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Early West Virginia Cinema (1919-1941)

By Steve Fesenmaier

Despite its geographic isolation, West Virginia has had several important films made in its own backyard.

Tol'able David (1921) is thought by some to be the first film made in the state, although the film was actually shot across the border in nearby Blue Grass, Virginia. This is the very film that partially established the stereotype of West Virginians as menacing, dangerous criminals. In the film, the Hatburns - barefooted, shotgun toting, and wearing pointed hats - travel over the mountains to the idyllic town in Virginia where David and his family live, and cause them a great deal of trouble. The film is considered to be one of the most important silent films ever made since D.W. Griffith himself was originally going to direct it. Recently, Kino International released a restored video copy of the film, which includes an interview with director Henry King.

The first actual feature film to be made inside the state is Stage Struck (1925) which was filmed in New Martinsville. Allan Dwan, a former assistant and successor to D.W. Griffith, directed the film, which starred Gloria Swanson - the most famous Hollywood actress of the day. Dwan began his career in 1911 with The Yiddisher Cowboy and directed more than 200 films in his career. Stage Struck is a minor film for both Dwan and Swanson, but it is significant as one of the few restored rural comedies of the silent era.

The first known documentary footage made in the state was filmed by the Army Signal Corps in Nitro. The film, Nitro (1919), is silent with no titles, lasting 15 minutes. The most famous "lost film" from this era is a documentary about the hero of the Matewan massacre, "Smilin' Sid" Hatfield. The film was made in 1920, and legend has it that the only copy of it was stolen from the National Archives.

Various national groups came to the state to document WPA activities. One such film, which has been converted to video, is called Recreational Resources - State Parks in West Virginia. It shows various state parks, the Greenbrier Resort, the Capitol, and other so-called "recreational resources." The WPA also produced the first sound film in the state - A Better West Virginia (1937) which lasts 8 minutes and 25 seconds. Another film was made by the Pocahontas Fuel Company in 1926, showing miners working in their "Pocahontas Field."

In 1932, a documentary was made in Charleston called Charleston, Beautiful on the Kanawha. Hometown son Blundon Wills directed the portrait of the city. There were documentaries made in the 1930's about other towns in the state, as well, including a film made in Jefferson County called See Ourselves in the Movies (1941) and a film made in Elkins - See Yourself in the Movies (1937), which was sponsored by the local American Legion and photographed by Amateur Services Productions of Akron, Ohio.

Two other interesting early films that were made in West Virginia by state natives include West Virginia, the State Beautiful filmed in 1929 by the Reverend Otis Rymer Snodgrass. This was a film tour of the West Virginia portion of U.S. Route 60 from Kentucky to the Virginia border. Also worthy of mention is the short film One-Room Schoolhouses which was photographed in Barbour County in about 1935 by the Myers brothers, who were noted local physicians and amateur filmmakers. Excerpts from West Virginia, the State Beautiful and One-Room Schoolhouses were included in Treasures of American Film Archives - a DVD set of rare films assembled by the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2000.

To see a complete list of films and videos that have been made about the state and region, available from the West Virginia Library Commission through any local public library, check out

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