Posted by gregferrara on August 25, 2013
Today is Clark Gable’s day at TCM and where I grew up, Gable was an icon. Yes, yes, I know, he’s an icon everywhere, period. But I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina (“Charleston born and Charleston bred and when I die, I’ll be Charleston dead.”) and to say that Gone with the Wind is big in Charleston, South Carolina is an understatement. It’s kind of like saying college football has a mild following in the South. Gone with the Wind isn’t a movie in Charleston, it’s an institution. Back in the nineties, after moving back to Charleston briefly from DC (long story), when I used to drive over the bridge on I-526 each morning to go to work, I thought of the movie. That’s because as I came off the bridge, signs directed me to Rhett Avenue. About a mile further, there’s a Rhett Butler Drive (Yes, there’s a Rhett Butler Drive). Go to the downtown area, blindfold yourself, turn around three times and throw a stick and I guarantee you you’ll hit a Scarlett O’Hara doll, painting or poster. That’s what it’s like when movie has a major character from your hometown and the movie is an all-time classic. But something else happens when a movie comes to town, and in many cases, it’s not always good.
Now in the case of Gone with the Wind, it’s not from my hometown at all, just the character of Rhett Butler, a “visitor from Charleston.” But let’s face it, he’s a major character and he’s the guy who gets to give Scarlett the ultimate movie kiss-off and – AND – he just happens to be, by far, the coolest character in the movie. Charlestonians understand how lucky they are that Ashley wasn’t the guy from Charleston and they show it. But other times in movies, when they film in your hometown (or pretend to) you feel like you’re a part of the movie. Of course, now I live in Washington, DC so it’s no big deal anymore because every third action movie has at least one massive set piece where either the White House, Washington Monument or Capitol Building gets blown up or vaporized. But it can still take me out of the movie sometimes.
When I was watching No Way Out back in 1987 in a Washington, D.C. theater, the audience laughed when Kevin Costner ran away from the feds and ducked into the Georgetown Metro. It was funny because not only does Georgetown not have a metro stop but it’s actually kind of infamous for not having a metro stop. It’s a popular area and yet no one can just get on the train there because of any number of reasons we’ve all heard over the years (“It’s on bedrock that’s too hard to blast through,” “the rich people didn’t want a train stop there,” “the planners were just complete idiots” and so on). So when Costner hops on the Georgetown Metro, it got a big laugh. Then when he went down to the station, he was in a subway system that in no way resembled the DC Metro system, also very noticeable to DC residents. Of course, it’s the kind of thing no one else notices so it doesn’t detract from the movie in any way if you don’t know the area.
Other things are so tiny, they actually do distract you. In Three Days of the Condor, the characters end up in the DC metro area, somewhere around Langley, Virginia, and Joubert, played by Max von Sydow, asks Turner (Robert Redford) if he can give him a lift to “the Union Station.” The Union Station?! Nobody but nobody says the Union Station. It’s Union Station, period. There’s no “the.” Every time I watch it, it drives me crazy.
Or the location doesn’t quite work in real life. Take The Exorcist. The famous steps that Karras falls down at the end are famous to any resident of DC and easily located at the end of Georgetown, across from the river. They’re long, narrow steps that feel dangerous the second you get on them but the main thing is, when you’re there, you have no idea how Karras got himself to those steps through that window because when you’re actually at the steps, the nearest townhouse window doesn’t even come close. I can only assume, in preparation for the exorcism, he had rockets installed in his shoes.
Sometimes the problem with filming in your hometown is a general wrongness that you can see that others can’t. When I saw Rich in Love many years ago, I was excited to see the hometown locations. It was filmed in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just across the river from Charleston. I was born in Charleston and we eventually moved to Mount Pleasant. And here’s where the movie felt wrong: The accents. It’s something only a Southerner notices, but the accents are usually too much. It’s not that people don’t have them, it’s that they are either not as noticeable as some actors speak them or not even close in the first place. That’s how Rich in Love is. It never really felt like I was watching a movie about people from my hometown. They just didn’t sound or feel right, ever.
Oddly enough, going back to Clark Gable, his Rhett Butler does sound like he’s from Charleston. He famously refused to do an accent for the movie and thank goodness because his actual voice sounds a lot like a lot of accents in Charleston. He could have blended in perfectly, back in the day.
The thing about Charleston is, you mainly get historical pictures which aren’t as fun for picking out current locations or noticing things like the Georgetown Metro in No Way Out. Movies like Glory, The Patriot or Cold Mountain all had shooting locations in Charleston but none of them had parts where you thought, “Wait, that’s not right,” because it’s well in the past and if it’s not right it’s probably something they got wrong historically, not a location mishap.
Finally, different movies can get mixed up in your head thanks to location. It may sound strange but Gone with the Wind and The Prince of Tides will forever be linked in my head. Why? Simple. In the last scene of The Prince of Tides, when Nick Nolte is driving over that bridge and saying “Lowenstein” three times in his head, that bridge is I-526. Once you get just past where he says “Lowenstein,” you see the sign for Rhett Avenue. So once the movie came out, every time I drove into work, Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand and Clark Gable got mixed together in my head. I returned to DC soon after and I’ve never looked back. Thanks, Babs.
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