Local author chronicles silent film era in Montecito
“Today, Montecito is home to media celebrities and even British royalty. Their mansions are hidden behind tall hedges, long driveways and locked gates. But a century ago, the welcome mat was out for actors and film crews making movies set in tropical islands, ancient Rome, France in the 1500s and more.
“More than 60 silent movies were created by dozens of film studios on the luxurious estates of Montecito during the 19teens and 1920s.”
So writes local author Betsy J. Green in the beginning of her self- published mini coffee table book, “Movies & Million-Dollar Mansions: Silent movies made in Montecito, CA” ($24.95).
The book is 245 pages long and contains more than 450 photos of actors, actresses and scenes from the movies, plus photos of the estates at the time that the movies were filmed.
There are about 65 movies in the book. They began with a religious theme in 1911. Then came melodramas and adventure, and the era ended in 1928 after a jazz-age movie based on a Broadway musical (“The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie.”)
“I was excited to find more than 20 instances where I could match up a photo from a movie with a photo of the mansion or estate where it was filmed. The book’s cover is a good example,” said Ms. Green.
“One photo is from the 1914 movie ‘The Envoy Extraordinary.’ The other photo is a postcard of the first Bellosguardo estate. The present Bellosguardo replaced it after the 1925 earthquake. If you look closely, you can match up the windows and other elements of the mansion with the scenery in the movie photo.”
Why did Hollywood studios come all the way to Montecito to film?
“In the decades before movie studios had big budgets, it was cheaper to use an existing mansion than to build one on their studio property. In addition, owners of the estates were flattered that their homes resembled mansions in Europe or other exotic locales and were happy to host film crews,” said Ms. Green.
Some 20 studios from Hollywood came here for filming.
El Fureidîs estate, also known as the Gillespie estate, was by far the most popular. Eighteen silent movies were filmed there.
“Fortunately, this is one of the mansions that has survived. In fact, Jane Pauley filmed part of her show ‘By Design’ there in May 2022. Sadly, many of the older estates have been divided, remodeled or demolished. Another movie location that is still here is the All-Saints-by-the-Sea Church,” said Ms. Green, who became interested in silent movies while writing seven books called “Way Back When” about Santa Barbara history and “MESApedia.”
She started writing while working as an editor for Reader’s Digest and World Book Encyclopedia.
“I read the Santa Barbara newspapers, day by day, looking for interesting stories. Of course, stories about the Flying A film studio caught my attention. But I also looked to see what movies were playing in the local cinemas and tried to watch those films online. That’s how I got hooked on silent movies. ‘Talkies’ did not appear until the end of the 1920s. Silent movies are a fun way to learn about history — how people dressed, what their homes were like, transportation, people’s attitudes, etc.
“I’m a very visual person, so I don’t really miss the dialogue. Of course, most silent movies had subtitles. I enjoy seeing how the acting styles changed over the years. In the earliest silent movies, actors used very broad gestures that they had used in live theaters so that audience members sitting in the last row could see. As time went on and the camera moved closer to the actors, the gestures and expressions became more natural.”
The book was one of two COVID-19 lockdown projects for Ms. Green, who spent two years researching it and another one about silent movies filmed on the Channel Islands.
“There were more than 200 silent movies filmed on the Channel Islands. Some famous people who filmed there included Buster Keaton, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Mabel Norman,” she said. “Most of the films were made on Santa Catalina Island. It’s close to Hollywood and has hotels and restaurants.
“But the second most popular island was Santa Cruz Island, which is just off the coast of Santa Barbara. Actors and crews filming there had to live in tents and provide their own food.”
Ms. Green said she was surprised that there were no slapstick movies filmed in Montecito.
“No pie-in-the-face, kicking people in the butt, no silly chases. I think that’s because the people who owned the mansions did not want low-brow comedy associated with their properties.
“In fact, I found an article that describes how Fatty Arbuckle visited a Montecito mansion and said something like, ‘Wow! This would be a cool place to make a movie.’ But neither he, nor any other slapstick comedians filmed here.
“A lot of the movies filmed in Montecito were high-brow films set in exotic locations, mansions and castles. The biggest star to appear in a Montecito movie was Mary Pickford in the 1918 film ‘Stella Maris.’ ”
During the time span of the book from 1911 to 1928, Ms. Green noticed certain changes in the movies.
“They became longer and had more elaborate plots, and the acting styles became more natural. The earlier movies always showed an actor from head to foot. Later on, closeups of the face or hands were added.”
The author said she found one Montecito movie by accident.
“I like to watch silent movies online, and one day, I was watching ‘Stella Maris.’ Suddenly, I recognized one of the locations in the movie. It was a garden at the Piranhurst estate. It had a very distinctive garden theater that had been used in other movies. I was super excited! So, I was happy to be able to add that movie to the end of the book.”