Truckee/Tahoe’s 100-year history in feature film | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Truckee/Tahoe’s 100-year history in feature film

Matthew Renda
Special to Lake Tahoe Action

Lake Tahoe represents different things for different people. Most consider it an astonishing symbol of the power of nature's beauty. Others perceive it as a rich and teeming ecosystem, or a fragile piece of serene purity that needs fierce and vigilant protection. For others, Lake Tahoe is a recreational Mecca, a prime spot for fishing, an invitation to water ski — the Jewel of the Sierra.

Yet for cinephiles, or people who love movies, Lake Tahoe is the watery grave of Fredo Corleone. That's right, the second son of Vito Corleone, the feckless one whose weakness for womanizing renders him unfit to serve as the head of the family, is floating in the depths of Lake Tahoe for evermore.

If you don't know what I am talking about, first of all, I apologize for the spoilers, and second, you need to revisit your DVD queue and push "The Godfather: Part II" to the top. Arguably the greatest film ever made at Lake Tahoe (and arguably one of the greatest films ever made anywhere), the sequel to the original is just one of many feature-length films to use the picturesque Truckee/Tahoe region as a shooting location.

There have been more than 120 films shot in the region during the past 100 years, starting not long after the turn of the 20th century, when cinema as an artistic medium was introduced to the world.

"Lake Tahoe's proximity to Los Angeles is a big plus," says Mark McLaughlin, a Truckee-Tahoe-Sierra historian and author. "But really, what drew film crews was the region's natural beauty. Donner Pass, Lake Tahoe provide good scenery for the early movies."

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF FILM

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A largely forgotten film, "Goodbye Summer," starring notable silent film-era actor Antonio Moreno, was shot in Truckee in 1914 and may be the first instance of the region's apotheosis to the Silver Screen.

As early as 1915, William J. Kerrigan, a famed director during the silent era who also played dashing lead roles in assorted films before retiring to a life of ease, shot three silent short films using Lake Tahoe as the scenic backdrop, again signaling the beginning of an era.

An assorted smattering of silent-era features ensued. When looking back at the list of films using Truckee/Tahoe as a location, the overwhelming majority fall between 1922 and 1936. A confluence of reasons account for the glut of film crews descending upon the Northern Sierra, but according to McLaughlin, the primary cause was the ease of access presented by the railroad.

"Beginning in 1895, coming up to the mountains during the winter was more popular, due to the snowball express trains that could take residents of the Bay Area to the mountains on Friday night and have them back home on Sunday," he said. "For movie producers specifically, if you needed to shoot scenes that were winter-like, Truckee was an ideal place."

One of the early film pioneers to make use of Truckee was Buster Keaton. While lesser known than Charlie Chaplin, Keaton combined his innovative brand of physical comedy with his characteristic deadpan expressions to fashion an indelible imprint on American cinema.

Performing his own stunts, many of which were dangerous for the time, Keaton also pioneered action sequences and chase scenes that are a lasting part of the cinematic lexicon. The American Film Institute ranks Keaton at 21 in its list of American Male Screen Legends.

Keaton's initial cinematic foray into the Northern Sierra came with a short film, "The Frozen North," in 1922. Keaton was also a writer/director of "Our Hospitality," a satire of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, much of which was shot in and around Truckee in 1923.

He returned to the region in 1924 to film "The Navigator," which would prove to be Keaton's largest commercial success, mostly due to the elaborate stunts. He nearly drowned in the Truckee River while performing a stunt for one of the film's climatic sequences.

A HOLLYWOOD CLASSIC: 'THE GOLD RUSH'

While natural rivals, Chaplin and Keaton were also friends, and legend has it that Keaton influenced Chaplin's decision to choose the Donner Pass area as the location for his most ambitious film project to date — "The Gold Rush," regarded by critics as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema.

Chaplin uses Truckee as the stand-in for the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Chaplin's seminal film features a lone prospector, played by Chaplin in his well-known Little Tramp character. The film's iconic opening sequence, where a throng of desperate miners scuttle up a steep and snowy mountain pass as they shuffle slowly toward what they hope is pay-dirt, was filmed at Chilkoot Pass in modern-day Sugar Bowl Resort on Donner Summit.

More than 600 extras were brought up to the mountains outside of Truckee in the winter of 1924-1925 to complete what film critic Jeff Vance deemed "the most spectacular image of silent-film comedy." The ensuing scenes, which follow the Little Tramp's adventures as he seeks fortune and fame, include a sequence where Chaplin's character and his traveling companion are forced to seek shelter amid a blizzard. Together, they find temporary harbor in a small cabin, in which they are confined for the entire winter season as they struggle on the brink of starvation.

The echoes of the Donner Party, of which Chaplin professed more than a passing interest, are clear. How Chaplin manages to extract comedy out of such a situation is a thing to behold, rather than be explained here. Suffice it to say, he succeeds. The American Film Institute names "The Gold Rush" one of the 100 greatest films of all time.

Soon, Truckee/Tahoe witnessed a strong infusion of filmmakers and Hollywood stars into region, which continued on through the 1930s after dialogue was introduced into filmmaking. Legends of the Silver Screen such as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor became part of local lore as they stayed in and frequented local establishments during their shooting schedule.

BIG-NAME STARS IN THE SEVENTIEs, EIGHTIEs & NINETIES

However, after World War II, when much of the railroad infrastructure was torn up and used as scrap metal, the steady stream of movies shot in Truckee/Tahoe dried into a trickle.

Beverly Lewis, director of the Placer-Lake Tahoe Film Office, said one probable factor is the rise of the highway system and automobiles as a replacement for the railway system.

"Hollywood's first choice now (for mountain or winter scenes) is Big Bear or Mammoth because the drive is a little easier," she said. This accounts for why after 1938, Tahoe/Truckee served as a location only once every couple of years, sometimes a couple of times a decade, rather than four or five a year.

Nevertheless, what the region lacked in quantity of films produced, it made up for in quality.

"Out of the Past," staring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, was shot in and around Lake Tahoe in 1946. The film is a chiaroscuro-shaded slice of quintessential Hollywood film noir, replete with strong but terse private detectives, distressed damsels with troubled pasts and sinister tycoons making their crimes pay for sprawling estates at Lake Tahoe. The film features sweeping shots of the oft-photographed Emerald Bay.

Then of course came "The Godfather: Part II." Director Francis Ford Coppola selected Fleur du Lac, an expansive estate formerly owned by Henry Kaiser on Lake Tahoe's West Shore, for a location to shoot long, critical sequences for the film. A bevy of critics argue "The Godfather: Part II," released in 1974, is actually superior to the original, which is also hailed as one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

The film's grandiose plot, with Michael Corleone celebrating the first communion of his son while attempting to cut deals with corrupt Nevada senators and stave off challenges to his protection racket in New York, is offset by the serene setting of Lake Tahoe's calm and clear waters, which serve to open and close the classic film.

Since, several movies have used the Truckee/Tahoe region as a backdrop, including huge commercial hits such as "Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), starring Harrison Ford; "Misery" (1990), featuring Kathy Bates in a chilling Academy Award-winning role; "True Lies" (1994), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis; "The Bodyguard" (1992), starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner and "Jack Frost" (1998), starring Michael Keaton and Kelly Preston.

RECENT HISTORY

Despite these big-name films and their Sierra success, Lewis said the Truckee/Tahoe region has gone through a recent spate of trouble attracting filmmakers due to economic, rather than geographic, reasons.

Beginning about 20 years ago, Canada starting providing significant tax incentives to production companies, meaning filmmakers could save enormous amounts of money by shifting locations to north of the border.

"For a while, Canada was the only game in town, but they were so wildly successful that about 40 states adopted similar incentives," Lewis said.

The state of California was slow to adopt the practice and lost not only business, but the type of exposure that films can lend to its unique and enthralling geography. However, in recent years, the California State Legislature ratified similar incentives for film, television and media production, and Truckee/Tahoe has reaped the rewards.

"Into the Wild" (2007), starring Emile Hirsch; Smokin' Aces (2007), starring Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck and a slew of other well-known actors and "Her" (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, are examples of studio's recently renewed willingness to return to the region. The region has also hosted solid efforts from independent cinema, including an underrated thriller starring Tilda Swinton, "The Deep End" (2001), and the recently released "Last Weekend" (2014).

These commercially successful films and small independent vehicles demonstrate that location scouts in Hollywood, cinematographers and directors alike will continue to seek out Truckee/Tahoe's dazzling terrain as an ideal backdrop for their stories. Whether the craftsmen and women of cinema will be able to match the artistic achievements of some of the greats that have been shot within the confines of the Northern Sierra is another question altogether.

But judging by both the quantity and quality of the fare the region has produced so far, they've got work to do.

A version of this story first appeared in 2015-16 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action.

The Tahoe Ten

Below is a Top Ten list of picks from author Matthew Renda of the best films shot in the Truckee/Tahoe area:

1. The Godfather, Part II (1974): The narrative lines that toggle back and forth between a father and a son and their parallel struggles to flourish in a hostile environment are tremendously innovative. Director Francis Ford Coppola uses his broodingly paced and impeccably shot scenes to explore his familiar themes of crime, its surprisingly moral complexity and its inevitable repercussions. While ostensibly about the mafia, perhaps no American film explores the intricacies of the American family, particularly in a generational context. The film was awarded an Oscar for Best Picture, and Robert De Niro earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing Vito Corleone, a character that earned Marlon Brando an Oscar two years prior. While Al Pacino was nominated for a Best Actor Award, he ultimately lost to Art Carney. The decision is now widely regarded as a rather characteristic blunder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as Pacino’s performance is thought by many to be one of the greatest of all time. Coppola did win for Best Director.

2. The Gold Rush (1925): At the time, it was the most expensive comedy of the silent-film era. Like most of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpieces, labeling it a comedy belies how deftly and genuinely the master director deals the human condition. In this silent-era film, Chaplin deals with the themes of ambition, hunger for riches, the lengths to which people will go to secure fortune, romance, and the creation of the American West. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall wrote in 1925 that the film contained “streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness.” Contemporary critic Jeff Vance argues that The Gold Rush was the greatest film — comedy or drama — of the silent film era, due to the inimitable comedic sequences combined with the character-driven plot. While Chaplin would go on to complete other silent-era masterpieces such as “City Lights,” “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator,” he retained a fondness for the film. “This is the film I want to be remembered by,” he said.

3. Out of the Past (1947): This movie starring such heavyweights as Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglass is perhaps the most underrated film noir of all time. From the opening scene at a gas station of Bridgeport, to the stunning shots of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay, the creative use of the Northern Sierra as a backdrop to the familiar hardboiled themes of film noir remains provocative to this day. Usually set in moodily lit urban scenes drenched in streetlight shadows and the horizontal bars of light splayed by Venetian blinds, Director Jacques Tourner uses the same brooding tropes in the stunning scenery of the Sierra to great effect. Mitchum is superb as the tangled private eye, Douglas is great as a rich crook, and Greer gives a great performance as the requisite femme fatale.

4. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): The second installment of the beloved Indian Jones series had certain scenes shot in the American River canyon, just on the other side of the Lake Tahoe Basin. After Indiana, and his sidekick, Shorty, escape from a crashing plane on an inflatable raft in the “Himalayas,” they must navigate some intense rapids before reaching temporary safety. Those rafting scenes were partly shot on the American River and partly on the Tuolomne River, in Yosemite National Park. Not the best of the Indiana Jones series — that distinction belongs to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — it still bears all the hallmarks of a tightly-paced, suspense-laden Steven Speilberg adventure film. Inaccurate portrayals of India and the conflation of Hinduism with the Aztec culture’s propensity for graphic human sacrifice aside, the movie remains a classic of its era.

5. Her (2013): Of the contemporary films with a significant portion of its running time set in Truckee/Tahoe, this one is the best, by far. While the premise of a man developing a deep romantic relationship with a computer operating system seems both obvious and too bizarre to bring off, Writer/Director Spike Jonze succeeds to an astonishing degree. He gets a gigantic performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and Scarlett Johansson — despite only providing a voice — does so with such verve that its still a wonder she wasn’t rewarded with a trip to the Oscars. While only a slender portion of the film about a lonely, introverted man was filmed at Sugar Bowl and Donner Pass, it is a crucial part of the film, and for those who have spent time around that area, the familiar terrain is unmistakable.

6. A Place in the Sun (1951): Elizabeth Taylor, at the peak of her craft, and Montgomery Clift, one of the great American actors, team up for this sizzling and devastating romance. In the film, Lake Tahoe is supposed to resemble a lake set in upstate New York, where the beautiful people spend their summers sojourning amid their wealth, luxury and general self-regard. Taylor is flawless in her embodiment of a young, beautiful scion of the elite, and Clift is excellent as well as the brooding upstart young man intent on upward mobility through the firm social strata of his era. His yearning for the good life and for Taylor naturally is flecked with fatalism and murder. This gem from the Golden Era of Hollywood is a can’t-miss film. It is loosely based on the novel “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, which is even better.

7. Into the Wild (2007): This film would be ranked much higher if not for the fact that only a snippet of footage shot at Lake Tahoe made the final film. It was filmed from a helicopter and depicted a particular point when Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Beverly Lewis, director of the Placer-Lake Tahoe Film Office, said the shot isn’t taken on the actual PCT. Sean Penn, who directed Into the Wild, was meticulous about shooting on location in each of the places McCandless visited in his itinerant wanderings that led to his unfortunate demise in the Alaskan wilderness. Based on the book by the great Jon Krakauer, Penn’s film does both the book and McCandless’ life justice. While much of the commentary has inanely focused on McCandless’ lack of preparation for his Alaskan adventure, the film deftly shows that incandescent life of Alexander Supertramp was about so much more than how it ended.

8. True Lies (1994): “You’re fired,” says Harry Tasker as he fires a Harrier missile from which the stereotypically Arabic villain is dangling. It is these type of corny one-liners for which Arnold Schwarzenegger is at once revered and reviled. But you know what? “True Lies” is an entertaining movie that delivers what it promises. Directed by James Cameron (yes, the same man who directed Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” as well as Oscar winners “Titanic” and “Avatar”), the movie centers on a marriage that is deteriorating due to general boredom, but is resuscitated, when Helen Tasker, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, realizes her husband is not merely a drab salesman, but a terrorist hunting, bad-ass secret agent. It is the story’s surprising heart (and an unlikely hilarious turn from Tom Arnold, of all people) that rescues this film from being another run-of-the-mill mindless action flick. That and the fact Arnold was still at his peak as arguably Hollywood’s greatest ever action hero. This movie cannot be rightfully included in the ranks of the films at the top of this list, but it was entertaining, fun and definitely worth the time investment.

9. The Bodyguard (1992): Ditto for this film as far as its aspirations for cinematic greatness. But in its way, the romantic thriller starring Kevin Coster as an ex-Secret Service agent hired to protect a famous Whitney Houston, who pretty much plays herself, is thoroughly satisfactory. There is a nice little chase seen that takes place at Fallen Leaf Lake. This move may be remembered more, however, for its soundtrack and Houston’s powerful rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” originally written and sung by — wait for it — Dolly Parton, than any cinematic achievement.

10. The Navigator (1924): Buster Keaton is not as well known as Charlie Chaplin, but he is just as crucial to the development of cinema and the modern concept of comedy. A innovator in film stunts, Jackie Chan perhaps unwittingly owes much to the deadpan actor known as “The Great Stone Face.” “The Navigator” is on this list because it was filmed in Truckee. This is not to say it’s a poor film. In fact, it’s excellent. But it caters to devout cinephiles or devoted local historians rather than your casual movie-goer. That said, everyone can better enjoy Keaton’s most famous movie, “The General,” which is not only a classic of the silent era, but an American classic. The American Film Institute recently rated it at 18 on its 100 Greatest American Films list. It’s that good folks.

Honorable Mention, Last Weekend (2104): Here again, no one should confuse this with a great film. But this small independent feature, shot entirely on location at Lake Tahoe’s West Shore, is a visual love letter to Lake Tahoe and its mountainous surroundings. The film stars Patricia Clarkson as an affluent matriarch who gathers her dysfunctional family for a weekend at the family-owned cabin on the West Shore. The well-framed shots of Lake Tahoe and its stunning scenery should please residents and visitors alike.