Meet St. Louis’ Forgotten King Of The Movies | St. Louis Public Radio

Meet St. Louis’ Forgotten King Of The Movies

Nov 13, 2014

King Baggot
Credit Wikimedia

The St. Louis International Film Festival, which opens tonight, will pay tribute to the man considered to be the first movie star. Today, he's largely forgotten.

“A hundred years ago, he was the biggest movie star in the world — literally,” St. Louis film historian Tom Stockman told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. Stockman is the editor of We Are Movie Geeks. “His career was really a career of firsts: He was the first to have his name above the title. He was the first person that people went to see a movie because a certain actor was in that movie.”

St. Louis native King Baggot acted in and directed hundreds of films, nearly all of them silent.

“He starred in over 300 films between 1909 and about 1919,” Stockman said. “You gotta keep in mind that these were all one-reelers — they lasted about 15 to 17 minutes. But they’re all gone; they’re all lost.”

Many silent film reels were never preserved, and the film would decompose if it wasn’t kept in a climate-controlled environment. The earliest feature-length film with sound, or talkie, was 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”

Baggot got his start in St. Louis and performed in many St. Louis theaters.

“He was a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered guy. He had a white streak that ran through his dark hair. He was of Irish descent,” Stockman said. “He grew up here. He went to CBC for high school. He played soccer for St. Louis’ first professional soccer team, the St. Louis Shamrocks. He even worked for the St. Louis Browns baseball organization in ticket sales at one time.”

Baggot’s bright blue eyes, even on black-and-white film, drove women crazy, Stockman said. “It was the women that were sending letters in to the studio saying ‘Who is this guy? He’s so handsome.’”

Baggot left St. Louis for Broadway, where he began acting in films, around 1909. At that time, actors were not credited for their work. Baggot’s popularity helped change that.

“King Baggot certainly starred in some of the biggest money-making films. ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and ‘Ivanhoe’ were the two biggest money-making films of 1913, and those both starred King Baggot,” Stockman said.

“Ivanhoe” will be shown Friday night as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival’s King Baggot tribute. Copies of “Dr. Jekyll” can be found online.

“‘Ivanhoe’ is very lively. It’s a lot of fun,” Stockman said. “It’s got epic sword fights and battle scenes and burnings at the stake. It’s also historically significant because it was the first example of an American film studio sending a cast and crew to a remote location to film on location. They sent King Baggot and the leading lady and the director to Wales.”

In the 1920s, Baggot moved to Hollywood and began directing. From 1921 to 1928, Baggot directed about 30 feature films.

“‘Tumbleweeds’ is really King Baggot’s masterpiece as a director,” Stockman said. The film also will be part of Friday’s film tribute to Baggot. “It’s his greatest triumph, and it’s a really amazingly directed film. It’s about the Oklahoma land rush of the late 19th century where the government opened up all this land and all these cowboys — hundreds of thousands of cowboys — took off across the land to claim (it). There’s epic scenes with thousands of horses.

“He developed the pit shot where the camera is sort of underground and the horse is jumping over the camera. You see it in a million westerns, but King Baggot was the first to do that.”

In 1930, Baggot’s life began to crumble.

“His wife filed for divorce because of his drinking. He got arrested for driving while intoxicated, and that was a big scandal in that day,” Stockman said. “He had trouble finding any work as a director or an actor for a couple of years.”

Baggot had bit parts, some speaking and some non-speaking, in movies after that. Baggot died in Los Angeles in 1948. His Hollywood Walk of Fame star was dedicated in 1960.

“He’s the only actor from St. Louis to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but not the St. Louis Walk of Fame,” Stockman said.

The St. Louis native not only changed movies, he defined what it meant to be a movie star.

“His rise of fame was the mark of the star system as we know it today,” Stockman said. “There were no movies stars, then there was King Baggot, then there were a lot of movie stars. He was the first to be on the cover of movie magazines. The ‘King Baggot Rag’ was a piece of best-selling sheet music. There were King Baggot cigars; his image was used in advertising for things like tobacco products. You see all of that today, but it all sort of originated with King Baggot.”

Related Events

Tribute to King Baggot

  • "Ivanhoe" features live musical accompaniment by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, 2014
  • Where: Moore Auditorium at Webster University, 470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis
  • More information

'Tumbleweeds'

  • A silent western directed by King Baggot and starring William S. Hart. Live musical accompaniment by pianist Matt Pace.
  • When: 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 14, 2014
  • Where: Moore Auditorium at Webster University, 470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.