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The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen

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In collaboration with the University of California Press and the California Historical Society, Lost LA is proud to present selected articles from California History that shed light on themes discussed in the show's second season. This article originally appeared in the Spring 1984 edition (vol. 63, no. 2) of the journal.

The beneficent climate and cosmo­politan cultural ambience of North­ern California have long attracted in­ventive personalities and engendered creative activity. From its birth to the present day, the motion picture medium has been particularly nurtured and sustained by this unique area.

As early as the 1870s, the natural beauty and tonic qualities of North­ern California's out-of-doors drew together photographer Eadweard Muybridge and industrialist Leland Stanford for an epic work on the lat­ter's estate at Palo Alto in Santa Clara County. Their joint experi­ments resulted in the world's first split-second sequential photographs of horses, oxen, deer, birds and, finally, man in motion. 

These stop-action photographs swiftly led Muybridge and Stanford to the invention of an instrument to project the separate images in rapid sequence onto a screen: the proto­type of today's movie projector. To photography's already existing power of recording static physical reality, Stanford and Muybridge added the new dimension of recording reality as it changed through time. The world-wide premiere exhibition of their motion pictures took place in San Francisco in May 1880. The new medium amazed au­diences with its continuous flow of realistic moving images and the vari­ety of scenes photographed under wide, bright California skies.

"Mr. Lawton, Back Somersault," the first human being to appear in motion pictures. Eadweard Muybridge, Photographs, Stanford University Museum of Art
"Mr. Lawton, Back Somersault," the first human being to appear in motion pictures. Eadweard Muybridge, Photographs, Stanford University Museum of Art
The Palo Alto acreage of Leland Stanford's stock farm, c. 1880.
The Palo Alto acreage of Leland Stanford's stock farm, c.1880. Eadweard Muybridge, Photographs, Stanford University Museum of Art
S2 E4: Dream Factory

The San Francisco premiere show­ing of the magical picture that moved stimulated technical ad­vances on a world-wide scale. By the mid-1890s, motion picture films were being successfully exhibited in leading cities of the United States and Europe. This new marvel showed a spellbound public that scenes and events anywhere in the world could be recorded with indis­putable photographic accuracy and recreated on a screen at a later time and in a distant place. Although last­ing only a few minutes, the very early films demonstrated the film­makers' utter fascination with, and rapidly growing mastery of, the new medium.

A delightful, remarkably success­ful early example of the cinematic capacity to capture unstaged reality was filmed in Marin County around 1900. A Trip Down Mt. Tamalpais, shot from atop a railroad car, not only recorded motion, but also created the sensation of speed and propulsion. It both thrilled spectators and provided them with a unique visual experience as the train twisted and turned down the moun­tain into the giant evergreen trees at its base.

The winding track of the Mt. Tamalpais Railway thrilled  Bay Area residents on a day's outing-and silent movie goers who enjoyed the viewpoint of the camera mounted on the lead car. California Historical Society, San Francisco
The winding track of the Mt. Tamalpais Railway thrilled Bay Area residents on a day's outing – and silent movie goers who enjoyed the viewpoint of the camera mounted on the lead car. California Historical Society, San Francisco
San Francisco's Barbary Coast , lower Pacific Street, filmed c. 1913. San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco's Barbary Coast, lower Pacific Street, filmed c. 1913. San Francisco History Room, San Francisco Public Library

Another early movie also attested to the camera's affinity for reality­ but in an urban setting. This was The Barbary Coast, filmed in San Francisco during 1913. As no painted make-believe stage set or verbal de­scription could do, the camera cap­tured the squalid structures of the waterfront vice zone with raw truth, making the picture a rare social document.

Even before this, however, filmmakers were beginning to realize the new medium's potential for entertainment. Soon, the short film which merely recorded un­posed reality gave way to the theatri­cal film which told a story.

To find attractive settings for the new story film, producers tried filming in different parts of the United States. Among the movie hopefuls was Gilbert M. Anderson of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Roaming the West from Colorado to Santa Barbara in search of ideal settings for adventure stories about frontier days, Ander­son finally set up his film studio near the farming and ranching town of Niles in Alameda County. From 1909 to 1916, his Essanay westerns, with their strong, dramatic action building to resounding climaxes, earned world-wide acclaim. Ander­son's new character, "Bronco Billy," was the prototype for the cinema cowboy later epitomized by Gary Cooper and John Wayne. The vari­ety and magnitude of the Northern California outdoor settings chosen by Anderson-unadorned towns with unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks, rough-hewn ranches and corrals, stream-fed valleys, rolling hills, and verdant open country­ helped make the Essanay films America's first true westerns.

The countryside of Northern California also inspired another well-known movie figure. No less than Charles Chaplin, an artist with Essanay Company in 1915, found in the area an environment which helped him to create his "Little Tramp" in the classic comedy, The Tramp, which was filmed in the bucolic farms and orchards of the countryside around Niles Canyon. Among the most important early film companies established in Northern California was the Califor­nia Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC). As the site for its studio the new company chose Marin County – just north of the Golden Gate – with its unrivaled beauty and variety of scenic backgrounds.

Main Street in Niles c. 1912, frequent location for western movies. Mission Peak Heritage Foundation, Fremont
Main Street in Niles c. 1912, frequent location for western movies. Mission Peak Heritage Foundation, Fremont
An Essanay cowboy in Niles Canyon. Geoffrey Bell Collection
An Essanay cowboy in Niles Canyon. Geoffrey Bell Collection
Gilbert M. Anderson's cinematographer and crew at work in Niles Canyon's creek bed. Geoffrey Bell Collection
Gilbert M. Anderson's cinematographer and crew at work in Niles Canyon's creek bed. Geoffrey Bell Collection
1915 advertisement for Anderson's Bronco Billy movies. Geoffrey Bell Collection
1915 advertisement for Anderson's Bronco Billy movies. Geoffrey Bell Collection

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Entering production in 1913, the CMPC was notable among early film companies for its high-caliber cinematography. This camera work added greatly to the success of its feature-length westerns, which were among America's first. In­spired by Bret Harte's stories from the colorful history of California, the CMPC filmed them among the giant redwoods and verdant mountains of Northern California. The company also constructed a replica of an early Western town in the majestic big trees of the Santa Cruz coastal range south of San Francisco. Such unprece­dented scenic grandeur impressed national film audiences and critics. The prestigious New York Dramatic Mirror's review of Salomy Jane (1914) exclaimed:

Many types of films made by many different companies profited from the intriguing variety of set­tings lying between California's rocky coastline and the towering Sierra. Although most Hollywood exteriors were routinely shot against false-front sets and artificial green­ery of the studio backlot, there were also astute producers who realized that movie dramas could gain strength, texture, and credibility if they were filmed in authentic surroundings. During the silent film era, even while Hollywood was coming to dominate world-wide filmmaking, many leading names came to the Bay Area to film "location scenes" for some of their most notable successes.

Lake Alpine area of Marin County, location for final scene of a California Motion Picture Corporation western (Mt .  Tamalpais  in background). Geoffrey Bell Collection, courtesy Letty Etzler
Lake Alpine area of Marin County, location for final scene of a California Motion Picture Corporation western (Mt. Tamalpais in background). Geoffrey Bell Collection, courtesy Letty Etzler
Niles Canyon location for Charlie Chaplin's immortal comedy, The Tramp (1915). Museum of Modem  Art, New York City
Niles Canyon location for Charlie Chaplin's immortal comedy, The Tramp (1915). Museum of Modem Art, New York City
Boulder Creek region of Santa Cruz County, location site for Mary Pick­ford's M'Liss (1915). Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills
Boulder Creek region of Santa Cruz County, location site for Mary Pick­ford's M'Liss (1915). Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills
California Motion Picture Corporation built this rugged frontier Main Street set near Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County. Geoffrey Bell Collection, courtesy Cedric Clute
California Motion Picture Corporation built this rugged frontier Main Street set near Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County. Geoffrey Bell Collection, courtesy Cedric Clute

During the years of the early twen­tieth century when the new medi­um's potential was still being explored, movie makers discovered that the motion picture camera has a particular affinity for reality. While it unsparingly accentuated the flat, artificial qualities of the theater stage's painted backdrops, it en­dowed out-of-door scenes with depth and sweep. It was as though the boundaries of the film frame dis­appeared when movies were projected onto screens. Beyond the Gold Rush diggings and forest trails of Salomy Jane extended ever-wider, ever-higher mountains, beyond the teeming streets and alleys of Greed huddled endless urban slums, and beyond the weatherbeaten ranches and corrals of an Essanay western stretched California's cattle country. Cinema art brought to movie audiences a scenic environment that was as unlimited and inexhaustible as nature itself. The movies of Essanay, the CMPC, and other Bay Area studios, as well as Hollywood units on location in the Bay Area-even though only a small portion of the movies produced in the silent era­ stand as eloquent testimony to the visual appeal and the scenic splen­dor of the Bay Area.

Today, movie making is again in­creasingly independent of the studio lot, and as a result the Bay Area is frequent host to movie makers and television crews. While much of the environment has been urbanized, imaginative producers and directors still find inspiration in the natural and man-made beauty of the area which continues to make its mark­ – visually and intellectually – on the ever-developing art of the cinema

San Francisco's waterfront, location for Rudolph Valentino's Moran of the Lady Letty (1922). Museum of Modem Art, New York City
San Francisco's waterfront, location for Rudolph Valentino's Moran of the Lady Letty (1922). Museum of Modem Art, New York City
San Francisco's Victorian architecture (at Laguna and Hayes with alley-like Ivy Street) lent nineteenth-century reality to Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1925), starring ZaSu Pitts. Geoffrey Bell Collection
San Francisco's Victorian architecture (at Laguna and Hayes with alley-like Ivy Street) lent nineteenth-century reality to Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1925), starring ZaSu Pitts. Geoffrey Bell Collection
San Francisco's meeting of land and water at Fort Point, location for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Universal Studios
San Francisco's meeting of land and water at Fort Point, location for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Universal Studios

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