Forgotten Hero

BY Bill Walsh

Beach residents and visitors were urged to head to Lumina 82 years ago this summer to take in one of the two showings of the silent black and white film Wilmington’s Hero part of a double bill with The Air Mail featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Those who had seen Hero noted the Port City newspaper of the day The Morning Star “Say that it is a treat no Wilmingtonian should miss.”

Not to suggest that the paper’s scribe might have felt a bit of pressure to promote the film but the paper supervised the two-reel comedy shot in Wilmington according to a casting call published in the paper the previous month.

“By special arrangements the Star has obtained the service of a well-known company from Hollywood the home of the great motion picture industry and skilled directors cameramen and studio assistants are on the way to the city to handle the production which will be directed by Don O. Newland.” The paper hinted that the lucky local girl tapped to play “Baby Ethel” was possibly securing “worldwide fame and fortune in the films.”

The Morning Star carried daily stories tracking the film’s progress from Maggie Cantwell’s selection as Baby Ethel to an exciting car crash scene at the junction of Front and Chestnut streets witnessed by an estimated 4 000 spectators to the shootings of a swimming scene in front of the Oceanic Hotel on Wrightsville Beach and a huge dance scene at Lumina. “Through a special arrangement with the Tidewater Power Company the Lumina dance scene that will be used in the picture will be shot at 10:30 Saturday night ” the paper reported on June 23 1925. “All equipment will be carried to and from the beach on a special [rail] car provided by the company.”

The following morning the paper reported that “The announcement in yesterday’s Star that pictures would be taken Saturday night at Lumina has been received with glee and a record-breaking attendance is looked for. The management of this popular resort has already promised extra attractions for the night and it should prove a popular closing scene not alone for the cast but all who are interested in Wilmington’s Hero.” Unfortunately few copies of the Star’s stories remain and were it not for Bill Hummel’s curation perhaps no record would exist at all.

“When I moved back to Wilmington I went to the Star-News and asked them what they had on this ” says Hummel a retired business-school founder who lives just off Greenville Loop Road. “They had nothing. In 1955 according to someone there there was a takeover and a new person came in and wiped out all the files. They cleaned out the house.”

Unfortunately the movie didn’t survive either. It was made on nitrate film Hummel says and like most of the other such films it just disappeared.

It’s unfortunate that the birth of movie-making in Wilmington — and this is it Hummel says — has been lost. “This is probably the first full-length comedy that was ever shot in Wilmington ” he says and as the middle son of Leslie R. Hummel Sr. the man who played the title role — a newspaper reporter naturally — he is perhaps the preeminent expert on the film. “This was really the beginning of a movie industry here ” he says. “It was a full-fledged undertaking. They flew in people from California to do the shooting and brought some of the crew here to put this together the lighting and what have you and they got local people to get into the movie” — as stars not merely as extras.

Bill Hummel has these four photographs from the making of the film the only photographs that exist he believes. The photos are “kind of an uncovered treasure for Wilmington ” he says “because they have never been seen before in public” — at least not in anyone’s memory.

Bill’s father the movie’s leading man was born in Goldsboro in January 1890 and moved to Wilmington in 1916. A veteran of World War I he married Elizabeth Hicks of Oxford North Carolina and fathered three sons. He made his livelihood in the insurance business and was successful enough that he also owned a cottage on Wrightsville Beach. That cottage was destroyed in the 1934 Oceanic Hotel fire so he rebuilt a near replica at 7 E. Oxford St. Leslie Hummel Sr. died in 1947.

“If you have ever seen silent movies it really takes a talent to be animated and be able to put the point across while saying nothing ” his son says echoing the director these many years later. In order to be an actor Newland said in a Morning Star interview upon his arrival in the city “At all times you must be fit and by that I mean physically mentally and morally fit. You must be willing to take the part that the director gives you no matter how humble and carry it through in a way that will look to your different audiences as if you were raised in the atmosphere the part carries. You must make a study of the different facial expressions to be able to show sadness one minute joy the next expectation one minute extreme disappointment the next.”

But as far as Hummel knows his father had no previous acting experience and if Hollywood stepped forward with any subsequent offers of “worldwide fame and fortune in the films ” they came to naught.

Leslie Hummel did go to California for reasons that are lost in the mists of time his son says but “we think he was talking to some movie people out there. But we never got any more information on it.”

“… All persons having a part in the making of the picture showed exceptional ability ” the Star noted on the last day of the film’s premiere four-day run in Wilmington though its reporter confused Hummel and The Rival played by well-known attorney David Sinclair. “Leslie Hummel as the village cut-up and David Sinclair as his rival a newspaper reporter furnish a lot of laughs while Pat Gerken is as good in this as he is in anything he has previously done. The work of Miss Maggie Cantwell as the baby vamp is of an outstanding nature while Mrs. R.C. Cantwell Jr. henpecks her screen spouse with uncanny realism.” Miss Margaret Willard also had a role in the film as Baby Ethel’s friend.

Movie-making was a far simpler process in the early days. Casting calls went out in mid-June 1925 and the movie reached the silver screen of the Victoria Theatre in downtown Wilmington — upon whose stage the movie’s interior scenes were staged and filmed — right after Independence Day. Movie-making was far simpler at least as director Don O. Newland practiced his craft.

“The rise of the film industry … as America’s most popular form of entertainment gave birth to a new kind of traveling salesman ” according to a Web site for last year’s IRIS Film Festival in Huntingdon Pennsylvania. “Forget the brushes and kitchen gadgets. This was about selling a taste of Hollywood to the masses.”

“Don O. Newland was such a man ” the site continues “traveling throughout the East and Midwest during the 1920s and 1930s leaving a trail of short quirky films in his wake.”

Those films nine in all shared the same script the same modus operandi. “Newland hopped from town to town promoting his comedy about a henpecked husband mistaken identity and suspected adultery. Local residents provided the casting pool. Local newspapers footed most of the production costs. Local theaters and furniture stores provided interior sets and props.”

When completed Wilmington’s Hero was to be shown all over the Carolinas according to the Morning Star then released through a distributor for audiences in Florida Georgia Alabama and Tennessee. “This will give splendid publicity to Wrightsville Beach as ‘The Playground of Dixie ’” the paper enthused.

Only two of Newland’s nine known “Hero” films survive Huntingdon’s Hero 1934 and from Wisconsin Janesville’s Hero 1926. “Both show that Newland had the skills to pursue his work despite the limits of his resources ” according to IRIS festival sources.