Silent movie captures Marin County history


If you visit a public library sometime, it is best to never assume that these places are only about books.

"They are about information, they are about history, they are about life..." said Laurie Thompson from the Marin County Free Library.

And libraries can hold silent movies. At the Marin County Free Library Thompson can search the archives, pull hundreds of files and photos, and talk for hours about one in particular – "Salomy Jane".

"A highly respected film journal of the day said, 'Salomi Jane, a masterpiece...'" said Thompson.

Chances are you've never heard of it, or actress Beatrice Michelena, who played the heroine... or the California Motion Picture Corporation. Nor have most residents around Center and K streets in San Rafael, but old maps and film historian David Kiehn tell a story of how in 1914 there was a of the art operation there. He pointed out, "the big glass stage was over there..."

They made 14 feature length films, from which only one original print remains -- "Salomi Jane". The Marin County Free Library will be showing the only copy at the Rafael Theater on Sunday night.

"It's a different viewing experience than on modern film," said Kiehn.

"Salomi Jane" is typical of the time. A girl and her father travel to California for the Gold Rush, with all the classic, western melodramatic ingredients: good guys, bad guys, star-crossed lovers, chases. It shows a pristine Lake Lagunitas Creek and a Marin County in 1914 before cars, traffic, and modern life.

One of the most fascinating scenes takes place on Bolinas Road, which winds down Mt. Tamalpais into Fairfax. It's windy and twisty. A lot of people drive this route for sport, but imagine Bolinas Road behind a stagecoach, on horses, on dirt.

"They used a real stagecoach driver..." said Thompson.

His name was Old Joe Downey.

"They were speeding down the hill, apparently the actors were terrified because Old Joe Downey knew what he was doing, and drove fast," said Thompson.

At a cost of $49,000 "Salomi Jane" never broke even, nor did any other movie the company made. By 1916, its glass-enclosed studio began falling into neglect. Eventually, a fire and explosion consumed all the print except for "Salomi Jane". It's not exactly a Hollywood ending for an actress and company that always gave their audiences happy ones.

"The tree at Lake Lagunitas is no longer there. We've actually be out there and looked," said Thompson.

Why does it always seem better in front of the camera?

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