Lorimer Johnston

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(b. Maysville, Kentucky, 02/11/1858 – d. Hollywood, Los Angeles, 20/02/1941). American director, actor. Before he turned to the stage and subsequently became a film director, George Lorimer Johnston was, for six years, the last official “bearer of dispatches”, first for President Benjamin Harrison and then into the second term of President Grover Cleveland. He is reported to have spoken a number of languages and, while in the diplomatic service, had travelled the world, reportedly having made fourteen trans-Atlantic trips. He had a successful stage career, frequently understudying John Drew, but with the growth of the film industry he decided that this is where his future lay and set off for Europe to study in studios in Paris, Rome and Copenhagen. Back in the United States in 1913, he directed his first films for the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago, but after nine months was poached by the American Film Manufacturing Company after Allan Dawn had left the Santa Barbara-based firm. Between 1913 and 1914 he made more than 45 shorts for the Flying “A” Studio of AFMC, often released within a few days of each other. They all starred members of its stock company, amongst them Caroline Frances Cooke, who was his wife. In 1915 he made a few more shorts for companies like Universal and Vitagraph, but during 1916 he disappeared from the United States movie map because he had been recruited by I.W. Schlesinger to make the first films for African Film Productions.

Johnston and his wife sailed from England for Cape Town on 23 October 1915 and after their arrival spent some two months travelling throughout Southern Africa to familiarize themselves with the territory. Before their departure from the United States and then England, he was said to have secured equipment for the new Killarney Film Studios and had also engaged some actors. In South Africa he announced plans for the production of King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain (which were eventually directed by H. Lisle Lucoque) and there was talk of bringing out a celebrated Italian actor who had played in Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria (1914), presumably Bartolomeo Pagano, who was the first Maciste. That didn't happen. Other films planned were Olive Schreiner’s 's The Story of an African Farm, The Great Trek (which became De Voortrekkers, directed by Harold M. Shaw) and a five-reel production to be called Dingaan. Upon his return to the United States, The Dramatic Mirror reported that he had produced twelve pictures for AFP, though the surviving records list only nine: A Story of the Rand, A Zulu’s Devotion, The Silver Wolf, The Illicit Liquor Seller, The Splendid Waster, The Gun Runner, Gloria, A Tragedy of the Veld and Sonny’s Little Bit, five of them featuring Mrs. Johnston.

The couple left South Africa in October of 1916 (some of the films were released after they had left) and arrived in San Francisco in May 1917 after a lengthy tour via Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii. After his return to the United States he directed only three more films - including a version of Dickens’s A Cricket on the Hearth (1923) – but continued to act in supporting, sometimes uncredited roles by others, amongst them A Fool’s Awakening (1924) by Harold M. Shaw, another American who had been employed by African Film Productions, and as Tarzan’s uncle, Lord Greystoke, in Tarzan the Mighty (1928). His last film appearance was in The Great McGinty (1940), for Preston Sturges. He was the great-nephew of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed in the Battle of Shiloh. Lorimer Johnston was married twice, first to actress Loyola O’Connor (1868-1931), with whom he had a son, Richard Lorimer Johnston (1893-1961), who followed him into the film industry. His second wife was Caroline Frances Cooke (1875-1962), who acted in many of his films and accompanied him to South Africa. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Los Angeles. (FO)

(Note: On his passport application for 1915 he states that he was born on 2 November 1865, but the most reliable sources give the year as 1858)


Reel Life, September 1913-March 1914

The Moving Picture World, 6 November 1915

The Moving Picture World, 18 March 1916

The Moving Picture World, 19 May 1917

The Sun, New York, 30 December 1917

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 June 1936

Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm


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