There is quite a long list of films set in Salem, but the list of films that were actually filmed here is impressive as well–and much more impactful. David O. Russell apparently loves Salem, as he filmed scenes from two movies here (American Hustle, Joy) even though their plots did not necessitate this location, tours of Hocus Pocus locations remain ridiculously popular, and though not a film, we’ve decided to dedicate a very prominent city square to Samantha from Bewitched (and TV Land), just because a few episodes were filmed here. The very first production filmed in Salem, however, traded on its commercial reputation rather than its connection to witchcraft: this was the 1923 silent film Java Head, which shot scenes on Derby Wharf, Salem Common, and Chestnut Street.
Java Head was based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Hergesheimer, about the scion of an old Salem family who meets a “Manchu princess” in China, marries her to prevent her imminent death, and brings her home to his Yankee family and the girl he left behind. Apparently this love triangle drives the movie, along with lots of cross-cultural conflicts, but I’m basing my plot summary on the novel (and the 1934 “talkie” remake, which replaced Salem with Bristol, England) as the film has not made it to You Tube (and may indeed be lost, along with 75% of all silent films that were produced–the Library of Congress has catalogued the film but there are “no holdings” in its archive). The interior and “Chinese” scenes of Java Head were filmed at a studio in New York, but Derby Wharf (or a nearby stand-in) and several Salem structures were used as locations. In his 1989 memoir Highlight and Shadows, cameraman Charles Galloway Clarke recalls that We loved the good people of Salem for they were friendly and helpful and did everything to make our stay there pleasurable. After finishing the scenes around the recreated dock, for this was a film about the China Trade during the sailing days of Salem, we returned to Astoria for the interior scenes. The title “character” of the film is actually a Federal mansion, exemplifying the fortunes to be made in the China trade. Contemporary sources hint that the Forrester-Peabody Mansion (later the Salem Club and later still the Bertram Home) “played” Java Head, but I think a far more likely suspect is the Devereux-Hoffman-Simpson House on Chestnut Street.There are a few more details and images here, but what I’d really like to see is the film!.
Lobby Card for Java Head (1923) and article from Picture Play from the same year, showing lead actress Leatrice Joy’s transition “from occidental to oriental”; after the transition-a Swedish poster for the film; a still from the film showing the Salem mansion “Java Head” which some sources identify as the Bertram House at 29 Washington Square (with flag, above), but I think it was definitely 26 Chestnut Street (just above).