Don Newland showed the country that everyone could be a movie star. One day a person might be driving a taxi, practicing law or simply a mother caring for her children and the next day Newland would have them in front of his movie camera saying lines and becoming a movie star.
It was the classic “A Star is Born” discovery except that it wasn’t happening to Lana Turner who was discovered at a soda bar in Hollywood. It was happening to John Q. Public in Cumberland and dozens of other small cities across the country.
Newland was an “itinerant filmmaker,” which is a filmmaker who traveled from city to city shooting a film with local actors before moving on to the next city. He is known to have filmed dozens of cities in Maryland, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Florida, Indiana and Georgia.
“There are probably more, but we just don’t know so much has been lost,” said Anne Evans, a genealogist who took an interest in Newland when she read about him filming in her hometown of Danville, VA, in 1930. Her grandfather worked for the Danville Bee newspaper at the time the movie was being made.
“I was fascinated to find out what kind of person would come to my country hometown to film a movie,” Evans said.
Evans has been tracing Newland’s travels and films for nearly three years. She does internet searches and calls mayors, city administrators and historical societies questioning them about a movie filmed in their cities 80 to 90 years ago.
“Sometimes if I can find newspaper articles about the movie, it will mention the next town he was going to or where he came from. Then I can check that town,” Evans said.
Newland was born in Battle Creek, MI, in 1896 and started working in the film industry in his teens. When he enlisted in the army in late 1918, near the end of World War I, his employer was listed as Magnet Feature Film Exchange in Chicago. Newland’s military career lasted only five months before being discharged as part of the mass demobilization at the end of the war.
The Cumberland Evening Times noted had worked with Mary Pickford, James Kirkwood, Flora Finch and John Bunny. Evans notes that since Bunny died in 1915, Newland would have had to begin working in film in his teens. The Staunton News Leader also credits him with directing comedies for Mack Sennett.
One of Newland’s daughters, Hellen, lives in Ohio. She was only two years old when her father died in a car accident in 1951. “I remember little about my father, but from what I’ve gathered over the years, I get the sense that he was extremely passionate about his work,” Hellen said. “He was a pioneer, along with other filmmakers like him. They were out there breaking new ground on their own.”
It was good that Newland loved his work because it was never lucrative for him. Hellen’s family told her that once her father had to pay for gasoline with pencils because the family was so poor.
Newland met his future wife, Opal, in Wellston, OH, where he was filming a “Hero” movie. Though they enjoyed the glamorous side of the filmmaking life at times, Hellen said her mother grew not to like it because “there wasn’t any money in it for him and my father stopped because he wanted to raise a family with her.”
The Newlands had two daughters. Though he was no longer in the movie industry, he continued film work but switched to the advertising field, according to Evans.
While driving to Florida with his family in 1951, Newland was fatally injured in a car accident. He died two days later on May 7 and is buried in Riverview Cemetery in South Bend, IN.
Local Movie Stars
Newland’s work involved getting a mid-size city’s newspaper to sponsor him. He would then come to the town with a small crew and select local residents to star in a short film set in the city. He would also use lots of other residents as extras and plenty of exterior shots of the town. The script was the same for each city. Only the title changed to reflect the city; hence, the film shot in Cumberland was titled “Cumberland’s Hero” and the one filmed in Danville was “Danville’s Hero.”
Selection of the actors and filming took roughly 10 days. The film could then be developed and edited in a few days with a few more days left to show the finished product at a local sponsoring theater.
Newland’s process actually assured both good press and high attendance for his films. Since the local newspaper was sponsoring the film, it was unlikely that it would be critical of it. Also, by casting locals, particularly hundreds of children used in an orphanage scene, he was assured that the children’s families would come to the see the movie during its short run.
Besides lots of local scenery in the movie, his films also included a staged head-on car crash that always attracted a crowd who wanted to see how two cars could be made to look like they crash on film but in actuality aren’t damaged. The Cumberland Evening Times reported, “while Director Newland does [not] promise any actual demolishment of the two new Hudson cars furnished by the Maryland Garage, he does guarantee a very accurate sample of the mechanics of modern ‘smash-up’ photography.” (Curious? The crash starts with the cars head to head and then they back away from each other. It’s filmed at faster than normal so that when it is played back at normal speed, it looks like the cars are rushing toward each other. )
According to the Canton Independent Sentinel in Ohio, it is believed that only one print of the film was made and while communities held onto their copies, most have been lost to neglect and time. Another reason for the loss could also be that the films were nitrate based, which made them highly flammable and they tended to degrade within a few decades.
The Cumberland Movies
Newland, who with Interstate Film Producers of Los Angeles, actually shot two films in Cumberland, which was rare for him. The films “Cumberland’s Hero” in 1923 and “My Hero” in 1931 are the same basic story—a romantic comedy—, though Newland apparently added scenes and characters to the script in the intervening years. The biggest difference between the two films is that “Cumberland’s Hero” was a silent film while “My Hero” was a “sound synchronized” talking picture.
“Cumberland’s Hero” was filmed in August 1923 and shown at the Maryland Theatre in Cumberland. It also had a short run in September at the Palace Theater in Frostburg. The movie’s interior scenes were shot on sets in the Maryland Theatre during the day. Newland also gave a short talk to the audience on filmmaking before shooting began each day.
The Cumberland Evening Times described the movie as, “From beginning to end the picture promises to be a real side-splitting comedy lacking in the many little imperfections so usual in amateur performances. A lively story, punctuated with thrills, embroidered in points of admiration and paragraphed in convulsion of laughter unravels itself in a most pleasing way.”
Exterior shots included Baltimore Street, the Dingle, Queen City Station and the offices of the Evening Times.
When the “Cumberland’s Hero” opened, the Cumberland Evening Times reported, “Managers Mellinger of the Maryland Theatre, stated today that never since they have been managers of the house, have there been such crowds present and such universal satisfaction from the patrons and they predict that when the lights flicker out this evening that at least 4,000 will have seen the local picture.” This means that each showing was averaging about 667 people.
Newland returned to Cumberland in February 1931 to film “My Hero.” Besides the same shots as “Cumberland’s Hero,” this film also had a scene at the country club and on a farm. Washington Street replaced the Dingle as well. The male lead’s name was changed and a couple of additional characters were added, but the summaries of the movies read pretty much the same. It played at the Strand Theater in Cumberland along with “No Limit” starring Clara Bow.
No copies of Cumberland’s films are known to exist. This is a problem in many communities where Newland worked. However, four cities have been able to preserve their films.
“I’m sure there are more films out there,” Evans said. “There are people and historical societies out there with what they may think are home movies and they just don’t know what they have is a real Hollywood film.”
Evans also said that two home movies have been discovered that show the making of Newland’s movies, including “Winchester’s Hero.”
“There’s a man there whose mother filmed a couple minutes of the car crash scene as a home movie,” Evans said. “Then he and his family went to see the movie when it was finished.”
The other home movie is being restored at the University of Georgia through a grant the school received.
“Film study programs are taking more interest in researching itinerant filmmakers,” Evans said.
She said it’s conceivable that some of the actors from the films are still alive. She knows of such a case in Danville where an elderly woman in poor health appeared in the Danville film as a child.
“There are also folks who saw the movie or took pictures of it being filmed,” Evans said. “Newland met with the communities where he worked and in one location they even had a dinner dance for him.”
Evans said that she would like to put together a mini-documentary about Newland if enough material can be gathered. She is looking for other cities where Newland may have worked. The only other Maryland city, other than Cumberland, that is known is Salisbury, but what about Frederick? Hagerstown? Or Westminster?
She especially is hoping that someone will take a closer look at their old home movies and find a copy of one of the films or photos in old photo albums. That person would certainly be her “Cumberland’s Hero.”
Anyone who has information about Don Newland or his “Hero” movies can contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see a clip of a “Hero” movie, visit: services.juniata.edu/cts/dmz/projects/Historical/huntingdonsheroexcerpt.html.