Monday, February 25, 2019

Gaston Méliès Comes to Hollywood...Err, Santa Paula

(Huge thanks to Santa Paula historian Mitch Stone for his help in researching this entry. Merci, Mitch!)

Any serious film buff knows who Georges Méliès was.

Most aren't aware that Georges' brother Gaston also made films - more than 200 in total.

Very few know that Gaston made films in the Ventura County town of Santa Paula.

Poster for "Wanted - A Wife"; staged in front of the Santa Paula train depot (which looks much the same way now as it did then). Published in Motion Picture World. Picture courtesy of Mitch Stone.
Content infringement has always been a problem for creative people, and the silent-film era was no exception. After the family shoe factory shut down, Georges Méliès sent his brother Gaston to America to help protect his films from copyright violation.

Gaston arrived in New York in 1903, setting up an American subsidiary of Georges' Star Film Company. But by 1908, Gaston was trying his hand at making his own films.

French audiences of the time were very interested in the American West (I'm not sure if this had anything to do with the sheer number of French expats and their descendants in California). Gaston was the first filmmaker on record to shoot on location in Texas, mostly filming Westerns. But after a year or so, he followed other filmmakers' migration to California.

Gaston moved Star Film Company's American studio to 7th and Main Streets in Santa Paula in 1911, also residing on the site. (Currently at 7th and Main: the Santa Paula Theatre Center.) Again, he mostly produced Western films. Of the 50 or so short films Gaston produced in Santa Paula, only two are known to survive.

In 1913, Gaston decamped to Tahiti to make the first of many silent short films shot in exotic locations. Besides Tahiti, he produced films in New Zealand, Australia, Java, Singapore, Cambodia, and Japan.

Unfortunately, much of the film was damaged before it could be processed in the United States. Of the 238 films produced by Gaston, only about 60 came from his filmmaking expedition to the South Pacific and Far East.

After the location-shooting expedition ruined his health and nearly bankrupted him, Gaston returned to Santa Paula for long enough to sell his studio/residence. He then returned to France. Supposedly, Georges (who was ruined financially by Gaston's travels) never spoke to him again.

Just two years later, the Santa Paula Chronicle reported on Gaston's death from typhoid fever in Corsica.

In 2015, French documentarian Raphael Millet directed Gaston Méliès and His Wandering Star Film Company. The documentary focuses primarily on Gaston's filmmaking excursion to the South Pacific and Far East. (Does anyone have a copy I could borrow? My usual sources for obscure film don't have it.)

Gaston Méliès is nearly forgotten today. Perhaps it's time for a well-publicized screening of Millet's documentary?

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Frenchwoman Who Built the Italian Hall

Frenchtown had a longstanding friendship with Los Angeles' Little Italy. In fact, the Italian Hall was built by a Frenchwoman.

Miss Marie Madeline Ruellan, a Parisian by birth, sailed for California on the Guiding Star in the summer of 1868 at the age of 22. In 1869 or 1870 (sources disagree), she married Henry Hammel, a German immigrant who owned the United States Hotel (he also had a large vineyard). The couple's only child, Mathilde, was born in 1875.

Henry Hammel passed away in 1890, leaving his $400,000 estate to Marie and 15-year-old Mathilde.

Marie was active in charitable work and known for her kindness to orphans, but she shunned attention. When Mathilde married and had a family of her own, Marie lived with them and spent much of her time with her three grandchildren.

Marie's sizable inheritance included a parcel of land on the Plaza. Frank Arconti, who had owned the land before Henry Hammel and Isaias Hellman bought it, encouraged her to build on the site. Marie commissioned a two-story brick building (from Italian-owned Pozzo Construction), intended to serve the growing Italian community.

Like the nearby Garnier Building, the new Italian Hall served multiple community needs. Italian-owned businesses filled the ground floor. The second floor hosted musical and theatrical performances and provided a home for the Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society (a health-and-welfare safety net for members) as well as social organizations like the Italian Workers' Club. Today, the restored Italian Hall houses the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. (Read more here and scroll down a bit for a picture of Marie.)

Marie Madeline Ruellan Hammel died of heart failure in 1913 at age 71. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery with her mother.