Adventures of a Movie-Location Tourist in New Orleans

nolaopenerAhhh, 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.

ELMO LINCOLN AS TARZAN IN LOUISIANA'S ATCHAFALAYA BASIN

ELMO LINCOLN AS TARZAN IN LOUISIANA’S ATCHAFALAYA BASIN

'REVELATION'  WAS SHOT IN PART IN CITY PARK.

POSTER FOR NAZIMOVA’S ‘REVELATION.’  THE MOVIE-POSTER EXHIBIT ENDS ON NOV. 26.

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.

nolacameo

LOBBY CARD FROM JOHN FORD’S ‘CAMEO KIRBY’, STARRING DROP-DEAD HANDSOME JOHN GILBERT

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.

THE HARCOL FILM COMPANY IN PRODUCTION IN NEW ORLEANS

THE HARCOL FILM COMPANY IN PRODUCTION IN NEW ORLEANS

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.

A & C BELIEVE MARDI GRAS REVELERS TO BE MARTIANS.

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).

PETER FONDA CLIMBED UP THE STATUE CALLED 'ITALIA' IN 'EASY RIDER.'

IN HISTORIC ST. LOUIS CEMETERY, PETER FONDA CLIMBED THE STATUE CALLED ‘ITALIA’ DURING THE LSD SCENE IN ‘EASY RIDER.’ NEW ORLEANS RESIDENTS STILL FUME ABOUT IT.

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.

THE EXTERIOR OF LESTAT'S HOME IN 'INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE

THE EXTERIOR OF LESTAT’S HOME IN ‘INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE IS LOCATED ON RUE DU DUMAINE.

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.

THE CORNER OF LAFAYETTE CEMETERY WHERE 'INTERVIEW' WAS SHOT.

THE CORNER OF LAFAYETTE CEMETERY WHERE THE SCENE IN ‘INTERVIEW’ WAS SHOT.

THE CEMETERY AS IT LOOKED IN 'INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE'

THE CEMETERY AS IT LOOKED IN ‘INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE’

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.

MY FRIEND TIM SHOWS OF THE BUCKNER MANSION, WHERE 'AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN'WAS SET.

MY FRIEND TIM SHOWS OFF THE BUCKNER MANSION IN THE GARDEN DISTRICT, WHERE ‘AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN’ WAS SET.

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.

9 Responses Adventures of a Movie-Location Tourist in New Orleans
Posted By Lyndell : July 28, 2014 6:36 pm

Thank you for the interesting piece. I do wish you and the other Morlocks would use the editorial standard that acronyms (and sometimes abbreviations) are spelled out upon first use. For instance, what does NOLA stand for? Thanks.

Posted By LD : July 28, 2014 7:24 pm

Thank you Susan for this post about one of my favorite cities. It’s been a while since I have visited and I have never taken a ghost or movie tour. Next time.

For those who would like to travel outside the city, between NOLA and Baton Rouge there are several plantations that have been used in films. One of the better known ones that I have visited is Oak Alley. Not only is it a beautiful place to film but it is also air conditioned. I am certain that makes it even more attractive to those in the film industry location shooting.

Your post was interesting and informative but after reading the EASY RIDER story I felt disappointed at the desecration of the cemetery. Where is Marie Laveau when you need her?

Until I can return to New Orleans I will have to be content watching THE BIG EASY. There’s no place like it.

Posted By Doug : July 29, 2014 12:17 am

I’ll answer Lyndell-NOLA stands for New Orleans (NO), Louisiana (LA).
Never been down there myself, Susan, but it sounds like a great place to visit. That ghost tour sounds cool-would you go on an actual nighttime ‘ghost hunt’ at one of those famously haunted
hotels?

Posted By Susan Doll : July 29, 2014 1:18 am

Lyndell: Sorry. I did not mean to confuse anyone with the acronym. It saved me from having to say “New Orleans” so much, which can sound repetitive in a piece like this.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 29, 2014 1:20 am

Doug and LD: The nighttime ghost tour in the Quarter was terrific, not because of the ghosts so much but because the murders that led to the ghosts were so demented. I have been on my ghost tours in many cities but the stories in New Orleans are the most bizarre and deranged. And, Doug, I would definitely do a ghost hunt.

Posted By Jenni : July 29, 2014 2:34 pm

I got to visit New Orleans 21 years ago when my husband had a chemical engineering conference to attend and we took our 5 month old baby with us. A beautiful and very interesting city to visit. You did leave out a NO-based movie that I really like,Susan. Panic in the Streets-Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Zero Mostel. Palance’s film debut. Palance is a thug infected with pneumonic plague. Widmark is a doctor with the US Health Services and Douglas is a cop and they only have 2 days to find the thug carrier. Directed by Elia Kazan, I do believe parts of it were filmed in NO.

Posted By Jeb : July 29, 2014 3:12 pm

I am curious why there is not a mention of the movie The Big Easy. Maybe the museum left it out on purpose? Not that I think it’s a bad movie, but I lived in Baton Rouge for a few years, and quickly figured out that the locals did not like it since it seemed to portray most of its white people in NOLA as “Cajuns”, which is not really true. The Cajuns are mostly west of NO, from Baton Rouge to Lafayette LA.
Speaking of movies in New Orleans, it was the movie Angel Heart that inspired me and my future wife to holiday (several years before moving there) in New Orleans. And an excellent coincidence occurred on that trip: we booked a swamp tour that ended up at a place called Laurel Valley Village (one of the only remaining collection of slave cabins on a plantation) which was where some scenes from Angel Heart were filmed.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 29, 2014 3:41 pm

Jeb: The Big Easy was not represented in the exhibit, which I thought was odd. But, on the tours, within the crowds, I heard whispers about it. I deduce that NOLA residents are not pleased with the film and the way their city was represented, but I don’t know enough about the city to speculate why.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 29, 2014 3:42 pm

Jenni: Panic in the Streets was represented in the exhibit as were a number of other films that I did not have space to mention.

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