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This week’s “60 Minutes” segment about a short film of downtown San Francisco shot in 1906, right before the earthquake, inspired me to search for the earliest movie filmed in San Diego. I stumbled upon something magical on the American Memory section of the Library of Congress website: a seven-minute look at Balboa Park, filmed in 1915 during the Panama-California Exposition.
San Diego was teeny at the time — with just shy of 39,000 residents at the time compared to hundreds of thousands in San Francisco and Los Angeles — but it still managed to put on quite a show for the world and for filmmakers, too.
The film, dated Feb. 18, 1915, is titled “A Glimpse of the San Diego Exposition.” It features a panoramic view of the exposition along with people walking over the Cabrillo Bridge and through the park. You’ll see several buildings that are still in the park today, plus motorized carts, a film company exhibit, fish in the park’s pond and “a miniature reproduction of the locks of Gatuna of the Panama Canal.”
Check minute 3:40: there’s a great shot of a man taking an appreciative look back at two women walking past. The woman with him is not amused. And at minute 6:00, you can watch a couple adorable little children as they play with pigeons.
Other versions of the video in different formats are available at the Library of Congress site.
This isn’t the only bit of film shot at the Balboa Park exposition: silent-film stars Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand made a short and mildly amusing slapstick film at the park called “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition,” which is available on YouTube. Their careers didn’t last long: Arbuckle, a huge star, would become ensnarled in one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of all time. And Normand died at a young age, but not before spouting an amusing line that appeared in our recent story about Tijuana’s Agua Caliente resort.
My search for the oldest available film of San Diego continues. There were movies shot here as early as 1898, although it’s not clear if they’ve been preserved. If you have any insight on early local film in San Diego, which became a kind of Hollywood South for a time, drop me a line.