The Rose of Old St. Augustine (1911) A Silent Film Review

Real-life gentleman pirate Jean Lafitte is the central character in this big budget Selig romance. When our hero goes undercover in a Spanish outpost, romance and jealousy soon endanger his life and his chances of marrying a noblewoman.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.

You can’t spell “Romance” without the ARR!

Ah, the romance of old Florida! Love in the air! Pirates on the shore!

Avast and ahoy!

The Selig Polyscope film company took audiences back in time by a century to portray an epic adventure. Well, as epic as one reel of film allowed. But what it lacked in runtime, it more than made up for with fast-paced action.

Real historical pirate Jean Lafitte (Charles Clary) captures a Spanish nobleman on his way to wed Dolores, the Rose of St. Augustine (Kathlyn Williams). Lafitte steals his clothes and his letter of introduction and heads off to woo Dolores himself. He is accompanied by his lieutenant, Dalroy (W.H. Stowell) and his Seminole friend Black Hawk (Tom Mix).

Florida Man Romances Noblewoman

Dolores falls in love with Lafitte but Dalroy falls in love with Dolores and betrays his captain to the Spanish authorities. Black Hawk and Dolores plot a daring rescue operation, free Lafitte from the dungeon and get clean away. The picture ends abruptly with the traitor walking the plank.

As is the case with most historical pirate picture, the romance and derring-do are remembered and the more unsavory behavior is politely omitted. As a suave Frenchman who sided with the Americans, Lafitte was an almost irresistible topic for Hollywood, and he was played onscreen by big names like Fredric March, Yul Brynner and Paul Henreid during the talkie era.

Lafitte under arrest.

While Lafitte’s crew did include free men of color and runaway slaves, he was also active in the American slave trade. The importation of slaves was officially illegal in the U.S.A., but the law had more holes than a sieve. Lafitte made a practice of capturing enslaved Africans from Spanish ships and then auctioning them off to slave state planters at his island headquarters. The antislavery laws were deeply flawed but it was becoming more and more difficult for Southern plantations to purchase slaves from abroad, which provided Lafitte with eager customers.

Lafitte’s big claim to fame in American history was his refusal to work for the British during the War of 1812 and he took active part in defending New Orleans instead, which has been painted as a selfless act of patriotism. Given the strength of the British abolitionist movement vs. the American equivalent, we should at least question whether Lafitte was protecting his business interests.

(King George III signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 but the topic of abolition in practice is complicated and was by no means settled by a single law. Slavery itself was officially abolished in 1833, a decade after Lafitte’s death but over three decades before the passing of the 13th Amendment in the United States. Lafitte later sided with Spain over Mexico and, would you believe it, Mexico also had a strong abolitionist movement, banning slavery twenty-eight years before the United States took similar steps. I believe a pattern is emerging.)

The Rose of Old St. Augustine is interesting compared to the other Hollywood productions in that it does not opt to focus on Lafitte’s relationship with either the British or American militaries or the Battle of New Orleans but instead makes the Spanish the central power occupying his attention. A Selig ad helpfully sets the film’s date at 1810 precisely and claims it was shot in St. Augustine, Florida. They seemed to have not been interested in a Lafitte sequel to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.

Studios of the silent era loved tying their films in with anniversaries of major events, and the centenary of the War of 1812 was no exception. The American Film Manufacturing Company shot an Andrew Jackson/Battle of New Orleans picture in 1912 and it was released in 1913. Contemporary reviews praised the film’s portrayal of the famous pirate.

The Rose of Old St. Augustine stars Charles Clary as Lafitte. Clary pivoted into character roles and was an in-demand player throughout the later silent era until his death in 1931. A venerable “that guy” performer who could be relied upon. The biggest name in the cast is probably a pre-superstar Tom Mix, who plays Black Hawk. However, all of my attention was on the film’s leading lady.

And he said he had no gate key.

One of the things I harp on about is that Kathlyn Williams was an unsung MVP of silent era actresses. Her films are not easy to come by in any quantity, particularly her earliest work, but she is endlessly impressive. She was the highlight of the uneven melodrama Sweet Alyssum and her performance as an aging beauty in Conrad in Quest of His Youth was magnificent. So, if I see her listed in the cast of a picture, I get excited.

The direction of The Rose of Old St. Augustine doesn’t do anyone any favors, with the camera firmly in “nailed to the floor and showing everyone from head-to-toe” mode, but Williams once again steals the show. At first, she’s a typical damsel but then springs to life when it’s time to rescue the hero, striding around bravely and generally saving the day. Is it any surprise that she was one of the original serial queens? The film seems to lack confidence in her heroics and she gets fainty once they reach safety but I still enjoyed it while it lasted.

A dimly-lit rescue.

So, Kathlyn Williams’ record remains unbroken. Do check out her work if you get the chance.

Speaking of the direction, Otis Turner definitely made a habit of keeping the camera well back from the cast of his large-scale productions. You can also see this tendency on display in his 1910 film The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He was praised for his ability to wrangle large crowds and setpieces but his cinematography was not terribly inspired. I have not seen his later work and cannot say if he modernized but his career didn’t survive the 1910s. For an apples-to-apples comparison, Selig director Frank Boggs’ 1911 output showcases a willingness to embrace the medium shot, so Turner’s stodginess was not a product of his era.

Reviews of the time were generally positive, reserving special praise for Williams. Motography described the marine scenes as spectacular “from an artistic and mechanical standpoint” and stated it was one of the best historical films produced in America. The Moving Picture World thought some of the cast overdid the “sawing of the air and theatrical posing” but praised Williams and felt that overall, it “maintains the just right atmosphere to give a delightful effect.”

Walk the plank!

As pirate films of the era go, this is a good one without being too far outside the mainstream. The hero is highly romanticized, which was typical of the era and for decades after. The direction is stilted but the sets and locations look great, and Kathlyn Williams is a standout performer. It’s what it says on the tin without being terribly risky. Well worth your time.

Where can I see it?

Stream courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum. The intertitles and lengthy letters are in Dutch but read the synopsis and you will be able to follow it easily.


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