Tacoma Cinema Obscura

Focusing the lens on a long shot back into Tacoma’s cinema history there are several classic films that have a deeper connection to the city than just a past run at one of our movie theaters. It’s tempting to program in your imagination a festival of Tacoma Obscura where hidden ties and references to Tacoma are a prerequisite for inclusion. Obvious films that were made here like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Eyes of the Totem (1926) are waaay to  easy and glaring as examples. The more deeply coded, hidden links between a film and Tacoma are what makes it interesting. And for a greater degree of difficulty imagine multiple connections, like mention of Tacoma in the script or on-screen and then someone involved in the production or cast with roots here.

Because Tacoma had a serious film production company

Chaplin Tacoma
The Gold Rush, 1925

during the last years of the silent era and has been a convenient location for Hollywood productions ever since, there is a long list of recognizable movie people who have worked in the area. But to be included in the Tacoma Obscura it takes a deeper dive. Bing Crosby movies don’t automatically count just because he was born here (unless someone can confirm that Tacoma is mentioned in Road to Utopia with Bob Hope).

So the game begins. For your consideration, here are a few examples with justification:

The Thin Man (1934) The director was W.S. Van Dyke who was born in the Northwest and directed two of the three major silent films made by Weaver Studios here in Tacoma. He both directed and acted in the recently restored film Eyes of the Totem. The only known copy of the film was located in his papers. The Thin Man starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett who spent time in Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital and used the city as a archetype for several of his noir detective stories. Tacoma shows up as the setting for an episode in his masterpiece detective novel, the Maltese Falcon but when John Huston made it into a film with Humphrey Bogart, the Tacoma chapter was left out.

Speedy (1928) was legendary comedian Harold Lloyd’s last silent film and tells a sweet parable about the last horse drawn streetcar operator in New York city, about diverse and healthy urban neighborhoods and about American baseball ( Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and Lou Gehrig appear). The obvious Tacoma tie is that Harold Lloyd was a familiar face in the city along with his wife, the actress Mildred Davis who was born here and graduated from Stadium High School. Mrs. Lloyd‘s parents were local celebrities even when their glamorous daughter in one of her mink coats wasn’t in town. Tucked nicely into the story is another Tacoma insider, Bert Woodruff who plays “Pop” Dillon, the streetcar owner and grandfather of Jane Dillon who is in love with Speedy, played by Lloyd. Bert Woodruff was a stock player in Tacoma’s Weaver Studio’s and played the big hearted grifter Toby in the Eyes of the Totem. The Turner Classics Channel has been running Speedy and it is available on YouTube

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) was a cinemascopic, Technicolor version of Jules Verne’s 1870’s novel about circumnavigation and the modern wonders of steam transportation. The Tacoma hook is with the bigger-than-life character George Francis Train who began and ended his own trip around the world from 9th and Broadway (There is a small plaque in the sidewalk today in front of the Pythian Temple commemorating is 67 day journey).51FZATKE35L._SX195_.jpg The inimitable eccentric published his own book about the boat, train, elephant and balloon adventure called Around the World With Train and sold it on lecture tours where he stated  “Verne stole my thunder. I’m Phileas Fogg.” In addition to the attention he drew to Tacoma with his circumnavigation, Train claimed to have been with the Northern Pacific Railroad delegation that chose Commencement Bay for the terminus of the transcontinental railroad. While at it he also believed himself to be the creator of the motto “City of Destiny”.

The 1956 blockbuster film was a big screen version of the Broadway musical written and directed by Orson Welles in 1946. Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth were new parents when they moved to New York with their year old daughter Rebecca. As the careers of her famous parents would soar, Rebecca would grow up to study in Tacoma, earn an Arts degree from College of Puget Sound (UPS) and live out her life and marriages here. Her father was an acquaintance and house guest of Tacoma magician Ray Gamble   and even flirted with the offer to play Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in a film version of Frank Herbert’s Sci Fi novel Dune.

 

INTERMISSION

 

 

Act Two to follow……

 

 

 

Written by TacomaHistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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