It was almost a hundred years ago this week that the romantic melodrama The First Kiss starring a young Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, a big screen Scream Queen pioneer and King Kong’s future love interest, began filming on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A “lost” film, The First Kiss is about a waterman (Cooper) who turns pirate to finance his down-and-out family’s return to societal glory and to win the heart of the rich girl (Wray) he yearns for. The director, Rowland V. Lee, insisted that as versatile a backdrop as California was for filmmakers, the true atmosphere and unique beauty of the Chesapeake Bay region couldn’t be faked. If Hollywood wanted to make a story about the Eastern Shore, Hollywood would have to go to the Eastern Shore to do it.
Lee’s cast and crew arrived in Talbot County on Friday, May 25, 1928. Shooting began that next Monday. When word got out that Tinseltown filmmakers had landed on the Shore, thousands of raucous spectators came out to get a peek at the proceedings. Being a silent movie, as long as the curious stayed out of camera range, they could be as noisy as they wanted and it wouldn’t affect one frame of the finished project. Filming locations included the Third Haven Meeting House (c.1682) in Easton, the county courthouse and jail, and the and the Annapolis-Claiborne Ferry, but most of the movie was shot in the town of St. Michaels, including at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Honeymoon Bridge, and the long-gone home of David and Hannah Parkerson.
For the little over three weeks they were on the Eastern Shore, most of the several dozen crewmembers working on The First Kiss stayed at the Pasadena Inn in nearby Royal Oak. Looking back to that spring when that little waterfront enclave was the Beverly Hills of the Eastern Shore, Pauline Harper Vaillant, whose family owned the inn, later wrote that the locals were impressed by how quiet and hardworking the movie folk were and that the stars of the film “weren’t a bit like Hollywood actors were supposed to be. No wild parties, no drinking, no carrying on.” Vaillant described Cooper as quiet, tall, and awkward. The up-and-coming A-List Movie Star spent much of his downtime “curled up in a chair reading a book, with his long legs dangling over the arms.” He also took an early morning swim in Oak Creek each day.
Fay Wray, who amassed 123 acting credits over a 57-year career, was, according to a reporter for Salisbury’s Daily Times, small, slender, wholesomely beautiful, with soft, wavy hair, large gray-blue eyes, a firm, delicate smile, and a soft voice. Fay’s mother Vina chaperoned her famous 20-year old daughter the whole time the production team was in town. If her presence was to ensure Fay’s moral purity, she was probably superfluous in that regard.
Fay was in love with someone back in California and she talked to screenwriter John Mark Saunders (1897-1940) on the phone every evening. Toward the end of the shoot Monk came to visit Wray, and they got married at Easton’s Calvary Methodist Church on June 15, 1928. The bride wore her costume, “a sort of afternoon dress.” Still wearing movie makeup and the oysterman work clothes of his character. Gary Cooper acted as best man. The Baltimore Sun said he resembled a “poor but honest bivalve snatcher.” The director, Lee, “appeared in knickers and other appurtenances of harried genius, omitting only the folding chair and megaphone.” Following the ceremony, the wedding party drove to St. Michaels where the newlyweds took pictures and celebrated aboard a skipjack anchored in the town harbor. Afterwards, Mr. and Mrs. Saunders spent a weekend honeymoon at the Pasadena Inn.
The cast and crew rolled out of town on June 17, and Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation premiered The First Kiss at Easton’s New Theatre (later remodeled and renamed the Avalon) on August 20, 1928. Some reports say they filled the theatre’s 700 seats five times a day for three days.
Because who doesn’t love a movie filmed in their own backyard?
For over 25 years, the IPPY awards have been “intended to bring increased recognition to the thousands of exemplary independent, university, and self-published titles published each year. The IPPY Awards reward those who exhibit the courage, innovation, and creativity to bring about change in the world of publishing. “The AWARD-WINNING STARDUST BY THE BUSHEL: HOLLYWOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY’S EASTERN SHORE is available now online and at various regional retailers.