In May of 1921, Hollywood descended upon Appanoose County. Silent film star Norma Talmadge and her production company, First National, arrived in town on May 22. They would spend only three days in the county, filming scenes at the CB&Q depot, the Harbold farm in Plano and a small bit on the Centerville square for their upcoming movie to be entitled “The Wonderful Thing.”
The public was captivated in watching the activity around the production. As soon as the stars arrived by train, the public was following them. Cars lined the roads approaching the Harbold farm. Crowds had to be held back at the depot. The newspapers caught every detail and reported it to the hungry readers. In the Centerville Journal, there was an inch-high headline over a picture of a Duroc boar, stating “1000 Hogs See Norma.” She granted an interview to the Iowegian’s Charles DePuy, who called Miss Talmadge, “the Princess of Filmdom.” The newspapers were full of the details of the film, leaving little to the imagination. For three days in May, Appanoose County was obsessed with Norma Talmadge.
On May 24, 1921, the whole company packed up and left Centerville. They had informed residents that the film would take another nine months to complete — compiling, editing and creating the finished product. So Appanoose County waited with bells on. On Thursday, Oct. 12, 1921, the first day of the Appanoose County Fall Festival, the Majestic Theater had its first showing of “The Wonderful Thing.” Two showings a night for two nights packed the Majestic Theater to the doors. “See actual Appanoose County hogs on the screen!” was mentioned in one of the many articles promoting the film.
Fast-forward to 2012: The movie “The Wonderful Thing” is only available for viewing at the United States Library of Congress. Or, you can see it at the Historic Holiday Film Festival that will be held on Saturday, Nov. 17 at the Majestic, sponsored by the Appanoose County Historical Society. In 2008, the Historical Society had a fund drive to have a copy of the rare silent film made for its archives. After jumping through hoops to get permission from the copyright holder and making the arrangements for getting copies, the movie was in the hands of the Historical Society. Every couple of years, an event is held to showcase the movie so more people can see it.
This year a film festival will be held at the Majestic to showcase the newly-renovated theater and to showcase the movie where it was first shown. There will also be other rare gems shown during the festival, including several pre-1950s era Christmas programs, including two silent versions of “A Christmas Carol.”