern County locations, but thought fake sets and violence detracted from the area. It appears Griffin next exhibited his film in Sacramento, with the September 17 Sacramento Union story about the seven-reel film stating, “Unlike the average Western picture, it does not feature the cowboy as a profiligate, (sic) or gunman. It depicts range life in its real form, and also includes all the main events of the great and successful rodeos held in Bakersfield.” It described how the film started with a 3000 cattle stampede and included more than 100 thrilling scenes such as bullfighting, wild animals, daredevil cowboys, the famous Lakeview No. 2 oil well, and others, all woven around a romantic ranch story line.
“The Heart of California” appears to have slowly made its way across the Southwest and Midwest starting in early 1915. Ads appeared in newspapers in Berkeley California, Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, Utah, Iowa, and Colorado into 1916, suggesting Griffin slowly rolled out the film, perhaps in cities that held rodeos and frontier shows. The Berkeley newspaper included the character names of “Art” and “Edythe” in its write-up, suggesting that Acord’s wife Edythe Sterling also appeared in the movie.
Many reviews and ads such as in the Marshalltown Times Republican on June 2, 1916 played up the fact that it did not portray cowboys and ranch hands as drunkards or bums, but as “gladiators of the range.” An advertisement in the January 26, 1916 Press Democrat even stated that “The Heart of California” was “not a studio fake,” but a real picture of California and cowboys. Several of the newspaper ads featured photographs from the film, mostly of cowboys riding broncos, horses, or even with the Indian woman character called Nokomas on the striking poster. Acord and Addison appeared in many of the publicity photos employed as advertising.
Moving Picture World included a listing of five part drama “The Heart of California” from the F. G. Griffin Co. in releases beginning in June 1915, but never ran a review. The film’s length of 5 reels suggests that perhaps Griffin cut down the feature. The Motion Picture News reported on December 11, 1915 that arrest warrants for Harter and Griffin for conspiracy had been ordered after a complaint from Martha Johnson that she met with them after seeing an ad and paying $500 for a half interest in the film. She claimed that she later found that the film was worthless. No follow up can be found, but “The Heart of California” continued to be released, suggesting the case was settled or dropped.
“The Heart of California” disappeared from magazines and newspapers after 1916. Addison, whose real name was Smythe Addison Snodgrass, continued to direct, write, and act until 1920, but then seems to have disappeared. Acord became one of the top western film stars in the late 1910s and early 1920s, before dying tragically in Mexico in 1931.
All traces of “The Heart of California” vanished until Dwight Manley purchased the six-sheet now on exhibit in Brea, California. Hopefully some day more paperwork and even the film will turn up, revealing the great 1914 Bakersfield Rodeo and other scenes of early California.