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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

Fred Caldwell, Iredell County Movie Star

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 3:28 PM by Jenny Levins

“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” There are those who say this quote from Horace Greeley's July 13, 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune is still true today – at least the Washington part.

One young man who went west and became a pioneering film maker was Frederick J. Caldwell from Troutman. He was born Feb. 5, 1885 to Gilbert (1-12-1844 – 7-27-1918) and Sarah Harriet Walden Caldwell (9-10-1844 – 1-28-1926). His parents were from Catawba County, but after 1880 Gilbert, a Civil War veteran called “the little Dutchman,” moved the family to the Troutman area of Iredell County where family history says Fred was born.

The 1900 census shows Fred age 15, and his brother Todd T, age 18, both living with their parents in Iredell and both Gilbert and Harriett are buried at St. Michael’s Lutheran Cemetery in Troutman.  Sometime after 1910 Fred moved to California and become a brakeman on the railroad while trying to enter the newly formed moving picture business. In 1913 he writes home from the Baltimore Hotel in Los Angeles to Myrtle Hollar, a relative living in Troutman saying of the folks back home, “they don’t seem to make much stock in me; however, I’m not such a bad fellow.” He also tells about a woman he is dating named Cora E. King. Cora had moved to Hollywood from Iowa and married Fred on Nov. 21, 1913.

On August 16, 1920, the Charlotte Observer reported that, “Fred Caldwell, President of the Union Label Film Company, of Los Angeles, Calif., and R.H. Rhoen, his business manager, are expected to arrive in Charlotte some time today to begin their investigation looking toward the location of motion picture producing studios in the city.” The Charlotte Observer claims Fred as a “Charlotte man” and says he is director of the De Luxe Film Company of Hollywood having made more than forty comedies and features. The article refers to Fred as “the Redeemer of Hollywood” and says that he is now “putting on a picture which is intended to redeem the reputation of Hollywood. It is a picture of “Night Life in Hollywood,” it was written by Mr. Caldwell and will be produced under his direction. It features such ‘screen names’ as Frank Glendon, Josephine Hill, Gale Henry, Jack Donnelly, and other well-known people.”

The movie, “Night Life in Hollywood” also called, “The Sheik of Hollywood,” was made as a response to the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal. Arbuckle had been a major silent film star charged with raping and killing a woman at a party in 1921. Roscoe, who mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope was later found innocent and even issued a written apology by the jury, though his name and career were ruined. Caldwell’s film gave a different view of Hollywood the Observer said, “instead of depicting night life in Hollywood as the lurid, sensual Babylon with its alleged debauches of depravity and wickedness as has been so erroneously pictured in the yellow press, Hollywood is shown as a model city, beautiful and attractive with the most home loving people in the country making it the place where they choose to live.”

Caldwell made several silent films including “The Lone Patrol,” “The Night Watch,” “The Hurricane,” “Western Justice,” “The Lone Horseman” and “The Lone Rider.” He not only produced and directed his movies, but also wrote and acted in many of them. On July 28, 1923, the Daily Republican, in Rushville, Indiana, reported, “Fred Caldwell who will be seen in a prominent role in “The Lone Horsemen” when that new Arrow release comes to the Mystic Theatre today, is a young man who has achieved success in two separate and distinct field of endeavor. As a director he is conceded to be among the foremost, while as an actor his efforts invariably win high appreciation. While still a young man, Mr. Caldwell has won the distinction of having created some of the greatest successes of the cinema world.”

Ironically, the man once referred to as “the redeemer of Hollywood” would have scandal wreck his own career. A Jan. 20, 1925, Los Angeles Times, headline read, “Wife Names Woman in Divorce Suit: Says Rival Dominated Her Name. Wife of Screen Director Says ‘Other Woman’ Was Made One of Family” The article told of the divorce between Cora and Fred Caldwell. It charged that Caldwell became involved with a Muriel Reynolds Smith, (stage name Muriel Ramsey) and later moved her into their home as an assistant despite his wife’s objections. There was a picture showing Muriel and Fred in the cockpit of an airplane from a movie they had made together. Another photo showed Cora and their twenty-month-old son Cecil Frederick. A follow up headline in the Times on March 20, 1925 read, “Wife Tells Result of Spying on Mate” and said “What she saw when her husband left the blinds up caused her to cry all night.” Her story was corroborated by Mrs. Smith’s husband.

What happened to Fred J. Caldwell after the divorce is for now a mystery. He stops making films and neither Fred, Cora, nor Cecil show up in the 1930 census, or in any other records or newspapers after the divorce. Carole Hartness of Statesville who would be Fred’s great, great, niece says that Fred returned home to visit one last time in the late 1920s and then left the state and died shortly thereafter.

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Troutman native was Hollywood hit before scandal” June 24, 2011