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A cheap holiday in other people’s misery

Key Largo (tonight on TCM) is one of those venerable mainstays of TCM and likely something everyone here has already nearly memorized.  I remember once I made a point of watching it in Key Largo, while on vacation (much like how I watch movies like Airport 77 while flying).  I mentioned this to the proprietors of the bed and breakfast where we were staying, and they told me that the island of Key Largo was actually named in honor of the movie.

It took me a long time to wrap my head around that statement.  That couldn’t possibly be true, could it?

Well, it is and it isn’t.  Click the fold below to read the whole story, about the citizens of a gorgeous island paradise insisted on naming their community after a grim thriller about murderous thugs and a hostage crisis.  Like you do.

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There is a placard in Key Largo that boasts, “Birthplace of the movie Key Largo.”  This is a bit of fancy hairsplitting legerdemain, since exactly none of the movie was shot in Key Largo—John Huston’s 1948 classic was in fact staged about 3,000 miles away, in Hollywood.  It’s no secret the interiors were shot on Warner Brother’s Burbank Studios, but some sources speculate that exterior establishing shots were taken in Key Largo—sorry, nope.  The documentation says these were done along the Pacific Coast Highway.

But, John Huston and screenwriter Richard Brooks had rented out the Caribbean Club on the island for their use while they adapted Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 Broadway play into a movie script—and this is the point of contact between the movie and the physical location that justified the sign.

Of course, aside from justifications for the sign, the important part was the inspiration for it—a community desperate to exploit their connection to a phenomenally popular artifact of pop culture.

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No, of course, there’s that part of me that thinks it absurd to want to associate your beautiful seaside town with a film so bitter and violent.  “Come for the mobsters, stay for the hurricanes!” David Fincher’s Se7en is also a widely popular and influential thriller, but I can’t see building a tourism campaign around it.  Nevertheless, Key Largo was a huge hit—the final pairing of Bogie and Bacall, Eddie Robinson at his dirtiest, Claire Trevor in an Oscar-winning supporting role, and Lionel Barrymore proving he could do more than just eat scenery.  At the helm you have John Huston, one of classical Hollywood’s great masters.  So, while it may be a brutal film noir about a vicious gangster who takes some innocent people hostage, and the world-weary man who stops him, this is Golden Age Hollywood at its finest.

The only problem with the people of Key Largo wanting to capitalize on the connection to Key Largo was, Key Largo the movie existed in the real world and Key Largo the place didn’t.

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To explain this, let’s jump back in time to the 1920s Florida land boom—the one satirized in the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, if you’d prefer to keep your history framed in reference to movies.  The island of Key Largo was quickly carved up by eager developers into dozens of sub-divisions—but it wasn’t nearly so popular with actual home-buyers, so most of those sub-divisions existed as abstractions, largely devoid of any real people or houses.  (Again, reference The Cocoanuts—the Groucho Marxes of the world saw Florida land as a gold mine, but they had an uphill battle selling the empty marshes to buyers).

Add in a 1935 hurricane that tore much of the existing development down and forced the railroad to give up and abandon rail connections to Key Largo, and what you have is a community that stalled out before it really got started.  In 1936, the Key Largo post office closed shop, and the remaining residents had their addresses swallowed up by adjacent Rock Harbor.

Flash forward a decade or so, and now you have the aftermath of Key Largo and a business environment eager to play up the connection—“Key Largo” used to exist, it just needed to be brought back.  In 1952, the post office serving the northern part of the island was renamed “Key Largo,” and at last there was a place to publicize.

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Bear in mind, the 1920s incarnation of Key Largo was a scant 2 miles across, while this new and improved Key Largo spanned 24 miles and consisted of the former communities of Key Largo, Rock Harbor, Ocean Reef Club, Angler’s Club, and Newport—because if “Key Largo” was being invented to piggyback on fond memories of the movie, why not let everyone in on the action who wanted a piece?

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4 Responses A cheap holiday in other people’s misery
Posted By LD : June 21, 2014 2:26 pm

Having traveled from Key West to Miami on US1 (in the 1990′s not 40′s) I could have sworn the opening was filmed there. Oh, well.

One of the reasons KEY LARGO makes a connection, I think, is the inclusion of the story about the 1935 hurricane. Not unlike the story of the Indianapolis in JAWS. Rocco’s tough image is cracked in the face of nature’s wrath. One of my favorite scenes in Key Largo is when McCloud realizes how afraid Rocco is of the storm and says “Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.”

Even if the Key Largo of the 40′s existed, it would be changed by now, so many years and hurricanes later.

Posted By Doug : June 22, 2014 3:01 am

I also had a ‘cheap holiday in other people’s misery’-USCG temporary assignment in Key West in 1981 when Castro emptied his prisons/insane asylums and allowed anyone who wanted to leave permission to get off his island by floating over to Florida.
If you don’t remember that, you remember that Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma used the event as the jumping off point for “Scarface”.
Coast Guard rescued as many of the refugees as they could; I didn’t see a single Cuban, as I was assigned to a base supporting those teams/boats patrolling the coast.

Posted By Jeb : June 24, 2014 7:22 pm

Great, and appropriate, use of a Sex Pistols lyric.

Posted By David : June 30, 2014 4:41 pm

A great film, no doubt, and the set and lighting for the dock sequences are terrific (note the miniature yacht, and the effect of overcast, pre-storm skies). But I have lived in California all my life and have never seen anything close to the overwater highway connecting the Keys that is featured in the opening. I would like to see proof of that assertion. Terrific column, thanks!

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