Posted by Susan Doll on July 28, 2014
Ahhh, New Orleans! Where else can outrageous people eat exotic food while downing powerful alcoholic drinks with catastrophic names. On a recent trip to NOLA, I was prepared for everything—the crowds of colorful revelers, the world’s most demented ghost stories, even the parents who dragged small children to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. But, what really surprised me—and, pleasantly so—was how much I learned about movie history during my brief vacation. Avid movie-goers know that a variety of contemporary films and television programs have been shot in New Orleans and Louisiana, including the third season of American Horror Story. But, Louisiana’s contributions to American film history go back to the earliest silent days.
Luckily, I was in town while a noteworthy exhibition titled “From Cameo to Close-up: Louisiana in Film” is on view at the Williams Research Center, which is part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Located at 533 Royal Street in the French Quarter, the Center is a small but intimate space, offering cool comfort from the heat and noise of the Quarter. If you are in New Orleans, I recommend this exhibition, which consists of posters and lobby cards for films shot or set in Louisiana. The annotated labels reveal bits of history and lore that reveal the breadth of Louisiana’s contributions to film history as well as forgotten movies set in New Orleans. Curated by Assistant Director of Museum Programs Amanda McFillen, Senior Curator Mark Cave, and Technical Processor Lissa Cappo, the exhibit features several rare lobby cards and posters from the collection of the late Don Lee Keith, a New Orleans journalist who amassed a variety of photos, articles, research, and other ephemera related to Louisiana over the years.
According to McFillen, the rarest piece of memorabilia in the exhibit is a color half-sheet poster for the 1918 version of Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln. I knew that Lincoln, who was born Otto Elmo Linkenhelt, was cinema’s first Tarzan, and I knew that Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs did not approve of Lincoln in the role, but I did not know the film was produced by Chicago insurance salesman William Parsons on location in Morgan City, Louisiana, about 70 miles west of NOLA. Scenes were shot on Avoca Island in the nearby bayous as well as in the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland and swamp in the U.S. The subtropical environment was suitable for a story set in Africa, though stock footage of Brazil was inserted to suggest the deep tropical foliage. Local African Americans were recruited to appear as natives in the film, while local circus performers donned ape costumes to play a band of feisty gorillas. The oldest film represented in the exhibit is Revelation, a 1918 drama starring Alla Nazimova. Little is known about the film, which was only Nazimova’s second, but it was partially shot in City Park in New Orleans. The poster for Revelation that is on display in the exhibit uses an image from a scene shot in the park.
Also among the silent films represented is a lobby card from Cameo Kirby (1923), the first film in which director John Martin “Jack” Feeney was billed as John Ford. Shot in Louisiana, this historical adventure tale stars matinee idol John Gilbert in the title role as a man of substance who is reduced by circumstance to gambling on the Mississippi riverboats. Cameo Kirby is also notable as Jean Arthur’s screen debut.
It was not happenstance that so many films were shot in Louisiana in the silent era, because several production companies and studios popped up in New Orleans in the mid-1910s. Like Chicago and Jacksonville, Florida, New Orleans gets short shrift in the film history books for its attempts to create a film-production center. This exhibition lends credence to a couple of characteristics about the silent era that get little attention in official texts and histories. First, a great deal of important filmmaking occurred outside of the production center s of New York and Hollywood; second, location shooting was an important and common element in American movies before the coming of sound pushed filmmaking inside the studio. The location shooting of the silent era lends a naturalism to the movies that differs from the artificial quality of the studio or backlot production of the sound era. According to McFillen, at least three studios were active in New Orleans before WWI: the Coquille Film Company, established in 1914, released several shorts; the Diamond Film Company, in operation by 1917, used local actors in stories with Southern themes shot in New Orleans; and the Harcol Film Company, established in1916, began making feature films but turned to newsreels and nonfiction.
Later, in the sound era, fewer films were actually shot in New Orleans or Louisiana, though they continued to be set there. One film almost produced near NOLA was Louisiana Lou, a project notable for the unlikely collaboration of the director who gave us Freaks, Tod Browning, and America’s premiere Southern novelist, William Faulkner. Faulkner attempted to write the script at his home in Mississippi, while Browning scouted locations in New Orleans. A letter from Faulkner to the director, which is part of the exhibit, reveals their collaboration was not productive. Ultimately, both were fired, and later the material was reconfigured into Lazy River (1934).
Many major productions were set in NOLA during the Golden Age, including The Flame of New Orleans (1941), starring Marlene Dietrich, and Johnny Angel (1945), with George Raft. While not necessarily shot in New Orleans, these films are significant to the region because they constructed and circulated impressions and perceptions of the city in the common cultural consensus. For example, in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953) the boys accidentally crash their rocketship in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, believing the outrageous revelers in their crazy costumes to be Martians!
More fun are the low-budget movies of the 1950s, forgotten over time, with such explosive or sensational titles as Damn Citizen (1958), which was “based on a true story” (of course it was!), Swamp Women (1956), Alligator Alley (?), Four for the Morgue (1962), and The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962).
A key piece of memorabilia in the exhibit is a poster for Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s infamous road flick that compelled Hollywood to chase after the young directors of the Film School Generation, hoping they would recreate the financial success of that film. Easy Rider (1969) is so notorious in New Orleans that I heard three references to it while I was there in three different contexts. Apparently, Hopper shot part of the LSD sequence in one of the city’s most historically significant places, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the Quarter. Using a hand-held 16mm camera, Hopper’s cinematographer filmed the stars cavorting through the historic gravesites while tripping on acid, without permits and without permission. Fonda’s character climbed up a historic statue; one of the women pressed her nude body against the mausoleums; the characters engaged in intimate behavior on the grounds. When the head of the Catholic Church in New Orleans heard about the cast’s exploits, he banned filming in the cemetery for all time. To this day, if filmmakers want to shoot in a New Orleans-style graveyard, they use Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, which is owned by the city, not the Church.
Modern-day movie production is so prevalent in the city that references to films shot in NOLA pepper the stories told by guides for the city’s many history and ghost tours. One evening, my friends and I took the French Quarter Phantoms Ghost & Vampire Tour, a highly entertaining stroll through the heart of the Quarter. Guide Luke Siddall, who is an excellent storyteller, regaled us with the most morbid tales of the malevolent forces that have haunted the city, including the story of Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his wife, Delphine. Apparently, the LaLauries tortured their slaves by performing bizarre medical experiments on them during the 1830s. Needless to say, the LaLaurie mansion is haunted. Also, anyone who has purchased the house has never been able to hang onto it for more than five years, including Nicolas Cage, who was forced to sell when he declared bankruptcy. Delphine LaLaurie was the inspiration for the Kathy Bates character in the third season of American Horror Story.
Interview with a Vampire made excellent use of the exotic, historic, and eerie NOLA locations, including one of the oldest buildings in the city, which is known as Madame John’s Legacy. The outside of the building, located on Dumaine Street in the Quarter, was used to represent the exterior of the house the main characters inhabited in the film. Interview with a Vampire and American Horror Story were also mentioned during the Garden District Ghosts & Legends tour that we took the next afternoon, though the focus of the tour was more history than hysteria thanks to our knowledgeable tour guide, Eugenia Rainey. For Interview with a Vampire, a false mausoleum was built in one corner of Lafayette Cemetery for the scene in which Louie, played by Brad Pitt, transforms from human to vampire. The statue and dense foliage were also created for the scene so that no harm would come to the graveyard, unlike the way Hopper and crew bowled over St. Louis No. 1. The house that was used as Miss Robicheaux’s Academy in American Horror Story: Coven is also located in the Garden District. A huge white house with an extension in the back, the Buckner Mansion continually attracts tourists who park nearby and run up to the main gate to take selfies. The mansion, renowned for its 48 Ionic and Corinthian columns, was built for cotton magnate Henry Sullivan Buckner in 1853. Originally, the three-floor extension behind the main house was used to house the family’s unmarried adult males on one floor and slaves on another. Rumor has it that the slaves had many babies; apparently, some mothers and children haunt the house.
While visiting New Orleans, I discovered a place rich in regional history, folklore, tales of the supernatural, and now movie lore. All these types of stories interweave into a tapestry of fact and fiction, chronicle and memoir, new gossip and old legend, which offers a truer sense of NOLA than any history book.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art in Movies Australian CInema Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Underground Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies