Richard Norman - Moviemaker
The Flying Ace Movie Poster
Richard Norman: Jacksonville Moviemaker
Most people who are familiar with Jacksonville's history know about the city's ties to the military or the big fire of 1901 and the subsequent land boom of the 20's; but many folks are not aware of Jacksonville's tie to the motion picture industry and some of the firsts that took place in and around Jacksonville.
In the early part of the 20th century, New York City was the home of the motion picture industry. The kingpins of the fledgling industry liked the climate and labor base in Jacksonville and the town quickly became "The Winter Film Capital of the World."
Among a long list of firsts, the first Technicolor motion picture was filmed in Jacksonville. It was filmed at the beach and was also known for being the first feature-length Technicolor movie filmed in the USA.
It was during this period that Jacksonville became an important part of the African-American film industry. Richard Norman was born in Middleburg and picked up his filmmaking skills bouncing around the Midwest. When he returned to Jacksonville in 1915 he began making successful feature films including “The Green Eyed Monster” a drama about the railroad industry.
Norman then teamed up with Oscar Micheaux and began producing what were called “race movies” with all-black casts in serious roles. Norman and his fellow filmmakers had built their niche featuring African Americans portraying "splendidly, assuming different roles," as Norman called them.
The movie industry was a little too much for Jacksonville’s conservative makeup. In 1917, John W. Martin became the mayor of Jacksonville running on a conservative platform to get rid of the movie industry. At the same time, Southern California was developing a reputation conducive to the filmmaking industry and the death knell was sounded for Jacksonville as a major film destination. Martin went on to serve a four-year term as Governor of Florida.
Norman, who was white, had a sincere desire to see improvements in the strained race relations in the south, but he also recognized a largely underserved demographic group of black filmgoers. He also recognized the wealth beauty and talented African-American stage and Vaudeville stars, who aspired to make the jump to motion pictures.
But in the early 20th century the power structure of the movie industry was largely prejudicial and wanted to only portray black characters as villains, servants or step-and-fetch-it roles.
Later films included The Flying Ace in 1926, which Norman wrote and directed. This was probably Norman’s best-known movie. It has been restored and is now housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The Flying Ace was billed as one of the greatest airplane thrillers every filmed. Using techniques that were well before their time, The Flying Ace was filmed entirely on the ground. In spite of this limitation the movie was honored for its stunts and camera techniques... Much of Norman’s inspiration for The Flying Ace came from stories about contemporary black aviators. One of these aviators was Bessie Coleman, a well-known African-American civil aviator
Coleman was the first female, African-American pilot in the U.S, and the first African-American to receive an international pilot certificate. Coleman died in a plane crash at Jacksonville’s beach in 1926.
It is not known if Bessie Coleman ever saw Norman’s movie which was based to a large degree on her stunt flying expertise,
Richard Norman is certainly one of Middleburg and Jacksonville’s living legends from the bygone days of Florida film-making.
It was because Ann Burt, a Jacksonville resident, learned that the dilapidated buildings scheduled for destruction on Jacksonville's Arlington Road were an important movie studio in another time that there were serious efforts to make the former site of Norman Studios into a museum.
Recommended Reading: The First Hollywood
National Park Service Gets Involved
In November 2016, the National Park Service assumed responsibility for the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum. The arrangement negotiated with the city of Jacksonville ensures the preservation and restoration of the studio as well as the operation of the museum. Under this arrangement, the National Park Service will pay a major part of the restoration and refurbishing.