Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project.
Movie-making in Knoxville is now 100 years old.
Knoxville got interested in movies early. By one account, movies were being shown outdoors in Turner Park, along Broadway on the edge of what’s now North Hills, in the late 1890s.
Short films were sometimes shown at vaudeville houses on Gay Street, between live shows, and at brothels on Central Street. Permanent cinemas were thriving by 1907.
One of the first was called the Lincoln Theatre, run by former slave Cal Johnson. It was on Central Street, then still famous for its saloons.
The first movie ever made in Knoxville was just over a century ago. Aunt Sally Visits Knoxville was a one-reel silent released in late 1915. Its plot follows a mountain lady who discovers oil on her property, becomes suddenly rich, and comes to Knoxville on a shopping spree. Some of the shooting was done at the Tyson house, which still stands on UT’s campus.
Thousands of people saw the film at the Gay Theatre on Gay Street. Unfortunately, no copies of the film are known to exist. There may be no one alive who has ever seen it.
One lead actor was locally well-known artist Hugh Tyler, James Agee’s uncle who appears as “Uncle Andrew” in the autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family—which has been made into four movies itself! (Knoxville’s first movie actor has himself been portrayed by several other actors, including John Cullum, James Woods, and David Alford.)
James Agee himself (1909-1955) was later an important figure in films nationally, first as one of the first serious film critics, an essayist who reviewed hundreds of movies for Time magazine and The Nation, and who was a passionate advocate for the films of Charlie Chaplin, at a time when the comic silent star was neglected, partly due to his leftist political views. Their friendship is the subject of a 2006 book by John Wranovics called Chaplin and Agee.
In 1919, five professionals founded what would be an influential new motion-picture studio called United Artists. Four were already famous in the movies: Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. The only founder who was not already in show business was lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo (1863-1941), who as a young man had lived on State Street in Knoxville. He introduced electric streetcars to this city in 1890. He also served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and as a U.S. senator from California.
The most famous filmmaker from Knoxville was Clarence Brown (1890-1987), who was a prolific director for MGM during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Born in Clinton, Mass., Brown was 11 when his family moved to Knoxville, where his father took a job in management at Brookside Mills, the large textile factory on the north side of town. The Browns lived in the vicinity of the neighborhood now known as Old North. Of the four houses where they lived, two are still standing, on Scott Avenue, near Happy Holler. An extraordinarily bright child, Clarence gave dramatic performances in downtown theaters, and went to UT when he was only 15. He graduated with two degrees in engineering at age 20, in 1910. After a time trying to work as a car salesman in Alabama, he moved to New Jersey and began working in films, first with the famous French director Maurice Tourneur. He directed part of the classic silent epic, The Last of the Mohicans (1920). He’s credited with “discovering” Greta Garbo and nurturing her early career in movies like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and A Woman of Affairs (1928).
Brown, who loved special effects, was considered an early innovator in film, using his UT engineering savvy to experiment with machines in motion. Although Brown became more famous for his later sound movies, Agee, writing as a critic, considered Brown’s early silents like The Signal Tower and Smouldering Fires to be the director’s best.
Karl Brown (1896-1990; no kin to Clarence) was considered a pioneering cinematographer when he came to Knoxville in 1926 scouting talent for an unusual silent film called Stark Love, about “hillbilly” culture. The film was shot in the Smokies near Robbinsville, NC, but Knoxville teenager Helen Mundy (1910-1987), a sometime local actor Brown found in a downtown pharmacy, earned the lead role in a sometimes shocking “naturalistic” movie that was a sensation in New York, albeit briefly. For 40 years the film was believed lost, but after a copy was found in Europe, it has enjoyed something ofa revival in recent years. It earned a place on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2009, which called it “beautifully photographed…a maverick in both design and concept.”
Featured Photo: Former North Knoxvillian and UT graduate Clarence Brown (1890-1987) around 1921, when he was still working with pioneering French-born filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. He granted his alma mater the money that established Clarence Brown Theatre. Source: wikimedia.
The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city.
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