I realized, while digging into this story of a failed Cincinnati movie company, that it’s a crappy movie itself. Betrayals everywhere! Heroes are really villains! Families and marriages explode! Zoo animals are involved! It all skids into a sad Hollywood ending, then suddenly pivots to something worse.
This crappy movie isn’t one of those “based on a true story” insults to history. Everything here really happened. It was more than 100 years ago, yet these treacheries could easily fit into episodes of Better Call Saul or Succession. As you follow along with my crappy screenplay, imagine which of today’s stars might play these real people.
TITLE: HOLLYWOOD ON THE OHIO, OR THE STORY OF HIGHLAND FILM
[Open on an aerial panorama of rural Ft. Thomas, February 1915.] This suburban expanse, known as the Highlands, is about to transform into the production powerhouse of the Highland Film Corporation. It will be the Midwestern capital of America’s latest passion: moving pictures, and the money in making them.
[Crossfade to group of well-heeled Cincinnatians and Kentuckians watching a lavish presentation.] “The Highland Film complex will rival Hollywood for attracting the industry’s biggest stars, producers, and dollars,” says the host. “And we’re going to build it in right here in Ft. Thomas!”
[Slowly dolly to the host.] James Ford, age 33 [Seth Rogen? Daniel Radcliffe?], comes from good stock. His father, Thomas Ford, is one of Northern Kentucky’s best-connected and wealthiest citizens. [Donald Sutherland? Robert Duvall?] The elder Ford has invited his business friends here to join him in throwing serious money at his son’s venture. James Ford is persuasive. He dreams big. Over the next month he makes presentations [music accompanies busy collage] describing how Highland Film will cover 100 acres, include a 40-foot-tall production studio, and employ 500 people. He invites all investors to the upcoming groundbreaking in Ludlow.
Wait a minute [music abruptly stops]. Ludlow? Weren’t we talking about Ft. Thomas? Well, yes, says James, but landowners there jacked up their prices when they learned of these plans. “Besides, our team of experts considered several locales [resume the collage and music] and concluded that Highland Film shall instead purchase the Ludlow Lagoon, a popular amusement park and lake near Covington.”
[Cut to aerial panorama of Ludlow Lagoon, then to a closeup of stunned investors who thought their money was going to Ft. Thomas. Crossfade to closeup of Ludlow Lagoon’s owners, looking twice as stunned.] One owner says hesitatingly, “Well, OK, I guess we’ll sit down and talk.”
[Shift to high-speed footage and chipmunk audio of James Ford and Ludlow Lagoon owners negotiating. A calendar page flips from March to April. Cut to Ford.] “Folks, the Ludlow Lagoon deal is off, but that’s great news, because my team has found an even better site! Highland Film will now be in Edgewood. In fact, it will replace Edgewood!”
[Freeze-frame, then back to the calendar zooming in on April 28. Crossfade to Ford, surrounded by reporters.] “Ladies and gentlemen, this is my girlfriend, Erna Kline. [Emma Watson? How cool if we also sign Radcliffe!] We got married a year ago, but we kept it a secret because things were so busy! And guess what? She’s four months pregnant!”
[PRODUCER’S NOTE: Records show that in April 1915 Erna Kline was 15 years old. Recast the part. Millie Bobby Brown?]
[Fade up on newspaper headlines.] “Highland Film Company Reorganizes!” “President James Ford Demoted!” “Film production delayed.”
[Jump back to calendar. It flips seven months to January 1916. Crossfade to headlines.] “Highland Film Abandons Kentucky! Will Purchase Cincinnati Zoo!”
[Cut to James Ford at a press conference.] “We’ve all known since last year that the Cincinnati Zoo has fallen on hard times and might close. But I am announcing today that the Highland Film Corporation will purchase the Cincinnati Zoo and construct our movie complex next to it. Highland will save the Zoo!” [Applause from the crowd.] “We’ll install a swimming pool to enjoy in summer! And an ice rink for winter! Massive electric lights will let us stay open at night! And furthermore…”
[Medium shot of applauding crowd, which blurs except for on man who stays in sharp focus.] The one man noticeably not applauding is A.E. Burkhardt, the famous Cincinnati clothier. [Tom Hanks? Can we afford?] He’s a long-standing officer of Cincinnati’s Save the Zoo Commission, which opposes any sale of the zoo to a private commercial interest. Such a move would tarnish this gem in the Queen City’s crown. Burkhardt’s staunch opposition eventually prevails, dooming Ford’s offer.
[Begin another collage with music.] The Highland Film Corporation now proceeds to implode, along with the life of James Ford. He is accused of fraud—a lot of money has disappeared—and is sued from multiple directions. His wife files for divorce. Disgraced patriarch Thomas Ford dies. In his will he excludes James, dryly explaining that his son had already “received more than his portion.”
[Fade up epilogue text.] “James T. Ford, following the disintegration of his business and personal life, disappeared for three years. His whereabouts between 1917 and 1920 are unknown.”
[More text fades up, one line at a time.] “From 1920 onward, however…James Ford made quite a name for himself…Quite a notorious one…”
And that’s my crappy movie. As the closing suggests, the even crappier sequel—all completely true—is ready to go. Here’s a quick treatment.
TITLE: THE HIGHLAND HOLLYWOOD HIGHWAYMAN
From 1920 until his death in 1959, James Ford committed an astonishing parade of swindles and scams. During Prohibition, he posed as a crooked federal agent demanding protection money from bootleggers while he himself was bootlegging. He sweet-talked donations from Catholic churches for the printing of a national register, never published. Throughout the East and Midwest, he impersonated politicians; private investigators; police officers; and various crusaders against gambling, drugs, cockfighting, etc. He skipped out on countless hotels and boarding houses.
We’ll never know James Ford’s greatest hits, because he got away with them—as opposed to the notoriety he sometimes achieved on his way to prison. He spent several stretches behind bars. But even his failures are impressive in their layered details.
The credits roll. We hear an old song:
Oh, yes, I’m the Great Pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well.
My need is such, I pretend too much.
I’m lonely, but no one can tell.
Did the failure of Highland Film trigger James Ford’s life of endless scams, or was it simply his first Big Con? Was the disgrace of his father an accident or a plan? Before you answer, check out my movie’s deleted scenes.
Deleted Scene 1: James Ford had an older brother, Thomas Ford Jr., who died young. No, it’s not the clichéd story of Junior Golden Boy who left us too soon, dumping an unbearable burden on the second son and making him go rogue. Thomas Ford Jr. was a serial check forger. He got caught passing bogus checks in Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis, and probably elsewhere, but Daddy regularly covered the check amounts, paid the court costs, and eliminated any publicity. Ford Jr. died of “dropsy” at age 28, an official diagnosis probably also purchased.
Deleted Scene 2: Another brother, the actual second son, died at age 33. Peter Ford didn’t forge checks, but his father had to repeatedly rescue him from another movie role cliché: the town drunk. Peter’s rap sheet for drunk and disorderly conduct rivaled James’s for scams. Peter died of “heart trouble,” or so they say.
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