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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 05 2013

Eriksmoen: One of nation’s first female film directors was Casselton native

One of the first female motion picture directors in the U.S. was from Casselton, N.D.

In 1916, “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, selected Angela Gibson to be her assistant director for the movie “The Pride of the Clan.” Pickford selected Gibson because of “her well-known knowledge of Scottish costumes and folklore.”

After the release of the film, Gibson studied cinematography at Columbia University. With her education and apprenticeship completed, she did not move to Hollywood, instead returning to Casselton to establish Gibson Studios, “the state’s first movie studio.”

Angela Murray Gibson was born June 29, 1878, in Fifeshire, Scotland, to Robert and Angela (Jenkins) Gibson. When she was 5 years old, her family immigrated to the U.S., settling first in Boston, then in St. Paul and ultimately in Casselton.

Because Robert Gibson was on the road for considerable periods of time as a travel agent; Angela, her mother, and older sister, Ruby, rented an apartment in Fargo while Angela attended classes at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University. She graduated in 1898 with a bachelor’s degree in domestic science.

While Angela attended college, Ruby worked at the Herbst Clothing Store in Fargo. The owner, Isaac Herbst, observed that Ruby had a gift for merchandising. He agreed to help her establish her own store in Casselton, the Bee Hive Store. The store was a success. Ruby used the profits to assist Angela with her theatrical ambitions.

In 1908, Ruby paid for Angela’s trip back to Scotland to study the culture and dress of her homeland.

When she returned to the U.S., Gibson put together a show “consisting of reading, monologue, impersonation and music solos” performed on a Scottish harp. In 1911, she took her show on the road, performing all over the U.S. and Canada.

One of the people who took notice of Gibson’s shows was Mary Pickford, the most famous movie actress of the time. In 1916, Pickford was preparing to make “The Pride of the Clan.” For the movie, Pickford arranged for Gibson to work as an adviser and assistant director.

The movie was about the daughter of the last chieftain of a Scottish clan who needed to take a leadership role after her father died. To help give the movie authenticity, Gibson offered advice on costumes, Scottish dances and dialogue.

The director of Pickford’s movie was Maurice Tourneur, who had relocated from France to the U.S. a couple of years earlier. Tourneur demanded a good, authentic movie, and since that is what Gibson helped to provide, the two got along very well.

Gibson meticulously observed the director’s work on the film and learned valuable insight into how to make a good movie. She also gained acting experience by playing a small role in the film.

Having worked on a major motion picture with a highly acclaimed director, Gibson was hooked on becoming a movie director. To learn more about the profession, she attended Columbia University in New York City, where she worked under the tutelage of Carl Gregory, the principal cameraman for a couple of motion picture companies and the “chief cinematography instructor for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps School of Photography” during World War I.

When her classes were over, Gibson worked for several months with other movie companies studying directing and camera work. In 1919, she purchased a movie camera and returned to Casselton, where she established Gibson Studios.

Ruby was put in charge of running the business aspects of Gibson Studios, and Angela, with assistance from her mother, planned on doing most of the work on the set.

First, Angela wrote the scenario, and then she and her mother went over a list of acquaintances in Casselton to determine the cast. Since Angela would be playing a major role in each movie, her mom needed to learn to operate the movie camera. Most of the action for the films took place in the Gibson house, and Angela did the film processing and editing. When the movies were completed, she located exchanges that distributed the films.

With the start of the Great Depression, Angela was no longer financially able to continue making movies, and the film studio was transformed into a dance and elocution studio where she was the instructor. During World War II, she reportedly came up with the idea of “ready mix” pie crust. She approached General Mills with her idea, and they were impressed. Negotiations broke down, and the company ended up going with a “Betty Crocker brand of ‘ready mix’ baked goods.”

In the late-1940s, Angela contracted tuberculosis and spent much of her remaining years in sanatoriums. She died Oct. 22, 1953.

During the next two decades, many of her films disappeared or greatly deteriorated. In 1976, the Centennial Commission discovered what remained of her films and contracted with Snyder Films of Fargo to salvage and restore what they could.

In 1997, the film “The Angela Murray Gibson Experience,” which took an “affectionate look” at North Dakota’s pioneer movie director, was produced. This film allowed new generations to see excerpts of films made by a remarkable woman.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.