Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2023

A Lighthouse Mystery “Out Yonder”


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One of the many films with a lighthouse-themed ...

This past June, the Colonial Theater in Augusta, Maine held a two-day film festival that featured silent films from the 1910s and 1920s that had Maine ties. One of the films, Out Yonder (1919), starring ingenue Olive Thomas, had filming locations along the Maine coast and took place in a lighthouse where Thomas’ character, Flotsam, lived with her lightkeeper father. But which lighthouse was it filmed at?

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Purported to have been filmed entirely in Maine, ...

It was commonplace for film production companies of that era to have distance exterior shots be of real buildings, and the lighthouse in the film looked like it could have been a New England light; however, there were no lighthouses known that matched the particular architecture of the tower nor had the wide-banded alternating daymark. Since the film’s restoration several years ago, film historians have continually asked for help in identifying the light, even contacting experts in the lighthouse community, but to no avail.

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According to newspaper production notes, the 1919 ...

A newspaper article announcing the Augusta film festival, published in the Lewiston Sun Journal and Portland Press Herald on June 11, 2023, issued the plea once again for any information on the location of the lighthouse, with the reward of two free passes to the film festival in exchange.

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Beautiful silent film ingenue, Olive Thomas, was ...

Two days later, the newspaper headlines heralded “Mainer Solves Mystery Over Silent Film’s Lighthouse.” The paper continued: “An expert for the East Machias publication Lighthouse Digest solved the mystery surrounding the location of a lighthouse shown in 1919 silent movie ‘Out Yonder.’

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The interior cut-away view of the lighthouse ...

“‘The lighthouse isn’t a real one,’ Debra Baldwin said. The filmmakers constructed a fake Maine lighthouse for use in the film – and put it on the rocky shores of the Hudson River in Cliffside, New Jersey, on the shore opposite Columbia University and Grant’s Tomb.

“A wire story that appeared in several newspapers mentioned that ‘New Yorkers living in the neighborhood of 110th Street and Riverside Drive, or those passing that way, took an added squint across the Hudson recently, for as if overnight, there had been erected on the Jersey shore a large lighthouse.’

“The 55-foot lighthouse with a revolving lantern provides key scenery for the silent film. . . The film was shot in Maine and along the New England coast, news stories from the time said. But the New Jersey location slipped in after producers ‘searched the New England and New Jersey coast from end to end’ without finding a lighthouse that fit the needs of the story, according to an October 1919 account in the News-Journal of Mansfield, Ohio.”

Baldwin, who has served as historian for Lighthouse Digest for the past eight years, noticed several clues that proved the lighthouse was not a real one, regardless of the full-size building that appeared in the film. Among the obvious hints were that there was no ventilator ball or lightning rod that topped the building, which a normal lighthouse would have.

The interior shots of the tower just showed a free-standing tightly-spiraled staircase, floating in a big room, obviously not filmed in a real lighthouse tower; the railing on the outer gallery of the lantern was clearly made of wood; and the shots inside the lantern showed it to be only half a bank of window panes with a cut-away view of a platform-landing where the lens pedestal was mounted. This gave ample room for the tripod cameras to be set up many feet back, giving distance shots of the whole lantern and lens assembly, something you would never be able to do in a small, enclosed real lighthouse lantern.

Additionally, for several years, Baldwin had been collecting information on faux lighthouses used in silent movies filmed on the West Coast, and she was well aware that studios magically constructed full-scale lighthouse towers very quickly, just for a few weeks’ filming, and then disassembled them just as rapidly, much to the amazement of the local populace.

So, she knew what terms to search for in historic newspaper cinema columns during the production dates of the film in early 1919; and with the film production studio being located in New Jersey, that was a big hint as to the real location for the buildings.

However, one exception to all the constructed faux sets were the lighthouse lens and pedestal column. That part appeared to be a real 5th order Fresnel lens, with bullseye flash panels, mounted on a standard, single-column pedestal base. The sawtooth frame, including door hinges, number of prisms and their shapes, angles and locations, plus the proportions of the pedestal and how it was mounted, all seemed legit.

In researching further, Baldwin found that one possible explanation for this was that the faux lighthouse location in Cliffside, and the film production studio, Selznick Pictures, located two miles away in Fort Lee, New Jersey, were only about 30 miles from the large Thompkinsville Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island. Perhaps the depot had either loaned or rented out a spare lens and pedestal to use in filming for that short time. There were several lighthouses up the Hudson River that utilized a 5th order Fresnel lens, so the depot likely had several spare lenses for contingencies.

But even if it were a real lens, and there were several other movies of that era that used real lighthouses, both for exterior and interior filming, Out Yonder was not one of them. It was still a fine film, regardless, and well worth the price of a ticket, even today. A Dutch version of the film can be seen on Youtube, but a fully restored copy with English intertitles can be found at GrapevineVideo.com for purchase.

And a last note – interestingly, when the completed film was later shown in Maine at the Colonial Theater in Belfast in January of 1921, many people got to experience “Manager Clifford’s ingenious device of adding an electric lighthouse and bell to make the reel of Out Yonder more impressive.” We wonder where that electric lighthouse model ended up? But that will be another future mystery to sleuth out in the never-ending, fascinating lighthouse research that takes place daily at Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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