Volume XIX, Number 39
December 16 - 23, 1993


By Bill Kirk

"Lights! Camera! Action!" was more likely to be heard from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, John Ford and Charlie Chaplin around Sacramento in the 1920s and early 1930s as it was in almost any other place outside Hollywood. What was it that brought those film greats to the Central Valley so far away from the glitter of the big film production companies down south?

In 1920, the whole country was booming and Hollywood could scarcely keep up with the demand for movies. However, despite the fast pace of the economy, the stories of a slower, quieter, more peaceful era-the so-called "good ol' days"-were what the country longed to see on the silver screen.

And like no other time in Sacramento's history, the city and its namesake river, were ready, willing and able to answer Hollywood's cry for nostalgia on the screen as well as its appetite for cheap entertainment after the cameras stopped rolling. According to Sacramento's Paul Frobose, a graduate student in history at CSUS, this was Sacramento's Golden Age in the movies. "There has been no other time, before of since, that the River City has received quite so much attention from Hollywood," said Frobose.

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The year is 1930. On location, Tom Sawyer can be seen for days on end rafting along the Mississippi River with no care for the future other than when his next adventure will start. The summer is hot, the fish are biting (especially in the morning) and life is good.

But wait! Something's wrong with this picture. Shouldn't there be cotton fields instead of pear orchards on the other side of the levee? In 1930 and 1931, it was on the lower Sacramento River near Courtland and Clarksburg where "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" spent their time floating down the "mighty Mississippi."

In fact, according to Frobose, author of "Sacramento's Golden Decade of Movie-Making," the Sacramento River was used to portray the Mississippi River in 29 movies filmed between 1914 and 1935. "Many other rivers were also shot 'on location' in Sacramento, such as China's Yangtze River in the movie "Shanghai Bound," for which an entire Chinese village was constructed at Washington on the Yolo County side of the river in 1927," noted Frobose.

Then there was Burma's Irrawaddy River in "Mandalay" and even the Volga River in "The Volga Boatman" filmed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1925. The muddy Sacramento even played itself in the 1925 movie "Pony Express." Curiously, however, according to Frobose, "The replica of the City of Sacramento used in "Pony Express" was actually built in the Yolo County community of Westgate."

Frobose has long been interested in Sacramento history, particularly film history. It was while taking a research methods course at CSUS that he began to dig further, channeling his personal history into a master's thesis in the CSUS graduate history program.

Researching the subject, even Frobose was pleasantly surprised by what he learned. Sacramento appeared in at least 45 feature length films between 1914 and 1935. And if El Dorado and Placer counties are included, 100 movies were shot on location in the area in the decade between 1920 and 1930 alone.

Sacramento's low overhead, ideal climate and excellent reception by the city business community were key factors in keeping the movie moguls and their crews interested. "In addition, Sacramento had a reputation in Hollywood as an "open city' and a 'hotbed' of vice," he said, "where bootleg liquor, gambling and prostitution were popular attractions for the out-of-towners from down south."

There was also a mutually beneficial relationship between some of the producers, such as Buster Keaton, and the local population. In 1924 the Chamber of Commerce arranged for over 500 extras from Sacramento's skid row to appear in the movie, "The Gold Rush." And Keaton hired 1,000 extras for his movie "Steamboat Bill, Jr." in 1927. The city leaders knew that business would pick up when the movie film crews came to town.

As popular as Sacramento was, why didn't the movie companies relocate to Sacramento to establish a "Hollywood North"? According to Frobose, "The big companies were well established in Hollywood where they took over both the means of production and distribution of the movies." The giants such as Fox, Universal and Paramount not only made the films, they controlled the theaters where the movies were shown.

In 1922, the Sacramento Pictures Corporation had a short run, producing two feature films that were distributed nationwide before the company moved to Los Angeles two years later. Despite this and several other attempts by local investors to bring a major studio to Sacramento, there seemed to be little interest in making a go of it, according to Frobose.

He also told us that since the river put Sacramento on the movie map, "As long as Hollywood made nostalgic movies dramatizing romantic themes in America's past, filming river scenes in Sacramento was practical and cost-effective." It was when the Great Depression hit that the nation's interest in nostalgia shifted dramatically toward dealing with the reality of widespread unemployment and poverty. "By the late 1930s," said Frobose, "the heyday of Hollywood movie activity in Sacramento was over." Only six feature films had Sacramento locations between 1930 and 1935.

Since then, then number of movies with scenes filmed in the Sacramento area has been few and far between. The most recent films, according to Frobose, include "Wisdom" with Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore (1986), Clint Eastwood's "Bird" (1988) and "Pink Cadillac" (1989), and "Rescue Me" (1991). Charlene Noyes, the archivist with the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collections, told us that the Tina Turner story, "What's Love Got To Do With It?" was also shot near here in 1992. "Film crews once again returned to the Clarksburg area to transform the lower River into Turner's Mississippi River home," she said.

Lucy Steffens, director of media relations at the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, explained that the city is taking a more proactive approach to attracting movie companies into the area for filming than in the recent past. Although the Film Commission was dormant for two or three years, a new film commissioner, Jan Decker, has been appointed and he is talking up the advantages to the film companies and the benefits to the city to as many movie moguls as will listen.

Steffens explained that Sacramento will be represented at the February 1994 International Association of Film Commissioners Trade Show in Santa Monica. "Part of Sacramento's booth will be a series of current photographs of scenic views, places and landmarks so film scouts and film producers can see the rich variety of potential film locations in Sacramento," she said.

Among those locations are the soon-to-close sugar refinery in Clarksburg, the Delta King, The Capitol, Governor's Mansion, Tower Bridge, homes in East Sacramento (for the east coast feel) and the former nuclear power plant at Rancho Seco.

Sacramento may never recapture the attention of the movie companies that it had in the 1920s. But it won't be from a lack of trying. Says Lucy Steffens, "It makes good business sense for Sacramento to get a piece of the Hollywood action and we are seriously going after it." Here's to Sacramento's next golden decade of movie-making.

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Copyright © 1993 by the Suttertown News and 2002-2015 by billkirkwrites. All rights reserved