IVANHOE Starring St. Louisan King Baggot – A Look Back at 1913
By 1913, the American film industry had been around for over twenty years. In 1909 Carl Laemmle, a renegade and maverick movie mogul and film distributor, founded his own company in New York — the Yankee Film Company. Laemmle also started producing movies in Fort Lee, New Jersey that same year. His first company was called the Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) Company, aka IMP Studios. Soon however, Laemmle would be making plans to journey West where he would expand his film production and in 1912 co-founded the Universal Film Manufacturing Co., or Universal Film Company – the precursor to Universal Pictures in Hollywood. The studio had its sights set on bigger and better things than the one and two-reel shorts that Hollywood had been grinding out. European studios were producing big, ambitious feature productions and Universal felt the need to compete.
Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel Ivanhoe was first published in 1820. The story was set in 1194 during the reign of King Richard I and focused on Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a Saxon Knight returning from the Holy Lands to England. His mission was to raise 150,000 marks of silver as ransom for the imprisoned King being held captive in an Austrian cell. Universal saw Ivanhoe as the perfect property to film, and spent a record amount of money to produce it. Their 1913 film IVANHOE was the first example of a studio sending a cast and crew to a remote venue to film on location. They traveled by train to New York, then sailed by ship the 3000 miles to Wales. Their destination was Chepstow Castle, located in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, on top of cliffs overlooking the River Wye. Chepstow Castle was, and remains, the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain, being constructed between the years 1067 and 1188. By the early 20th century, Chepstow had become a major tourist attraction in Wales (In 1977 Terry Gilliam shot some of his film JABBERWOCKY at the castle). The castle was owned at the time by the Duke of Beauford, who agreed to rent it to the studio for one month.
Universal tapped its biggest star, 34-year old King Baggot, to play the title role in IVANHOE. Bagget, who was born and raised in St. Louis, was the first internationally famous movie star of the silent era and the first individually publicized leading man in America, Baggot was referred to as “King of the Movies,” “The Most Photographed Man in the World” and “The Man Whose Face Is As Familiar As The Man In The Moon.” Director Herbert Brenon, who had directed dozens of shorts for the studio, shot IVANHOE and co-starred as Isaac of York. Leah Baird was cast as Rebecca and Evelyn Hope played Lady Rowena. The rest of the cast was made up of local British actors.
For three or four weeks in 1913, the town of Chepstow took on the state of a festival, as nothing like the filming of IVANHOE had been done on British soil up until that time. All the local hotels were full of Norman knights and damsels with American accents, the local ‘supers’ or extras, apparently went about their work in costume. Locals assisted with the costumes and ‘The Church Boy’s House’, a large social hall, was converted into a props and makeup facility. Reporters from national newspapers and the film press covered the making of IVANHOE in detail, wanting to see how a “great cinematograph picture is taken”. They gave high praise to the making of the battle scenes. The sack of ‘Torquilstone’ caused two days of great excitement involving an army of 300 locals (Universal would claim ‘A Cast of Thousands’ in the film’s marketing). Enthusiastic participation resulted in a number of injuries, mostly minor, as well as many broken ‘weapons’. King Baggot himself was injured during the making of the film when an extra smacked him on the chin with a sword. Baggot can be seen staggering away from the blow in the final film. The filming was described as “the biggest venture of the kind ever attempted in England,” It had a cast of 50 horses as well as 500 people. 20,000 feet of negative were exposed by the two cameramen out of which 3,500 ft made the final three-reel film which lasted a whopping 48 minutes. Correspondents for the British press were on location for the filming and praised King Baggot.
The Cinematograph Exhibitors Mail wrote:
“What a wonderfully perfect actor is Mr. King Baggot and what an enormous amount of energy he puts into his work. He seems to inspire the rest of the company whenever he is in the picture, with the result that they put much more force into their work than they would otherwise deem necessary. He takes his work completely to heart, and this past week I am sure he has forgotten that he is King Baggot, the best film actor I the world!”
The ambitious IVANHOE, filled with pageantry and excitement, was a huge hit for Universal in 1913. The only film that made more money for the studio that year was the studio’s version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which also starred King Baggot (and is considered the first Universal horror film). IVANHOE opened in England September 11th 1913 and in the U.S. two weeks later. The domestic ads boasted that the film was smashing box-office records in the UK. In an interesting twist, a British studio, Zenith, produced their own version of IVANHOE in 1913 as well. It was nearly twice as long as the Universal film, but not nearly as well received. It was released in the U.S. under the title REBECCA THE JEWESS and is now considered a lost film.
Moving Picture World magazine covered the film of IVANHOE in 1913 and gave it an excellent review. They wrote:
“An earnest and ambitious effort to film high class popular fiction of the type of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, deserves the hearty commendation of every friend of moving pictures. Even it the production resulting from such an effort was feeble and imperfect, harsh criticism would be out of place. Happily, the film rendering of Ivanhoe. by the Universal Film Company, does not stand in need of any indulgence but is, on the contrary, entitled to sincere praise purely on its merits. The director has evidently grown with his task and there is-plenty of evidence all through this feature, that care, and time, and patience, and skill entered into the production. In, this film, the Universal Film Company have aimed higher than usual and I am glad to say that their mark is close to the center of the target.”
That was 100 years ago. Since then, Ivanhoe has been filmed at least four more times (perhaps the most famous being the 1952 version starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor) and was even a TV show in the ‘50s. Chepstow Castle continued to serve as a major tourist site and an adjacent museum was added to the property which has served as a venue for all sorts of cultural activities. This past year, to celebrate the centennial of IVANHOE being filmed there, the castle sponsored a screening of the movie on its grounds. The event took place July 13th and was a well-attended success. A local renaissance group adorned in medieval garb began the show by dancing while local opera star Karl Daymond sang. A newly assembled score, played by a pianist, accompanied the film. IVANHOE, the first American Studio film epic, has slipped into obscurity in the 100 years since its release and it looks like this opportunity to view it again was a big hit.
For more information about silent film star King Baggot, visit the King Baggot Tribute Facebook Page HERE
Photos of the screening of IVANHOE at Chepstow Castle provided by David Howell