An advertisement for “The Rider of the King Log” that ran in 1921. Exhibitors Herald

A hundred years ago, the first feature film made in Maine – written by one of the state’s most famous authors and produced by a little studio in Augusta – proved popular enough to attract moviegoers around the globe.

“The Rider of the King Log” opened on Oct. 3, 1921, at the Empire Theater in Lewiston. Lewiston Daily Sun

Billed as “the world’s greatest outdoors masterpiece” and featuring log drives and an old-fashioned showdown between Mainers and Wall Street, audiences from Augusta to Australia lapped up “The Rider of the King Log.”

“Here you will see the Maine woods, falling giants, dynamited dams, roaring waters, the charm of Indian Summer and the austere winter,” the Herald and Review in Decatur, Illinois, wrote before a local showing.

You won’t see it anymore, though.

While at least 140 copies of the black-and-white, silent film were made, with seven reels of film needed for each, none of the footage is known to exist anymore. The movie is listed by the Library of Congress as one of more than 7,200 films from the 1920s that have simply vanished.

Could a copy still be out there somewhere?

“Oh, there might be,” said Cortlandt Hull, creator of The Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in Connecticut.

He said the movie would have been kept on nitrate-based film, the only kind of available until the 1940s. The American Museum of Natural History calls the film “inherently unstable,” so Hull said there’s also a decent chance it will have long since turned into “brown goo” or gone up in flames.

But, Hull said, lucky breaks still happen. They’re rare, though, and the reality is “many of the silent films did not survive” in large part because the rise of talking pictures made many people think nobody would ever want to see them again, Hull said.

Until somebody finds “The Rider of the King Log” tucked safely away in a cool, dry spot or unearths a copy in a little-known archive, let’s try to figure out what Holman Day and a cast of thousands created in 1920 and released to theaters in 1921.

THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIE

Holman Day, who died in 1935, grew up in Vassalboro, attended Colby College, wrote for the Lewiston Evening Journal off and on for 17 years, published 25 novels, several plays, lots of poems and a seemingly endless stream of journalism, mostly focused on his beloved home state.

“I’m a native and so I know the spirit of the people,” he once told a magazine called The Editor.

Holman Day, 1920 Harpers Monthly

As the “state of Maine correspondent” for the Lewiston Evening Journal, which basically gave him carte blanche to write whatever he wanted, he kept his suitcase “always packed ready to hike out to any nook or corner or cranny of the state for a murder, a convention, an accident,” Day said.

He’d spend weeks at a time with lumberjacks and summer camping along the shore in his 50-foot yacht. With a good sense of humor and a wide range of interests, it’s said that Day had friends in every municipality in Maine — and even the targets of his pen couldn’t bring themselves to hate him.

Writing decades after Day’s death, Edith Labbie said he “understood the folks who lived in our little hamlets. He laughed with them but never at them. Through his novels he challenged the destroyers of the wilderness, the pompous politicians, and others who manipulated the lives of everyday people. He skillfully deflated their hypocritical balloons of feigned benevolence.”

“Holman Day knew Maine, he loved Maine,” Labbie noted. “And he became the spokesman for her more humble citizens.”

His first three books offered poetry he’d written about Maine, some of it well-regarded, but when he grew restless he decided to squirrel himself away in the house he owned at the foot of Goff Hill in Auburn and write a novel.

“Squire Phin,” a tale of a small-town lawyer, was the first, with many others to follow; “King Spruce” was generally considered the best of the lot.

In 1919, he wrote another novel that captured the public’s attention, “The Rider of the King Log,” a 500-page volume subtitled “A Romance of the Northeast Border.”

Harpers Magazine loved it.

“The great north woods, the smell of the pines and the echo of the ax are caught in Mr. Day’s pages, through which moves a story of the clash of powerful personalities in a great feud, and of love,” Harpers said.

At the center of the tale is lumber baron John Xavier Kavanagh and his daughter Clare, whose mother died during her birth.

“It’s too trite to call a novel ‘red-blooded,’ but certainly here is the antithesis to thin and anemic,” Harpers said.

MAKING MOVIES IN MAINE

A 1921 advertisement for Holman Day’s big movie of the Maine woods. Exhibitors Herald

Hollywood was already becoming a film hot spot by the end of the First World War, but it hadn’t yet reached the preeminence it later held.

So it wasn’t utterly bizarre that in 1919, an actor turned producer named Edgar Jones, who got his start in film playing cowboys in Westerns filmed in Philadelphia, set up a little studio in Augusta, the Edgar Jones Producing Co., to make what he called “north woods” movies that would feature splendid Maine scenery.

The Lewiston Evening Journal said some people “believe this state will someday be second only to California as the great moving-picture studio and playground of the world.”

The Silent Room blog, which focuses on early film, said Jones made dozens of short films along the Kennebec River and in Augusta during his first two years. Several of them survive, including “Border River,” that has Jones as a Canadian Mountie and Evelyn Brent as a moonshiner’s sister.

“The winter filming was so harsh that the actors had to hold their breaths during scenes so the cameras wouldn’t pick up the frozen vapor coming out of their mouths,” it noted.

Jones wasn’t the only one making short films in Maine.

Somebody else managed to hire a young Mary Astor in 1921 for a short film called “Brother of the Bear,” shot at the old Belgrade Hotel on Long Pond in the Belgrade Lakes area. Astor later remembered the Pine Tree State as “a remote, miserable place to work.”

Day told The Editor in 1921 that New York producers were after him to sell them the rights to “The Rider of the King Log.” They wanted him to go to Hollywood and help film it.

“But it would have to have changes,” they told him, with more “sex stuff” and pizzazz.

Day, though, had another plan.

FILMING ‘THE RIDER OF THE KING LOG’

Day soon began working with Jones to film what would be Maine’s first feature film, eventually taking his place as the little studio’s leader for the effort.

They had actors lined up and ready at a studio created in a barn at 129 Sewall St. in Augusta. Some shots were also done in newsman Guy Gannett’s woods nearby. One of the neighbors, Gov. Percival Baxter, got so interested in what he observed that he wound up with a small part in another, Day-sponsored movie done with Astor at nearly the same time, “Wings of the Border,” a short film about waterpower in Maine.

Actress Irene Boyle Kalem Company

Jones and Day lined up a director, Harry O. Hoyt, and locked in Frank Sheriden to play the lumber baron and Irene Boyle to play his daughter. Boyle managed to squeeze in some campaigning for presidential hopeful Warren Harding before the filming began in the fall of 1920. It went on for six months.

“Filming in Maine is not always so easy as in California,” Day told The Editor. “We have to wait for the weather. You can’t take a picture of a log drive except when one is going on, and you have to wait for spring to catch it. You can’t take a snow scene unless there is snow.”

He said they filmed in reverse order to accommodate the seasons.

Much of the movie was shot along the Kennebec and Dead rivers. For a funeral scene shot in Madison, the entire crew of a paper mill turned out to serve as extras.

The most spectacular scene involved the destruction of a dam.

Day said one of the state’s largest lumber companies offered to stage an explosion that would destroy a 300-foot-long dam it possessed but no longer wanted.

They placed about 200 pounds of dynamite, and “the explosion that came to pass was just as it was hoped for,” Day said, captured on film for his movie.

An advertisement for “The Rider of the King Log” in 1921.  Film Daily

Day said in one advertisement that “several terrific explosions take place” that ruin the log dams of a rival company, something that could have proved fatal for one actor, Charles Slattery, and a cameraman.

In one scene, a fuse was too short, he said, and the pair “were seriously shaken up by so close a proximity to the deafening explosion. It took three days for them to recover from the sudden shock and another day before they could resume work on the picture.”

For a bar exterior, the moviemakers said “they were fortunate to locate a grocery store that, in years gone by, had served as a bar and local roadhouse. A new sign was painted with ‘Grocery Store’ on one side and, at right angles to this, the word ‘Bar,’” according to an account in a Little Rock, Arkansas, paper.

“A wise old lady of the village walked by and noticed the new sign,” the story said, then exclaimed, “Well, I think it’s a sight that they’ve opened up that old hell-hole again!”

She proceeded to hurry off to tell town leaders of her disgust.

In the movie’s finale, the villain from a rival lumber firm meets his fate when he’s caught in a bear trap.

A 1921 advertisement showed a few scenes from the long-lost movie. Film Daily

Day said he hoped the film captured something of the life of “the old lumberjack,” a figure he described as “a family man, who worked in the woods in the winter and in the sawmill in the summer. He lived a great, roaring, hearty life.”

“But he’s gone forever, I guess,” Day added, replaced by people who “come into the woods without any knowledge of trees and things, and stay a little while and go out again.”

AT THEATERS EVERYWHERE, AND THEN NOWHERE

An old postcard of the Empire Theater, which stood on Main Street in Lewiston until 2005. The site is now a parking lot north of the building that housed Pedro O’Hara’s restaurant. Robert R. Bedard Postcard Collection

With Day present to offer a few words, “The Rider of the King Log” opened on Monday, Oct. 3, 1921 at the Empire Theater in Lewiston. Tickets cost 25 cents or 35 cents, depending on the seat. Matinees began at 2 p.m. with evening shows at 7 and 9:15, complete with a Harold Lloyd comedy and the short movie featuring Gov. Baxter.

In the months that followed, it drew crowds from Bangor to Birmingham, many of them at least as eager to see Maine’s scenery as the story presented.

When the Exhibitors Trade Review canvassed movie theater owners about current films early in 1922, it found the film provided “very satisfactory entertainment” and drew decent-sized audiences.

The Strand Theater in Texas decorated for its showing of “The Rider of the King Log” in 1922. Exhibitors Herald

“The entire production was made in Maine and several thousand lumberjacks appeared in the various scenes,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said. “The falling trees and destruction of great trees add a picturesque touch to the photography.”

The “graphic scenes of every phase of the logging industry” also wowed the Austin American-Statesman.

A 1922 ad for “The Rider of the King Log” in a Rushville, Indiana, newspaper. Rushville Republican

The Calgary Daily Herald said the movie’s theme was “the big outdoors of the woods, the roaring cataracts, with a big story of real men and women such as are to be found in the silent places.”

Maine’s natural settings, the paper said, “add an inexplicable charm and magnitude to the whole production. One gets a real thrill out of the superb acting of these inanimate characters – the logs – just as one gets many real thrills out of the fine bits of characterization and powerful acting of the real characters.”

A 1922 advertisement in an Idaho newspaper. Grangeville Globe

Not everybody liked it, naturally.

A review in Moving Picture World said “The Rider of the King Log” failed to shape the story from Day’s novel into one that works as photoplay.

“Who is to blame for this can only be surmised, but there is no argument as to the weakening of the story by failure to follow the simple rules of the game,” the review said.

“The story itself is dramatic, filled with expert character drawings and developed against a background of the rugged beauty” found in Maine, the trade paper said. It added that “expert treatment” would have made the film “one of the group ‘A’ picture of the year.”

But the Exhibitors Herald had fewer qualms, calling it an “excellent entertainment value” with good acting.

The consensus view, said the Associated Exhibitors’ Exploitation Bulletin, was that “The Rider of the King Log” was “a strong, romantic portrayal of life and love in the lumber country” with solid box office value.

Reviews aside, it didn’t make a lot of money – just enough to encourage Day to focus on the film business, which ultimately left him virtually penniless, so poor at his death in 1935 that he was buried without a tombstone in Vassalboro. Colby alums got one for his grave years later when they realized it was not marked, noting only his name, dates and that he was a member of the class of 1887.

As for Day’s big movie, it simply slipped away.

The last mention of it showing anywhere may have been in July 1925 when a few venues in tiny Clarkson County, Nebraska, a farming area between the Platte and Elkhorn rivers, screened it before what couldn’t have been more than a handful of residents.

And with that, it disappeared, perhaps forever.


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