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You Ought to Be in Pictures

Exploring Marin’s rich cinematic history.



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Kim Novak stands under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1958’s Vertigo.

THE MOVIE’S FIRST SHOT IS tightly focused on the base of an enormous Sequoia sempervirens, the type of redwood found in Muir Woods. An actress emerges from a large crack in the massive tree’s interior, then approaches the camera. The film cuts to a long shot of the actress standing at the base of the tree, and the camera slowly pans up to show the massive height of the redwood from base to tip, then slowly pans down again. This shot lasts well over a minute.

“It’s one of my favorite shots in the film. If you think about it, this is how many people around the world saw a redwood tree for the first time,” says Laurie Thompson, librarian in the Anne T. Kent California Room at the Marin Country Free Library. “Salomy Jane was distributed around the world, so audiences in New York, or even Australia, who watched the film saw footage from California that had never been seen by most of the world.”

Australia is an important reference, because the only existing six-reel print of Salomy Jane was discovered in a film vault Down Under about 15 years ago. The feature-length film was quickly shipped to the U.S. Library of Congress for restoration, and it has been preserved in both celluloid and digital formats. Thompson has hosted two screenings over the past few years.

“The audience was very enthusiastic; both screenings sold out,” Thompson says. “There’s a stagecoach chase along Fairfax-Bolinas Road and other scenes featuring recognizable locations. It was quite an experience to see these up on the big screen.”

Salomy Jane was the first production of the wildly ambitious California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), a silent film studio that set up shop in San Rafael in 1914. The production studio, founded by a group of wealthy investors, had a stated mission to create films that showed the world life in the West. George Middleton, a Peninsula-raised man with a background in advertising and auto sales, was both a founder of the company and the director of Salomy Jane and the studio’s other pictures. His wife, actress Beatriz Michelena, was the studio’s star — she played Salomy Jane.

According to a March 20, 1914, issue of the Marin Journal, the studio’s founders (who included Henry T. Scott, president of the Mercantile National Bank, and Charles Templeton Crocker, director of Crocker National Bank) scoured the state for an ideal location and settled on San Rafael.

“The choice of San Rafael as a studio site was made after the producers had searched all the more attractive spots in California,” the Journal’s article said. “Arthur Cadwell, who helped develop the technical end of the motion picture industry in this country after a long schooling in France and who is chief of this department for the California Motion Picture Corporation, declares the light and atmospheric conditions at San Rafael ideal for camera work. Scenic advantages were also influential in determining the new firm to locate in Marin County.”

The CMPC built an elaborate western set, known as Hangtown, located near Lagunitas, and a state-of-the-art glass production studio in San Rafael. Sadly, the company ran out of cash and shut down by 1921. In a fire thought to be caused by kids playing with fireworks, a storage facility housing much of California Motion Picture Corporation’s film stock burned to the ground in 1931.

Salomy Jane was not the first film from Marin County, nor was the CMPC the area’s first production studio. Thomas Edison had shot footage of Mount Tamalpais as early as 1898, and the Edison Electric Theater was showing short films on Fourth Street in San Rafael by 1903.

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, producer of the popular “Broncho Billy” short films, set up shop in San Rafael in 1911 for less than a year before relocating to the East Bay town of Niles — where the studio hired a young actor/director named Charlie Chaplin to film his breakthrough 1921 movie, The Kid.

During the next half-century, the film business burrowed itself into the Hollywood system. Occasionally, Hollywood would come to Marin County to film on location — Humphrey Bogart shot at San Quentin for both San Quentin (1937) and Dark Passage (1947), John Wayne came to Belvedere Island and San Rafael for Blood Alley (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock came to Muir Woods to shoot scenes for Vertigo (1958) and to Bodega Bay for The Birds (1963).

But for the most part, Hollywood sound stages were suitable for movie making, and the filmmaking industry in the North Bay was nonexistent. That is, until the California contingent of the great maverick directors of the late 1960s came along. This movement, which included Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, was led by energetic and talented young filmmakers (Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were also among them) who did not want to make the safe and predictable movies the Hollywood studio system had been cranking out.

In 1969, Coppola and Lucas formed American Zoetrope, an independent film studio based in San Francisco. The company’s first two movies were Coppola’s acclaimed 1969 drama The Rain People and Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138.

Lucas filmed scenes from THX-1138, a thriller set in a sterile, dystopian future, in the Marin County Civic Center. (The Frank Lloyd Wright building was also featured prominently and for futuristic effect in the 1997 film Gattaca.)

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George Lucas in front of Mel’s Drive-in during the filming of 1973’s American Graffiti.

THX-1138 was a flop, but Lucas’ follow-up wasn’t — in 1973, he cowrote and directed the smash American Graffiti. Coppola produced the film, which earned five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Lucas’ coming-of-age classic was a reflection on the filmmaker’s teen years in Modesto. But Lucas, then living in Mill Valley, wanted to shoot the film in the North Bay, preferably San Rafael.

“We started filming in San Rafael, but a bar owner complained that all the film trucks and equipment were bothering his customers,” says Candy Clark, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in American Graffiti. “So we packed up and moved the production to Petaluma.”

Petaluma, more receptive than San Rafael, welcomed the film crew to come shoot every night for a month. When American Graffiti hit theaters it was a box office hit, surprising the Southern California studio that had put up the film’s modest budget.

“Universal thought the movie was only going to play at drive-in theaters,” says Clark, laughing. “They even hated the title and wanted to change it. I remember Francis coming to the set and asking if we liked the title Rock Around the Block more than American Graffiti. I said, ‘Don’t you dare call it Rock Around the Block!’ ”

The success of American Graffiti was followed by Lucas’ best-known brand — and a seismic shift in contemporary movies. After Graffiti, he holed up in a house in San Anselmo, working on a screenplay for Star Wars. Lucas’ space opera was both a nostalgic nod to the Flash Gordon serials, westerns and samurai films and a quantum leap forward in the possibilities of visual effects and sound design.

When Star Wars hit theaters in May 1977, it became the most successful movie of all time, breaking the box office record set by Spielberg’s Jaws two years earlier. Thanks to a brilliant business move, Lucas retained the merchandising rights to all things Star Wars — so while the film studio 20th Century Fox kept the money earned from ticket sales, Lucas cleaned up on T-shirts, lunch boxes and action figures.

As Lucas started production on his Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, he began purchasing parcels of land near Nicasio and developing both his home and the ultimate production house in what is now known as Skywalker Ranch. This 4,000-acre paradise became home to Lucas’ special-effects studio Industrial Light and Magic, as well as Skywalker Sound and various other high-tech setups. Filmmakers from around the world use the facilities for all stages of production.

Over the past four decades, the worldwide cinematic impact of Skywalker Ranch has been staggering. In addition to the Star Wars films, Lucas’ production studios have performed digital sorcery on countless movies, including the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the liquid-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and every flying Quidditch broom in Harry Potter. Even the massively successful Pixar Animation Studios began as part of Industrial Light and Magic, when Pixar founder John Lasseter oversaw a breakthrough computer-generated imagery sequence in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. Pixar was sold in 1986 and relocated (as did Essanay Studios) to the East Bay, eventually settling in Emeryville.

In 2012, Lucas sold his Star Wars franchise to Disney for a reported sum of just over $4 billion. In addition to his artistic and technological achievements, Lucas has made remarkable efforts as an educational philanthropist.

Skywalker Ranch, that magical and creative playground, remains Lucas’ home. It is also one of the world’s cinematic wonders. The founders of the California Motion Picture Corporation would be proud.

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