This essay examines the making of the independent (and no longer extant) film Once Upon a Time (1922), which was produced, directed, and written by Coconut Grove, Florida, resident Ruth Bryan Owen. As a historical and cultural prism, the film grants us a unique view of Owen as an independent filmmaker and someone who, in the late 1920s, would become the first woman elected to the US Congress from the Southern states. It also offers insights into Coconut Grove and Miami as a dynamically charged field of gender, race, and class relations during the early 1920s. For Owen, these years were filled with personal transformation as well as turmoil. South Florida was witnessing exciting changes as well as rising political tensions and strife. Proposed as a one-of-a-kind “community motion picture,” the Arabian Nights tale signaled the dawning of an active Southern Women's Club movement. In this essay, the film serves as a lens—a historical opportunity—to examine a set of social relations and the women's efforts to better their political conditions (and curb local white patriarchal corporate interests) in association with the activities and struggles of the racially segregated neighborhoods the women purported to represent.
Between 1920 and 1922, the independent film Once Upon a Time was produced in the Miami enclave of Coconut Grove. Eventually retitled Scheherazade, this Arabian Nights adaptation is now presumed lost.1 According to trade reviewers, the five-reel period piece lavishly presented the familiar opening tale about a Middle Eastern sadistic second-in-command who deposes and kills the shah and determines to conquer his desert village. He “issues a proclamation that each day a maiden should present herself to him and if she fails to entertain him,” he will toss her to the crocodiles.2 One rebellious young woman saves her own life by warding off his predatory advances through her powers of storytelling until the rightful king reappears (he is, in fact, alive!), comes to her rescue, and reclaims his title.
Though never commercially released, Once Upon a Time's origins, production, and eventual path toward educational distribution is an intriguing object of study because of both who made it and where it was made. The film was produced, directed, and written by Ruth Bryan Owen, who just a few years later would become the first woman elected to US Congress from the Southern states. Owen was the daughter of three-time presidential nominee and “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan.3 This Arabian Nights screen tale was inspired by Owen's travels through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia during and after World War I. Her motivations for making the film, at a particularly complicated time in her life, were numerous, as this essay will show. In part, the production represented an economic endeavor, spawned out of necessity, against the backdrop of the South Florida land boom. It was also a project of postwar reincarnation for Owen, as she relocated to the area in late 1919 hoping for a new start and rose to local prominence in women's clubs in the early 1920s, eventually winning political office in 1928.
When exhibited in limited release in 1922, Once Upon a Time garnered mixed responses. First National distributors liked its “remarkable sense of artistic and story values,” saying its “pictorial qualities are extraordinary,” and major industry figures such as Douglas Fairbanks and financier Samuel Untermyer were prepared to help back Owen's career.4,Film Daily, however, dismissed the film as a “crude and naive” first attempt by a rich winter colony in over its head.5 Support from women's clubs led to a distribution deal with the Society for Visual Education in 1923, facilitating distribution in schools, churches, and youth clubs for at least two more decades.6
Once Upon a Time holds particular value as a historical and cultural prism that grants us a unique view onto Owen's biography and her involvement, however fleeting, with independent filmmaking; the role that Florida clubwomen and their community pageants played in relation to the film; and the context of Coconut Grove and greater Miami as a dynamically charged field of gender, race, and class relations during the early 1920s. The several years over which the film was conceived, produced, and distributed were highly volatile ones. For Owen, they were filled with personal transformation as well as turmoil, as South Florida was witnessing exciting changes as well as rising political tensions and strife.
Furthermore, by deepening our knowledge of the film as a form of cultural production and social formation, we can more productively understand how it engaged with multiple trends and discourses such as “community filmmaking,” the Little Theatre Movement, and historical pageantry. For example, on one hand, this was a “society film,” financed by Owen's earnings and bolstered by well-to-do families, with technical support from acclaimed professionals. On the other hand, Owen framed the venture as an amateur, “community effort.” During production, one headline announced, “Community Motion Picture Is Having Its Birth in Coconut Grove.” The article went on to pronounce Once Upon a Time at the forefront of a new trend of “community movie-making.” If it met with financial success, the collective “Players of Coconut Grove would begin cost- and profit-sharing” (fig. 1).7 By modeling themselves on Little Theatre groups around the country, Owen's inner circle engaged with Progressive Era anticommercial rhetoric flourishing in American cities and rural areas, espousing goals that included community building, activism, assimilation, and local “self-expression.”8
Historical and educational pageants had grown increasingly popular (and professionalized) by this time. Pageants often functioned to bring communities together through play and ritual, as a way of helping localities discover their common values and express a new modern identity.9 These festivities shared a continuity with cinema, including casting, costumes, scripting, direction, and spectacle. The Coconut Grove community pageants, and the leadership role that Owen played, were integral to, and in many ways inseparable from, the film. For some in the women's clubs, pageant involvement held more resonance than the movie's production. The case of Once Upon a Time points to the value of considering cinema in relation to multiple discourses, including cultural history, critical biography, popular entertainment, and various social and political contexts.
In this way, what on the surface appears to be a lost object (a film) actually serves as an invitation and an organizing object of discovery. What we don't know—and may never know—about Once Upon a Time opens up a space for contemplating and imagining certain social relations that may be, at this time, historically out of reach. In Dust: The Archive and Social History (2001), Carol Steedman posits an alternative poetics, using as her example a rag rug that she has misremembered or “transposed” from Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957) into Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848). Steedman explains, “What we can be certain of, is that these modes of desire and representation have no necessary connection at all with the people who actually, in time and social circumstance, occupied the cruel habitations. Which is why I like the rag rug, and my mistake about it, for the rag rug is made from the torn fragments of other things, debris and leavings, the broken and torn things of industrial civilization.”10 Steedman's narrative history presents a useful model for this study, which requires a degree of imagining.
Moreover, Steedman's rag rug holds value for this inquiry into the filmmakers’ efforts to involve members from Coconut Grove's black and working-class neighborhoods. It is difficult to know how they went about this, and to what degree they tried, and harder still to ascertain the experiences of black cast members, many of whom were laborers contributing no small part to South Florida's land boom. Yet it is productive to think about the connections (and disconnections) between the black participants’ realities and ideas about the film and their social conditions.
A MODERN MOVE, FOR THE BETTER
By the time Owen decided to make Once Upon a Time, she had already been cast—and cast herself—as the family rebel. At the age of eighteen, she had defiantly married a considerably older traveling portrait artist named William Homer Leavitt, dashing any hopes of remaining in her family's good graces and guaranteeing the withdrawal of her inheritance. Within two years, Owen found herself in a humiliating position, hundreds of miles from home in a New Orleans apartment, abandoned by Leavitt, with no money, no heat, and two children.11 She returned home and worked in support of her father's political career. Eventually she married Major Reginald Altham Owen of the British Royal Engineers, whom she accompanied to Egypt (to serve as a nurse on the front lines) during World War I.12
Cut to the summer of 1919. She had brought “Reggie” to her parents’ Asheville, North Carolina, estate to recuperate from nephritis, which he had contracted as a result of battle wounds incurred during the war. Doctors had told them that he had less than ten years to live (which turned out to be true), and the couple had taken the time to travel for nine months through the Middle and Far East before arriving at the Bryans. It was now a full house, with the addition of Ruth and Reggie, their five-year-old son Bryan, plus Ruth's older two children from her previous marriage, Ruth Bryan (“Kitty”) and John.
Owen had become accustomed to fending for herself, but she and Reggie were thrown into financial shock when they found that his father had made other plans for his financial estate, and that Reggie's army pension was a sliver of what they had expected.13 With an ill husband, three children to support, and no traditional salable skills, she proceeded to have a “nervous breakdown.” Years later, when describing this period of her life to her daughter Rudd (who would be born in 1920), she explained that she found a remedy through a psychoanalyst.14
At this juncture, as she later explained to her longtime friend Carrie Dunlap, her parents extended an offer of relief to the Owen family, but in exchange they expected Ruth and Reggie to hand over all control regarding their own and their children's lives, and stay indefinitely as the Bryans’ guests and therefore on the patriarch's terms. Owen elected to decline—a rather astonishing step, especially given the historical context. But there had been an extended pattern of her parents governing her children without regard for her point of view (she called their handling “so stupid it's incredible” and “maddening”).15 Writing to Dunlap from Ashville in 1919, Owen enclosed a note she had received from her mother (instructing her friend to destroy it upon reading its contents) to illustrate how “impossible a life in their charity would be. They couldn't keep from dictating.”16 Shedding further light on these restraints, daughter Rudd later remarked, “I had grown up knowing that Ruth's relationship with her parents, particularly with W.J., had not been an easy one. He was a Victorian father who had demanded and expected absolute obedience, especially from girls…. In attempts to make her what he thought she should be, W.J. had often disciplined Ruth harshly.”17 As in the past, going against her father's wishes represented a defiance of the symbolic order, and the risk was incalculable.
Owen staked her financial independence on a new career as a speaker on the Chautauqua and Lyceum lecture circuits, marshaling her most marketable asset: the oratory skills she had derived from Bryan himself. Indeed, she was the first woman to insist on equal pay in Chautauqua circles (men were then referred to as “lecturers”; women were “entertainers”).18 However, a close reading of her correspondence reveals that, for a time, Owen saw the speeches merely as a means to an end. What she told only a few people was that she hoped the lectures would support her family and a motion picture enterprise—a film producing career that might turn a profit and eventually become her sole livelihood.
In fact, the very words that follow Owen's complaint to Dunlap about her parents’ controlling behavior read like a declaration: “Hurray for the movies. Reggie will back me up like anything. That was the solution [to my dilemma].”19 In the same letter, Owen rejoiced that her anxiety had lifted, disclosing, “No dreams lately. I think perhaps my subconscious mind will leave me alone—now that the movie business is decided!” It was a modern move, both geographically and tactically, for a woman to audaciously embrace cinema, the defining mass medium of her generation. Owen's letters suggest that she was issuing a self-challenge: oratory and performance came naturally, but it would be an enlivening accomplishment to see how readily they translated into success on this new technological frontier of the silver screen.
In the fall of 1919, when Owen and her family reluctantly took up residence at William Jennings Bryan's “Villa Serena” bayfront estate, few living in Coconut Grove's Millionaire's Row could have guessed that she was scouting locations and sizing up potential cast and crew members. She would be waylaid for another year by an unexpected pregnancy, as well as the initiation of a grueling lecture tour, which she launched two months after the birth of Rudd. Owen traveled for months at a time, sometimes to multiple towns in one day. Despite her long absences, she found herself at the center of Miami's social and political scene, befriending Marjory Stoneman Douglas, budding activist and daughter of the Miami Herald's founding publisher. By spring 1921, when physical production on Once Upon a Time began, Owen was president of the Miami Women's Club and on the board of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), had launched a consumers’ league, and was serving on numerous civic groups.20
Owen's political and creative life was nothing if not strange at this juncture: it seems that she was privileged yet alienated, empowered yet limited, connected yet dislocated, driven by individual ambition and desire yet propelled by a sense of community and collective activism. She enjoyed all the benefits of her father's fully staffed, tropical seaside home, but only through his uncertain permission. And as a member of the white, educated elite, she basked in the luxuries and leisure of wealthy friends, including renowned captains of industry and Florida's founding families, yet remained an outsider who was often absent from functions due to her work schedule. She held leadership positions in women's political organizations, economically supported her husband and children, and (by 1921) would finance a new home, yet her father, an exemplary patriarch, made many parenting decisions on her behalf against her wishes.
The contradictions around Owen's relationships to work, social status, money and capital, class, race, patriarchy, feminism, and motherhood are more revealing when considered in light of a broader set of gender, class, and race tensions specific to South Florida. This is especially the case given the “community” focus of her proposed film. The Miami Women's Club and the Housekeepers’ Club of Coconut Grove functioned as social centers and communication networks, giving her entrée to prominent white women (wives, mothers, widows) likely to donate their camaraderie, time, and resources. Indeed, within eighteen months’ time, many of these families were involved in the film—some of the area's most revered names were offering up their mansions, estate gardens, and commercial attractions as well as their nonprofessional talents in acting, sewing, cooking, design, and decorating.
Owen's “modern move” toward motion pictures coincided with a shift in consciousness taking place inside these Miami women's groups. South Florida's cultural and political space was unique. As a North American city, Miami was born comparatively late, incorporated in 1896 by only 368 voters. Its population went from 333 in 1885 to 1,681 in 1900. It rose to 5,471 in 1910 and then spiked to 29,549 in 1920, hitting approximately 50,000 in 1923.21 In other words, the city grew one hundredfold in thirty-five years, rapidly shifting from a wilderness frontier to a modern metropolis bringing in a massive influx of capital, infrastructure, and media attention that subtended the real estate boom of the 1920s.
By 1921, the Miami Women's Club and the Housekeepers’ Club of Coconut Grove were feeling the Miami momentum rather powerfully. In particular, both groups organized their community lobbying efforts around the need for new buildings, signaling their exponential growth in membership and a rise in status (the Miami Women's Club was the largest women's club in the state).22 For example, in the 1921–22 season, Owen spent her first year as president of the Miami Women's Club (which had formed in 1900 as the Married Ladies Afternoon Club) fulfilling her pledge and “avowed purpose” to confront the matter of a poorly conceived property deed (conferred by city founder Henry M. Flagler) that had hampered the women's ability to expand or sell.23 Owen and the group soon triumphed, not only replacing their Royal Palm State Park wooden lodge with a five-story Spanish Mediterranean building, but winning city planning accolades from the General Federation of Women's Clubs in the process. Moreover, they bolstered the local “better films” agenda, created better public access to their literary collection (the third-largest private library in Florida), and organized the first permanent conservation council under the state's Forestry Committee.24
The formation of women's clubs in Florida assisted in building up female networks in informal and formal ways in the early decades of the twentieth century. Secular clubs such as these, intended for edification or societal projects, posed an ideological threat to the community. As Jean Gould Bryant observes, “These were the most controversial organizations because they were neither religious nor patriotic, and hence seemed designed to take women out of their proper sphere.”25 They were crucial to reconceiving women's roles beyond traditional categories, and (as we will see) at times brought cross sections of women from different backgrounds together for organizational purposes. These clubs represented an important breeding ground for future feminist activists and politicians such as Owen.26
Turning to the Housekeepers’ Club of Coconut Grove: at first glance, this group appears to have been smaller and less powerful than the Miami Women's Club, but in fact it was more firmly established. Begun in 1891, the Housekeepers’ Club was in 1901 the first club in Florida to federate. It was also less conservative than the Miami Women's Club. Coconut Grove was eclectic, attracting artists, writers, bohemians, and mariners. Even its wealthier magnates saw it as a kind of fantasy retreat. Though Owen held less of a leadership position with the Housekeepers’ Club (she stood on several committees and spoke annually), its members were part of her inner circle, and they were natural recruits for Once Upon a Time. The scrapbooks, meeting minutes, and articles about the Housekeepers’ Club (later the Women's Club of Coconut Grove) suggest that the specific years of the movie's production coincided with a watershed moment for women members. Moreover, the film existed as part of a larger map of social, cultural, and civic events held by the women that informed many of their club decisions. The Housekeepers’ Club was in the process of redefining itself, amid internal dialogue about numerous concerns, including femininity, modernity, city planning, housing, schools, public health, the environment, and national and international politics.
Inaugurated by schoolteacher and homesteader Flora McFarlane and five other pioneer wives as a way to get some relief from “toil and loneliness,” the Housekeepers’ Club's early goals were companionship, intellectual development, and fundraising for Coconut Grove's first church building (fig. 2).27 The only rule when they convened each Thursday afternoon was “no babies allowed.”28 Around the time of founder McFarlane's death in April 1920, new leadership was raising the prospect of more assertive action. By now, the group had grown; its demographics had shifted toward northern and more urban transplants; it was sending delegates to the national meetings of the General Federation of Women's Clubs; and it was feeling the victory of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The minutes of the Housekeepers’ Club meetings show an emerging, urgent orientation toward political action, especially regarding environmental conservation, health services, an investment in fine arts, and a name change that reflected the club's broader scope. Conflicts between traditional and more progressive ideas materialize in the records of a March 1922 meeting, in which one of the more forward-thinking leaders proposes that the title “Housekeepers’ Club” be revised to “Women's Club of Coconut Grove,” giving “old members another jolt which made them sit up and gasp.”29 The resolution was not passed.
At the critical moment of McFarlane's death, all in the Housekeepers’ Club could agree on one goal: they would build a new clubhouse. It would require a year of planning and fundraising in order to erect the cosmopolitan, coral rock building they planned, spacious enough to entertain two hundred people. The women were planting a metaphorical flag in the ground, publicly announcing their political and social power and leaving behind the modest wood-frame structure of the pioneer days. As with the Miami Women's Club building, the clubhouse also carried aspirational class connotations, indicating a higher social status and a more exclusive, “cultured” set of standards (fig. 3).
A “COMMUNITY PICTURE”
To gather community support and raise money, from early 1921 to early 1923 the group held a series of pageants, plays, and parties. Owen participated assiduously, beginning in February 1921, when she gave a lecture titled “Cairo” (covering her wartime years in Egypt), which, in other venues, she called “Modern Arabian Knights.”30 Many of these parties and performances were keyed to particular visual themes and motifs, exoticizing the “foreign” styles of the “other.” Often they were specifically Arabian- or Egyptian-themed, following the Orientalist trends of the 1910s and 1920s, and coinciding propitiously with Owen's ideas for Once Upon a Time. Even when they were not thus themed, Owen's then-eighteen-year-old daughter's bohemian knack for bursting into an Egyptian solo dance (a habit of Kitty's reported in the local papers almost monthly) would suddenly take the party in that direction.31
It is my supposition that, from the start, Owen saw the civic, social, and leisure activities related to the Housekeepers’ Club as potential engines for what she called her “film work.”32 These were stagings, with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of costumed women, men, and children, as well as built environments and natural locations dressed up as settings and “sets.” Many of the pageants or parties would create constellational moments when people gathered for a performance, a speech, or a pose, inserting themselves into a modern versions of tableaux vivant (fig. 4). Such programs were therefore ready-made spaces for playacting and fantasy with the potential to mobilize enthusiasm for her project. Hence, some club activities literally set the stage for the film.33 As group events, they might have been guided by a pageant director or a series of hosts, but they were “authored” collaboratively, gathering steam through community participation.
The Housekeepers’ Club's most profitable and most ambitious pageant to date, “The Trip around the World,” took place on January 26, 1922.34 Moving from residence to residence (and “country” to “country”) by automobile, revelers enjoyed the tastes and styles of England, Japan, Spain, and France, including an excerpted performance from The Mikado at multimillionaire Arthur Curtiss James's Four Point Lodge. The itinerary began at Villa Serena, which William Jennings Bryan offered up as a launchpad, his “America” serving as the “ideal” country (“See America First,” touted the poster) (figs. 5, 6).35 Hundreds of women, men, and children turned out for the pageant (which spanned nine hours), forming a fashion mélange through a masquerade of (mis)appropriated American, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian costumes. At each stop, they would divide into spectators and performers, pausing for a nation display. The “stage” was often an exterior courtyard or front lawn, taking full advantage of the warm climate and exotic landscapes, and creating visual fodder for tourist promotion. For example, one memento features a photograph with elaborately costumed Mikado dancers accompanied by live musicians, with the caption: “An out of door operatic performance in Coconut Grove, Miami, where it's midwinter elsewhere. A royal palm background and a carpet of velvety green for a stage” (fig. 7).36
Based on photographs from the “Trip around the World” (and those from the 1923 follow-up, “Tour of the Orient”), some celebrants wore formal party attire, while others saw the event as license to tread heavily exotic, nativist, and clichéd territory, not infrequently diving headlong into the carnivalesque. Organizers made an effort to be inclusive, inviting people of color from segregated sections of town; however, as was typical in these public rituals, there were obvious hierarchies in casting and these players were seen as a source of exoticism.37 It is clear that these spaces afforded opportunities for play, improvisation, transgression, and crossover, as in the example of male cross-dressing in the “Oriental Tea Party” photo (fig. 8). Yet, given the instances of blackface, brownface, yellowface, and Arabface (fig. 9), it is equally evident that deep-seated anxieties, fears, fantasies, and tensions were being expressed and negotiated in this space where the artificial gestures and rituals of customs, cuisine, dress, music, and performance intersected with the club's regular social practices, rites, and festivities.38
Local pageantry had gained in popularity since the mid-nineteenth century, becoming trendy as entertainment and high spectacle by the late 1910s. These programs, which had roots in reform and Progressive Era movements, would have naturally appealed to the women's club as community-building activities as well as for aesthetic and leisure purposes. More generally, civic boosters saw them as a way of promoting the region by expressing an ideal vision; pageants could “make tangible in public their ideals … and the emotional basis of their modern community life.”39
The popular allure of the 1922 “Trip around the World” was unquestionable. The event earned $2,400 toward the new building, comprising the majority of the $3,200 entertainment fundraising proceeds for the 1922–23 season.40 Though occurring during the phase of Once Upon a Time's postproduction and distribution (rather than its production), the pageant was a linchpin between Owen, the community, and the film; a meta-example of many similar smaller Coconut Grove programs; and a means of sustaining the audience's attention while the movie took its time. The local screening would not take place until June 1922.
Returning to a more detailed discussion of the film's production, principal photography ran from March to June 1921. Numerous members of the Housekeepers’ Club—and often their husbands and children—are named as cast members in press clippings. Though Owen imported a handful of professionals (cameraman Dudley Read, costume designer Peter T. Hunt, and lead actor Bernard Gutman) from New York, almost all the crew and actors were local amateurs. Her niece Nancy Call Bryan played Scheherazade.41 Because Coconut Grove was a literary and art colony, a panoply of talent filled the screen, including astronomer David Peck Todd and his wife, the writer and editor Mabel Loomis (best known for posthumously publishing the poems of Emily Dickinson). For the part of the good king, she cast professional dramatist William Vogelson Little, whose theatrically trained wife was in the Housekeepers’ Club and also participated. Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Little belonged to both women's clubs.42 Also playing an extra was the son of artist Maxfield Parrish, as Parrish's mother, Lydia, was a member of the Housekeepers’ Club.
The film was shot only in natural light, using exteriors. Prominent wealthy citizens contributed their homes or party-house locations. In addition to Villa Serena and James Deering's Italian villa Vizcaya, Owen used William J. Matheson's Moorish-style Mashta House (on Key Biscayne) and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss's Hialeah ranch for visually interesting backdrops. She reviewed “dailies” by projecting them on her walls at home in the evening, among family and friends. Her letters relate that she oversaw editing at United Artists in New York with the assistance of D. W. Griffith's postproduction staff. There she also had contact with Fairbanks, who congratulated her on making “a fine picture,” an assertion he had heard from Lillian Gish.43 This United Artists support may have come from family connections; Owen's sister Grace Bryan Hargreaves was well connected politically in Los Angeles, though the two women did not get along.44 Like the insider-outsider Owen, Once Upon a Time occupied contradictory spaces, an “amateur” film that was receiving unusually professional treatment.
Attuned to the way this “community picture” brought amateur and professional, elite and working class, artist and businessperson together, Marjory Stoneman Douglas foregrounded its democratic dimensions in her May 1921 Associated Press article by rejoicing in the fact that “distinguished visitors from New York take part in court scenes as gladly as the oldest Coconut Grove resident. And the result has been a company of players, welded into perfect harmony and unity by the force and vision of one woman, who are working at hard labor every day.”45 She, in turn, aided in fashioning the construct of the community picture—and a vision of community—inspired by the nineteenth-century Little Theatre Movement, which had been a protest movement against the commercial drama and a conscious awakening toward self-government. The romantic image of everyone working together toward a common cause helped to sell civic pride and a “progressive mystique” already espoused by city boosters (including William Jennings Bryan, who had been hired by Coral Gables developer George Merrick to make daily stump speeches).46 Douglas and Owen were forging an alternative brand of this progressivism, with the hardworking visionary Owen at the helm. Anyone looking for the director, Douglas claimed, would “find her, any day, from seven o'clock in the morning to six o'clock at night, ‘on location,’ … shouting through a megaphone.”47
The diary entries of white, twenty-nine-year-old Fannie Clemons shed light on how this civic imaginary translated into real experiences for someone who played an extra and assisted as needed. The daughter of a train engineer, Clemons had grown up along the railroad tracks in a house owned by Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway. She would marry four times, seeking opportunities to escape her station as a laborer, destined to remain on the lower edges of Miami's growing middle class.48 Describing an encounter with Once Upon a Time, her March 31, 1921 diary entry indicates:
Did odd jobs all day, one of which was to toe off, thus finishing Mr. Gilpin's golf stockings at last. Afternoon, went down to Mrs. Owen's where Eleanor T. was helping Mr. Peter Hunt do batik work and making costumes for Mrs. Owen's movie that she will be working on all summer…. I believe I am to be a water carrier! I worked all afternoon making two pair of Turkish bloomers. Mr. Owen about four [o'clock] invited us in to take tea with him and it was certainly refreshing.49
Clemons's experience reflects how closely work and play (and the sublime and the banal) were linked during the film's production.
AN “INTERRACIAL FILM”
One of the most striking aspects of Once Upon a Time is the way that it was positioned as an “interracial film,” meant to include the black residents of Coconut Grove, though references to them are laden with stereotypes. Douglas's “Community Motion Picture” article states, “So if you ride slowly down that charming main road of Coconut Grove any morning or afternoon, either, as to that, do not be alarmed if you see dancing girls or queer animals like monkeys and camels and oriental wood cutters and Arabian longshore men and Nubian slaves who are real African [sic] and take great pride in their shiny armlets and their (oil cloth) leather jerkins.” Later in the profile, she specifically points to the participation of Colored Town, as the black segregated section of Coconut Grove was known then, remarking, “Over two hundred people, from one end of Coconut Grove to the other, have been used in mob scenes. School girls help with the costume designing. Colored town is all agog over the chance to be photographed.”50
The language in this passage invokes nativism, Orientalism, and racism, condescendingly painting the black residents of Coconut Grove as “real” Africans whose naïveté produces an “agog” response. The article serves as a reminder that, by all accounts, the film itself was a fetishistic fantasy that featured many of its cast members made up in yellowface, and likely black- and brownface. One of the few extant publicity stills conveys such hierarchical racial positionings. It places the white heroine at the center of attention, lying passively (unconscious?) as several concerned characters hover around her, including an attendant (a black actor) who kneels on the floor (fig. 10). Though the setting is meant to be Moorish and the story Arabian, the image more readily evokes scenes of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1896), while the columns that dot the background might have just as easily served as a set for a colonial plantation.
Yet it would be too reductive to conclude that the racial politics of the film and its contexts were regrettably but unsurprisingly racist. It would be too simplistic to “underwrite” such a history, especially when Coconut Grove was home to one of the region's most influential black neighborhoods. That neighborhood had been the site of one of South Florida's earliest Bahamian settlements, as Chanelle N. Rose has outlined in The Struggle for Black Freedom in Miami: Civil Rights and America's Tourist Paradise, 1896–1968 (2015).51 Black homesteaders had immigrated from Britain and the Caribbean in the mid- to late eighteenth century, while Bahamian immigrants had made their way up from Key West to work at emerging hotels. With industrialization revving in the early twentieth century, Miami and its neighboring communities had become segregated spatially by race, ethnicity, and class. White elites resided in exclusive city neighborhoods or along the coastline in isolation from the black and white working-class laborers who tended to live in substandard housing on the other side of the railroad tracks, the dividing line imposed by Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway.52 Once Upon a Time's effort to involve black Coconut Grove residents, even if only at the level of extras, meant an implicit disruption in the imposed racial spatial order. Their inclusion was by no means a promise of equality, nor would it free the movie from Orientalist cliché, but it signaled a progressive agenda on the part of the organizers of the film at a time when racial tensions were extremely high, and Ku Klux Klan activities were escalating in Florida and across the nation.
Race relations in the region had not always been so hostile, let alone so rigid; the social and political history of nineteenth-century South Florida was different from that of other Southern states. With fewer than six hundred inhabitants up until the 1890s, the wilderness frontier was somewhat removed from the mores of institutionalized slavery and, later, Reconstruction. Therefore, according to N. D. B Connolly, “The relatively small population and the harshness of daily life … left very little use for what one would recognize as Jim Crow segregation.”53 This was a diverse mix of African Americans, Haitians, Bahamians, Cubans, Maroons, and Seminoles; the few white homesteaders who were there tended to be far apart and isolated (fig. 11).54 In 1910, 30 percent of Miami's black population was from the West Indies. In 1920, 52 percent were Caribbean immigrants, and blacks made up 30 percent of Miami's population.55 Therefore, there were enduring trends toward transnationalism and Pan-Africanism.56 Interracial conflicts and hierarchies existed, and racial apartheid would become increasingly codified with industrialization and urbanization. But for the most part, as second-generation Bahamian immigrant Dr. Samuel Hensdale Johnson recalled, “Miami was a small town, where everybody knew everybody—whites and blacks…. As the town developed, however, lines were drawn fast.”57
However, when considered in its precise historical context, especially given the segregationist and divisive rhetoric of many Miami and Coconut Grove politicians and churches, this interracial space represented a dramatic and implicit challenge to a dominant local discourse. White business and civic leaders were encroaching on black neighborhoods, spurred by the booming development of exclusive “all-white” communities. White supremacist activities had reached a feverish pitch between the fall of 1920 and fall of 1921. The Ku Klux Klan abducted, beat, and tarred and feathered several black individuals (claiming they posed a criminal or ideological threat), which drew black protests that were followed by mass retaliations from whites. One oft-cited series of incidents played out through late July and early August 1920. After a white Coconut Grove woman was allegedly attacked, a Bahamian man was identified as the assailant, mobbed by hundreds of white men, and eventually killed. Several days later, hundreds protested the man's death and the National Guard was called upon to prevent a large-scale race riot.58
Other examples of racist violence mounted in the summer of 1921, just months after Owen finished principal photography and while she was still working on her film. The KKK abducted and attacked three black men on three separate occasions, including throwing one out of a moving automobile, then spreading reports in the news that he voluntarily “jumped” from the car. White supremacists were successfully instilling fear, terror, and anger in Coconut Grove's Colored Town and Miami's (downtown) Colored Town, with some estimates putting gun ownership at 90 percent.59 One of their victims was Reggie H. Higgs, a Coconut Grove minister and vice president of the local chapter of Marcus Garvey's Black Nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). When his supporters erroneously believed that Higgs was dead, they took to Coconut Grove's streets demanding justice. White authorities in Miami rallied the police force, plus the American Legion, resulting in dozens of arrests.60 Though Higgs quickly and quietly returned to his Bahamian homeland, the incidents were significant indicators that Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods had become intense sites for Black Nationalist thought and activities. Membership in the local UNIA chapter had risen from four hundred in December 1920 to one thousand in mid-1921, according to FBI reports.61 Garvey had in fact planned a trip there for spring 1921, but local leaders dissuaded him from visiting due to the dangerous social climate.62
It is crucial to place the interracial dimensions of Once Upon a Time—and specifically its symbolic status as a “harmonious” interracial community—in this context where racial apartheid and violence were routinely manifesting in very public places and within the social discourse. During the time of the film's production, the Klan was regularly holding full-regalia parades in Miami's streets. Meanwhile, on a weekly basis, recent Bahamian immigrant James Nimmo was leading hundreds of UNIA members through paramilitary exercises (with wooden rifles) in Miami's Colored Town.63 Notably, during the very week of the January Housekeepers’ Club “Trip around the World” pageant in 1922, six black hotel musicians were assaulted and permanently “escorted” out of town after attempting to dance with several white women at a downtown recreational pier and casino.64
Significantly absent from the historical record are resources that might relate some of the experiences of the black participants in Once Upon a Time. To what degree did their encounters with the film matter to them? Were they valuable experiences, linked with ideas of betterment? Did these individuals feel that they were valued contributors, or not? What were their views on Owen's vision of “community”? More concretely, how did Owen recruit them as personnel for her film? What specifically were their roles? Did they attend the local screening? If so, what were their reactions?
One possible source for exploring these questions would be the local black-owned newspapers the Miami Sun and the Miami Times, both published by Henry Reeves. However, Reeves only ran the Miami Sun for eight months in 1919 (stalled by a shortage of newsprint, due to the war) and didn't launch the Miami Times until September 1923.65 This leaves a regrettable gap in news coverage during the period in question. A close examination of the Miami Herald, Miami Metropolis, and Miami News offers little insight into the points of view of black Coconut Grove residents vis-à-vis the film. Further archival sources, such as records for local black church and civic groups, or the relevant oral histories that are held at the Black Archives of South Florida, have yet to yield any reference to Once Upon a Time.
The historical material that we do have—the ample records of the Miami Women's Club and Housekeepers’ Club of Coconut Grove, combined with the commendable social and cultural histories of black South Florida communities generated by Connolly, Rose, Marvin Dunn, and others—allow us to propose some persuasive conclusions. Given the discriminatory practices of local officials and boosters, especially their aggressive tactics to control black political and property rights, there was a notable degree of activity in the South Florida women's clubs that contested white, patriarchal authority. Such challenges may not have occurred explicitly, openly, or univocally, but they were significant nonetheless. For example, the Miami Women's Club members (and specifically two of its longest-standing and most influential committee members) were heavily involved in school welfare, women's health, and literacy programs, placing them in constant communication with female residents of the black Grove.66 They had also partnered with the Committee of Colored Women in spring 1917 to organize a black chapter of the Red Cross.67
Through the continued activities of these and other members, the club meetings became spaces in which inequities were pointed out and solutions were debated. The kinds of activities implemented by the clubwomen (such as fighting for parks in black neighborhoods or campaigning for better health care in black schools) were, of course, constrained within the severely limited parameters of segregationist discourse that defined these women's social positioning and their historical context. Still, these initiatives provide small but concrete examples of how Southern women's clubs brought together upper-class white women and middle- and working-class black women in ways that forged crucial regional activist ties and laid the groundwork for future organizing.
As Jean Gould Bryant explains, such groups “facilitated interracial contact between black and white organizations, in part by offering arenas removed from local pressures where women could interact.”68 Where there were topical, intersecting interests, they would coalesce, through the structures and networks provided by national, regional, or local means. This is precisely the kind of interracial cooperation that occurred between the Housekeepers’ Club members and the black organizers and church leaders. It was occurring “in the margins” of the public debates on city zoning and the headlines about the KKK, yet in tacit conversation with them. To posit another instance of a local call to interracial cooperation, in 1916 Marjory Stoneman Douglas rallied the Miami Women's Club to follow the example of the Palm Beach Club, which had joined up with the Colored Women's Hospital to build a tuberculosis tent—an effort between white and black women that would ultimately benefit the larger community.69 Pointing to her neighboring county, Douglas was pressing her peers into action.
Douglas, as a young divorcée and Wellesley graduate, provided an anchoring voice for Miami clubwomen. Upon arriving in Miami in 1915, she joined the Coconut Grove Interracial Committee to combat the poor housing conditions of black laborers (“rows of shacks were hastily being put up,” she later explained). She took advantage of the political capital held by her father, Frank Stoneman, publisher of the Herald, and together they fought “to push through a city ordinance requiring toilets and running water in all houses.”70 Douglas was a textbook example of the white, college-educated, Northern transplant who played a catalyzing role in Southern white women's clubs’ growing political consciousness, while working alongside women of color across club organizations.71 “I was completely horrified when I came down here. Not only didn't they have any libraries [for the black residents],” she said, “but nobody had the slightest conception that what they were building was slums. It was the kind of thing they were teaching about in the social work department of my alma mater, Wellesley.”72 In the coming years, she would use her journalistic position to promote equality, careful urban planning, and environmental conservation. She contributed vitally to Miami's public discourse and the idea that local women's clubs should be spaces for political debate.73 She was instrumental in helping Owen find her footing as a politician, and pivotal to the promotional campaign that landed her in office.74
A FILMIC FAIRY TALE
Let us return to spring 1921 by way of the following claim: at the precise moment that Miami city leaders were making a show of rededicating themselves to the segregationist mapping of the region that they had initiated prior to World War I, there were meaningful indicators of questioning, dialogue, and resistance among women's club members. It became clear that Miami commissioners would take the law into their own hands by enforcing segregation through an unconstitutional city charter, following the lead of other cities that were employing redlining, unfair zoning, and “eminent domain” strategies.75 The recently formed Chamber of Commerce was comprised entirely of white men.76 In April, the Miami Women's Club held a forum focused on the city charter. This is one of the few instances on record when the charter's legality was questioned in public. When one of the invited speakers, Reginald Waters, was challenged by a white male in the audience (a local labor leader named Mr. Robineau), he admitted that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Waters went on to “reproach anyone, especially a white man,” for objecting to the Chamber of Commerce's efforts.77 Though the afternoon ended inconclusively, it is worth underscoring that the women held the event at all (especially in such a censorious climate). They, in fact, leveraged their potential voting power to spark debate.
Women's club activities such as these cast an important perspective on the racial, gender, and class mapping of South Florida in the early 1920s, particularly when seen in tandem with the evolution of Once Upon a Time. Local headlines of the day show evidence that the white, patriarchal elite made concerted efforts to control the region's land and its people through political, legal, judicial, financial, illegal, and sometimes brutal means. While their female counterparts were complicit in many ways, my analysis seeks to foreground how some of these white, elite, and middle-class women were either resisting the dominant racist discourse through political and activist devices, or, more commonly, organizing as feminists the city's civic, social, and cultural realms through charity, fundraising, literary and arts cultivation, and social events.
Because of this complicated cultural politics, pageants such as the “Trip around the World” and a film such as Once Upon a Time cannot be easily dismissed as unthinkingly racist, amateur productions unconnected from the forces of social progress of the era, including antiracist and anti-immigrant political projects. Instead, they represent a vital if conflicted cultural capital that helped structure crucial Southern feminist political territory. One of the most explicit debates to grow out of this era was between pro-development boosterism and environmental conservationism. This (now) century-long battle has had explicit geographical connotations, with Coconut Grove tending to advocate for conservationism, and Miami and Coral Gables often governed by “pro-business” developers. Coconut Grove's feminist-environmentalist politics have underappreciated roots in the club presentations programmed by Douglas and Owen (and can be traced back to a founding member of the Housekeepers’ Club, Mary Barr Munroe). Even Once Upon a Time, which became something of a poetic ode to the region's natural settings and aesthetic beauty, belongs to this history.
Neither an escapist fantasy that perpetuated Orientalist, nativist ideas even as it purported to give a realistic, “educational” message about people and places from a long-ago time, nor a dalliance taken up by elites who were willfully ignorant of the harsh, racist realities around them, Once Upon a Time is a far more complicated motion picture. By considering the sociopolitical space surrounding the film's production, the filmmaking context is refigured as a remarkably rich and undervalued though vexed fantasy world, in which Owen and her fellow authors attempted to involve a community of women, as well as an extended, diverse community of Coconut Grove residents, in a collective endeavor to engage social, political, and historical debates by nontraditional means. Even as its production depended upon and reproduced white privilege, those involved in Once Upon a Time were in some important sense also (re)imagining their own place and time. They were exercising a communal desire to assert their agency, to come together across difference, and to create a film fairy tale.78
When Film Daily reviewed the film in January 1922, the trade did not grant it this kind of credit. With a headline that declared “Society Folk Make Their Bow in Mild Production,” its assessment made fun of the “Florida winter colony” amateurs, and warned, “Don't try to put this over on an audience that requires a story or good acting.” The advice was to advertise the film on the basis of Owen and William Jennings Bryan's names and “talk about the girls that are thrown daily to the crocodiles.”79 After mixed trade reviews and disappointment from commercial distributors, it turned out that the film's greatest champions were among the upper ranks of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Through them, Owen placed Once Upon a Time with the Society for Visual Education in June 1923, and with their collaboration, she would tour with the film throughout the 1920s. She likely set these events in motion in March 1922 when she invited the president of the General Federation to visit the Miami Women's Club.80
Once Upon a Time played at downtown Miami's Hippodrome movie theater on May 11 and 12, 1922. Reports immediately followed that Owen would continue to make pictures, most likely writing screenplays for commercial Hollywood films that Bryan would produce and direct.81 This never came to pass. Most likely, she saw that her best chances for professional success lay in her Chautauqua career. Bryan died in 1925. Reggie passed away at the age of forty-four, in 1927. Owen became Florida's first female US Representative in 1928, going on to win a second term (figs. 12, 13). In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her the first woman to serve as a US ambassador (to Denmark). Her political agenda remained consistent from the 1910s on—international peace, conservation, and workers’ and women's rights—having been informed by her wartime years in Egypt and her early tutelage under Jane Addams.
In conclusion, it appears that her fertile years in Coconut Grove in the early 1920s offered Owen the space to make sense of the raw materials of these experiences in creative, political, and cinematic terms, when she was fantasizing a Once Upon a Time while fashioning a politician's future. What the place and time offer us, more broadly, is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of regional history, particularly an appreciation of an under-studied Florida feminist history that was unfolding just as the corporate mass media was exploding.