Dakota Datebook

Angela Gibson, Filmmaker

Monday, June 28, 2004

Today is the birthday of filmmaker Angela Murray Gibson. Nobody is certain what year she was born, because she refused to reveal her age, and her tombstone reveals only the year she died – 1953. Best guess is that she was born in Scotland around 1878.

During the Roaring ‘20s, American women gained independence and flourished as never before. One of those was Angela Gibson. Her family immigrated when she was five, ultimately settling in Casselton. Angela was one of the first two women to graduate from what is now NDSU.

About that time, Mary Pickford was making a movie called THE PRIDE OF THE CLAN, when she learned that Angela Gibson performed her own productions featuring her Scottish heritage. Pickford arranged for Angela to come to Hollywood and work as an advisor for six weeks and ended up wearing one of Angela’s own Scottish costumes in the movie.

Gibson absorbed a great deal by watching the day-to-day movie-making process, and after the production wrapped, she went to Columbia University to study cinematography. She purchased a camera and one lense and, in an unusual move, she took her formal training not to Hollywood, but back to Casselton. She started the state’s first movie studio, and it was completely run and financed by women. Angela was the writer, director and actress, and her sister, Ruby, ran the business end.

Somebody had to crank the camera, and Angela felt that her mother had excellent timing that made for a nice smooth visual – so her mother functioned as the film “crew.”

Gibson used theatre techniques to build canvas sets outdoors where she could take advantage of natural light. In some of her scenes, what are supposed to be interior walls wobble from being exposed to the wind. On occasion, gusts would cause the sets to collapse.

Movie clips reveal that Gibson didn’t shy away from action. In one scene, she snatches something from another actress, they have a fight, and Angela crawls out of a second story window in a floor-length ruffled dress and slippery shoes. The scene cuts to the exterior, showing her slipping and edging herself down the roof, then cuts back to the other character yelling for the police. Angela did her own film processing and editing, and the end result was smooth and professionally accomplished.

Gibson started off with several documentaries – one about the life of a grain of wheat and another about a rodeo in Medora. Her earliest surviving feature film is called THAT ICE TICKET, which features a young woman who, on a hot day, hangs out a sign offering ice to lure potential suitors. But her younger brother pulls a prank by instead hanging a smallpox sign over the ice sign. In the end, the heroine’s true love risks his health to see her, and all is well.

When the depression arrived, costs of materials became so high that Gibson – like many others – had to give up her life as a filmmaker and move on to other things.

Most of her films disappeared after that, but in 1976, the Centennial Commission “discovered” what remained and used the last of their funds to hire Snyder Films to restore them. Much of the film had been water damaged, but luckily she had transferred some of her footage onto what is known as “safety film,” which survived in much better shape than the original celluloid.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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