Great Movies Shot in Orange County
Publicizing local film locations has become quite an industry for chambers of commerce around the world, and naturally, Southern California has more than its fair share. But in 1980, when Jim Sleeper published his Great Movies Shot in Orange County That Will Live Forever (or At Least until 1934), tales of early film locations were largely confined to gossip and local legend.
In the days of silent films, it was relatively easy for film crews to shoot on location; it was only the coming of sound that forced them into the studios. So Orange County provided the setting for many early productions. Relying largely on local newspapers, Sleeper identified at least 500 films shot in Orange County between 1910 and 1930 (which “is 495 more than anyone else has turned up,” he noted).
When Sleeper was researching his book in the late 1970s, access to early films was still limited; today we have YouTube, where a number of early local productions can be found. Sadly, many early films have not survived. Of those which have, only a few have made it to YouTube complete; and of those, fewer still give us much of a glimpse of local scenes. The battle scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), for example – famously shot on the Irvine Ranch above Corona del Mar – naturally show us little of actual Orange County at the time.
But a few gems can be found in YouTube's vast collection, including the first film shot (mostly) in Orange County – D.W. Griffith’s The Two Brothers (1910).
Filmed largely in San Juan Capistrano in March and April of 1910, The Two Brothers features wonderful footage of the mission, and some scenes shot up in San Juan Canyon, along what would later become the Ortega Highway. Proof that these early Griffith films, while quickly made, were still carefully planned, is that there are also scenes shot at Mission San Gabriel intercut with the Capistrano footage.
The copy of The Two Brothers found on YouTube comes from the collection of the Eye Film Institute in Amsterdam. It is part of the Jean Desmet Collection, one of the pioneer theatre operators and film distributors in the Netherlands (though curiously, the subtitles seem to be in German).
For those interested in the plot, here is a synopsis from 1910.
The Sands of Dee
Another early Griffith film which captures some excellent local scenes is The Sands of Dee, shot at Rocky Point (today’s Corona del Mar) in May 1912, and starring Mae Marsh and Robert Harron. There are a number of interesting ‘behind the scenes’ shots of the production in Sleeper’s book, showing the sets built along the bluffs. Most of the rocks that gave Rocky Point its name were removed during the various improvements to the mouth of Newport Harbor from the 1910s to the 1930s.
(One of the things which helped build the early film industry was that silent films could be easily retitled in other languages for distribution around the world. More than a few early American productions only survive in overseas archives.)
Buster in Balboa
For something a little lighter than these early dramas, two Buster Keaton comedies shot on Newport Bay in the 1920s are both visually valuable and still entertaining.
The Boat (1921) was shot that September, and captures a number of local scenes. Better still is Keaton’s full-length comedy, College, shot in the spring of 1927, which culminates in a long rowing race on the bay, including shots of the Balboa Pavilion, the South Seas Club, and what would become Bay Shores. Sleeper judged it “The most memorable comedy ever shot in Orange County.”
(The boat race scenes begin 51 minutes into the film.)
Sarah and Son
Finally, Sarah and Son, one of the first “talkies” shot in Orange County in 1929, featured Ruth Chatterton and Frederic March in a tear-jerker about a mother seeking her lost son. Hardly a memorable picture, its value to local history are the scenes shot along the Orange County coast in the Seal Beach/Sunset Beach area and – best of all – a long sequence shot at the old Bolsa Chica Gun Club.
Beginning in the 1890s, a number of duck hunting clubs were scattered across Orange County’s wetlands. Bolsa Chica was the most elite. Their elaborate clubhouse stood until 1964.
(The Bolsa Chica scenes in Sarah and Son (1930) begin 59 minutes in.)