Born in Middleburg, Florida, a rural town just outside Jacksonville, Richard Edward Norman (1891-1960) began his film production career in 1912. Quite the entrepreneur, Norman started his career by traveling the Midwest and contracting events to film, inviting the town folk to act out skits, then showing them for a price at area theatres, churches or schools. In one such venture, he staged and filmed a train wreck and used the footage multiple times in multiple towns – whether the town had a train track or not! We believe this is among the first profitable uses of stock footage.
Norman later settled in Jacksonville, at the height of the town’s heyday as the “Winter Film Capitol of the World” and began making full-length feature films. His first, The Green Eyed Monster (1916) was an all-white drama weaving love and deceit in the railroad industry. However, a new film genre was forming that caught Norman’s attention. The movie industry’s first black filmmakers, including Oscar Micheaux and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, were creating a stir, producing what then were called “race films,” made with all-black casts in non-stereotypical roles. While these films were largely shunned by mainstream white society, they were a source of pride among the black community. Norman, who was white, not only had a sincere, heartfelt desire to help improve race relations, he also saw a largely untapped business market among black filmgoers, as well as a wealth of beauty and talent among black stage and Vaudeville stars, who dreamed of making the leap to motion pictures. Unfortunately, the mainstream motion picture business was largely prejudiced, portraying black characters only in derogatory, villain, or step-and-fetch-it roles.
“My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies,” says son Capt. Richard Norman, Jr., who lives in Tallahassee. “And he saw an untapped market. So, he set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres.”
In 1919, Norman remade The Green Eyed Monster with an all black cast and a comedic twist. The comedy version flopped, so he removed these scenes and edited the film into a five-reel, all-black drama. This proved a hit among African-American audiences and attracted letters from the top black actors of the time, all hoping to star in the next Norman Studios film.
Later films included Regeneration (1923) starring Stella Mayo of the famed Mayo Family Magicians; Black Gold (1928), a greed- and love-fueled story surrounding the oil business; and The Flying Ace (1926), Norman’s most celebrated film (restored and housed at the Library of Congress today). Billed as “the greatest airplane thriller every filmed,” The Flying Ace was shot entirely on the ground, but was lauded for its stunts and camera tricks. Much of Norman’s inspiration came courtesy of headlines about black aviators including Bessie Coleman. He had spoken with her about making a film of her stunt flying exploits shortly before her untimely death in a plane crash near Jacksonville’s Atlantic shore.
Richard Norman’s legacy is that of a man who sought to integrate an industry long before the mainstream would embrace it, and to produce films with story lines and high-quality acting and production values that stand the test of time. Screenings of The Flying Ace at the 2001 Jacksonville Film Festival and at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2009 had audiences laughing out loud and left them in awe of the production values of a nearly century-old film.
Richard Norman was much more than a filmmaker – he was a visionary, both professionally and civically. Though his films may not be considered among the “greats,” they were groundbreaking. As a white filmmaker daring to produce black-cast and crewed films with positive, family-friendly storylines, he took great risks both professionally and personally. Yet his films were loved by both black and white audiences, says son Capt. Richard Norman, Jr., who tells tales of playing on his father’s film sets as a very young boy, including hiding from playmates in the hollow of one of The Flying Ace‘s stunt planes. Norman’s purchase of the Eagle City Film Center extended Jacksonville’s era of silent film production and provided a bridge to the next generation of filmmakers who chose the area. He continues to inspire film buffs. In the future his studio will provide a center for youthful filmmakers to practice their craft.
Today, Norman’s five-building silent film studio complex still stands in the heart of Jacksonville’s historic Old Arlington neighborhood. Working in tandem with the City of Jacksonville, the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, Inc. and Old Arlington, Inc. (nonprofit organizations dedicated to the preservation of the Norman property and other Arlington historic spots) aim to support the restoration and reopening of the Norman studio as a museum and a film education center for students of all ages.
Richard Norman’s contributions to Florida filmmaking, and to black filmmaking as a whole, make him a true film legend.