Looking back at the 100-year history feature films at Lake Tahoe

Michael Corleone, played here by Al Pacino, sits at his desk as he tries to hatch business deals with corrupt politicians during a scene from “The Godfather: Part II.” Through the window, the viewer can see the distinctive forest of the Lake Tahoe Basin. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2015-16 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.

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 protect. 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 over 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.

Charlie Chaplin poses in front of the cameras in the Donner Pass area as he shoots his famed film “The Gold Rush.” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

“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

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.”

Montgomery Clift is driving a speedboat with Elizabeth Taylor (or likely her stunt double) skimming the waters of Lake Tahoe during a scene for “A Place in the Sun,” shot in 1951. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

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 an elaborate stunt for one of the film’s climatic sequences.

A HOLLYWOOD CLASSIC: ‘THE GOLD RUSH’

Many critics say “The Gold Rush” starring Charlie Chaplin, seen here between takes at Donner Summit, is one of the greatest films ever made. Courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort

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,” regarding by critics as one of the greatest films in the history of cinema.

Chaplin uses Truckee as the stand-in for the Yukon during 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 shooing 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.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer exchange hardboiled banter characteristic of the noir era during a scene of “Out of the Past.” Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay can be seen extending in the background. Courtesy RKO Pictures

“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 the Fleur du Lac, an expansive estate formerly owned by Henry Kaiser on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore, for a location 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 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.

It’s the last fishing trip Fredo Corleone will ever take, as the rim of the Lake Tahoe Basin is ablaze with the setting su,n and the lake steals its soft colors from the fading blue of the sky in a scene from “The Godfather, Part II.” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

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; and “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 got work to do.

Matthew Renda is a former reporter for the Sierra Sun and former freelance writer for Tahoe Magazine.
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