Friday, November 16, 2018

10 'outtakes' from my story on epic 1923 Franklin battle film

Director Allen Holubar (right) poses with extras for the epic battle scene.
(Nashville Tennessean via
Like this blog on Facebook | Read my story on the movie in Civil War Times.

In 1923, 16 years before Gone With The Wind debuted in American movie theaters, a Civil War-themed movie was filmed on location in Tennessee. The Human Mill, the first Hollywood-produced film made in the state, featured an epic Battle of Franklin scene shot on the very plain upon which John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee charged on Nov. 30, 1864. Think of it as Saving Private Ryan before all the whiz-bang special effects of late-20th century movie-making.

Allen Holubar, the 33-year-old director
of The Human Mill.
California-based director Allen Holubar, a 33-year-old former silent movie actor, set up home base at The Hermitage, the first million-dollar hotel in Nashville. Almost immediately, he sought thousands of soldier extras for the filming of the great battle scene. Tennessee did not disappoint. A military academy in nearby Columbia and two schools in Spring Hill supplied their entire student bodies. Franklin’s Battle Ground Academy and high school also offered up their male students. World War I and Spanish-American War veterans -- even Confederate vets -- eagerly volunteered for bit parts.

The day of the battle scene filming, Sept. 27, 1923, was one of the more eventful in Franklin history. A holiday was declared, schools and businesses closed, and between 10,000-12,000 people gathered on the outskirts of small town 17 miles south of Nashville to watch Hollywood movie magic. (Check out my lengthy feature story about the filming in the February 2019 issue of Civil War Times. The story is online here.)

Don't look for The Human Mill on YouTube. In fact, you won't find it ... ah, read my CWT piece for viewing information. In the meantime, pop some popcorn, grab a drink and enjoy these "outtakes" from one of the cooler stories I have written.

Director Allen Holubar (right) was loaned Tennessee's "oldest stage coach," according
to the Nashville Tennessean, for use in his movie. (
Blanche Sweet, shown in the
 Nashville Tennessean on 
Sept. 26, 1923, had a starring role
 in the film. (
WANNA BE A MOVIE STAR? Days before filming began, the director put out word in a Nashville newspaper (right) seeking a local for a big part in the film:
Here's a piece of news that will interest local screen aspirants: Allen Holubar, prominent motion picture director, who is making Nashville his headquarters while filming a number of big scenes for "The Human Mill," stated this morning that he is still looking for some Nashville miss who resembles Blanche Sweet to take one of the big parts in the production he is filming. Every theatre-goer has seen Blanche Sweet on the screen many, many times. Above is a new picture of her. If you believe there Is a resemblance between yourself and. this well known screen star, get in touch with Mr. Holubar immediately at the Hermitage hotel. If you meet with the requirements, you will be given a real part in "The Human Mill." This offer is not in the nature of a contest, but is a sincere attempt to secure a Nashville girl for the role. Many local girls have already called on the director to apply for the part, but the exact type preferred has not as yet put in her appearance at the Metro headquarters.
It's unknown if Holubar found his Blanche Sweet lookalike.

WHERE, OH WHERE:. The battle scene was filmed on the farm of J.W. Yowell, known as "the old Fly place," about a mile south of Franklin and about a half-mile west of Columbia Pike. Like nearly the entire plain upon which Hood's men marched, the farmland where the movie was shot was developed long ago. No marker notes the site of The Human Mill filming. (Hood's army suffered 7,000 casualties at Franklin; six Confederate generals, including Patrick Cleburne, died of wounds suffered in the battle.)

Masonic Lodge in Franklin, wardrobe depot
for the movie and hospital in the aftermath of the real 

Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864.
GET YOUR UNIS: 2,000 soldier extras received their military uniforms and other accoutrements at Franklin's old Masonic Lodge,  which served as a wardrobe depot. The hall, used as a makeshift hospital following the real Battle of Franklin, still stands on 2nd Avenue South. "Gives us Confederate uniforms!" shouted many of the extras. "We don't want any damn Yankee uniforms!" Unsurprisingly, sentiment in Tennessee was pro-Confederate in 1923, although the state did supply 31,000 soldiers to the Union army.

ABOUT THOSE OL' REBELS: The director was adamant about using them in the film. "Mr. Holubar declared ... that the Battle of Franklin would not be realistic, nor would it be satisfactory to him, without the presence of real Confederate soldiers in the lines," according to a newspaper account.

SPEAKING OF EPIC: Marshall Morgan crafted an outstanding, two-part account about the filming of the battle scene for the Nashville Tennessean in 1950.  In Part II of "Second Hour of Glory," he wrote:
Although the battle was not scheduled to begin until 10 o'clock, daylight found the Columbia highway almost impassable under its burden of automobiles, buggies, wagons, bicycles, baby carriages and plodding hundreds of pedestrians. Twenty special deputies had been sworn in to augment the everyday forces of law; and as fast as the movie-spellbound throngs arrived on the scene they were herded into a roped-off hillside area. 
LOTS OF BANG: Beginning about daybreak, the "battlefield" was mined with explosives that, when exploded, simulated the results of artillery fire. "For its explosive effects," director Holubar said, "this battle scene surpasses any I have seen taken."

The Human Mill coverage on Page 1 of the Nashville Tennessean on Sept. 28, 1923. (
STOP THE PRESSES! The filming of The Human Mill received extensive coverage in the Nashville Tennessean, including Page 1 stories the day after the movie's battle scenes were shot in Franklin. Wrote the newspaper:
Shells burst overhead, gallant troops of the Confederacy charged recklessly forward, only to recoil and then return to the attack; federal gunners and foot soldiers fought silently and doggedly and the plain was strewn with the dead as shells and mines sent up showers of dirt and rock near Franklin, Thursday while thousands watched the Battle of Franklin re-enacted as Allen Holubar, of the Metro forces directed the big scene in the filming of "The Human Mill," movie version of John Trotwood Moore's "Bishop of Cottontown."
Isaac Sherwood
A REAL FRANKLIN VETERAN'S TAKE: Congressman Isaac Sherwood, who fought in the 1864 battle as an officer in the 111th Ohio, was "deeply" interested in the film. The 88-year-old veteran reportedly attended the filming of the battle scene, serving as an unofficial advisor.  "...but no moving picture," he wrote in a letter published in the Nasvhille Tennessean after the filming, "can move like the stalwart host moved at Franklin November 30, 1864, and the world will never again see a battle to compare with Franklin.

"But I am going to travel many miles," he added. "to see the mock Franklin when it is ready."

HURRAH FOR HOLUBAR! Days after the battle scene filming was completed, praise for the director was published in the Nashville Tennessean:
Mr. Holubar had conjured better than he knew. The day of the 60's was back again. In that tense retrospect, the past itself was here. What had been done to bring it back was a matter of little moment. All the more praise for him that he made us forget the quick lire of his imagination, his art, and all his dominance of a thousand details, in the grip of the thing he had produced. It is not Allen Holubar that we remember as the thrill of the scene still strikes at our hearts, but the gray ghosts that he brought to life and the old battle that roared again across a famous field because of him."

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

1 comment:

  1. Great story John. Oh what might have been.