You expect cities like Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco to be the setting of numerous movies. However, I am often (pleasantly) surprised to find out that other smaller towns and cities, all over the US,  have contributed to cinematic heritage. So I have decided to start a new section called “On Location.” Hopefully you’ll use these tidbits of information to brag in front of your friends the next time you’ll visit these places. Or may be just to pick what movie to watch when you wish you had more time to travel.

And we’re kicking off this section with a trip to Lake Tahoe, at the border of California and Nevada.

A number of movies have been shot in Lake Tahoe since the early 20th century and I would imagine that we have to credit the location (Lake Tahoe is approximately 8h away from Los Angeles, not too far considering the size of the US) and the diverse scenery (mountain, forest, rivers, lakes in summer and winter) for that.  The presence of Reno on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe also explains why a number of movies taking place in casinos were shot in Tahoe, but more on that later.

Truckee, CA was a very popular filming location with over 50 movies in the 1920s

The Truckee Historical Society lists close to 100 movies that were shot in or around Truckee, CA (Truckee is located on the North-North West of Lake Tahoe) between the mid 1910s and the late 1990s.

The town is located railroad lines which makes it easy to transport people and material there for shooting purposes. As a matter of fact, Amtrak passenger lines still stop in Truckee on the services from San Francisco to Chicago. The first movie shot in Truckee dates back from 1910 and was reportedly a recreation of the initial Arctic expeditions. Truckee was an exceptionally popular filming location in the 1920s with close to 55 movies shot.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and John Wayne were among the major Hollywood stars filming around Lake Tahoe

Director Charlie Chaplin and cinematographer Roland Totheroh during filming of the Gold Rush in Truckee, CA

One of these movies is the famous Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin (1925), where Truckee is standing in for Yukon, Canada. As the movie retraces the actual Klondike Gold Rush, Mr. Chaplin considered it important to film on location as opposed to a set. The introduction scene where gold-seekers are seen ascending the Chilkoot Pass to get into Yukon territory was filmed in just one day, with 600 extras from Sacramento that had been sent by train, on a ridge near Donner Summit. Film critic Jeffrey Vance considers it “the most spectacular image of silent-film comedy.”

Buster Keaton, a dear friend of Charlie Chaplin, had probably recommended Truckee as a filming location: he had shot the short film The Frozen North there in 1922, as well as some scenes of the longform feature Our hospitality in 1923. Shooting for this movie proved dangerous for Mr. Keaton, who almost drowned during a scene filmed in the Truckee River. In the scene, Mr. Keaton’s character has to save his girl, played by Natalie Talmadge, Mr. Keaton’s real life wife: following a sequence of events, Mr. Keaton’s character is thrown into a river, with a rope around his waist that ties him to a log, but he has to free himself for the log if he is to catch in time Ms. Talmadge’s character who fell into the same river and is in grave danger of being swept of the downstream waterfall. When his wire broke during filming, Mr. Keaton couldn’t resist the water current that carried him towards the river rocks. But as in all movies, all is well that ends well and Mr. Keaton managed to grand and hang unto an overlooking branch and thus saved his life.

Truckee was also as a filming location to recreate the Wild West. In 1924, director John Ford picked Truckee as the setting for its silent movie The Iron Horse which recounts how the story of the first transcontinental railroad was constructed. Mr. Ford apparently insisted on actually having an old locomotive hauled over Donner Summit, going through the same ordeal the Central Pacific Railroad company had to go through in 1867. The Iron Horse was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.

Aircraft used during the shooting of Island in the Sky with John Wayne

While screen legend John Wayne might be best known for his roles in westerns, it is a frozen desert movie that brought him to Truckee. In 1953, John Wayne co-produced and starred in Island in the Sky by Ernest K. Gann, an adventure movie inspired by an actual plane crash in Labrador, Canada during World War II and the efforts of the crew to survive while a rescue team assembles to come and get them. The movie was mostly shot on Truckee’s old airstrip. The Truckee Historical Society website reports that over 100 from cast and crew were in Truckee during the filming, with some stars staying as guests of the Donner Lake Lodge.

While the 1920s were the heyday, Truckee’s movie heritage seems to have rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kevin Costner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ben Affleck have been part of the new roster of Hollywood stars shooting in Tahoe from the 1980s to 2000s

In 1992, scenes from Mick Jackson’s The Bodyguard were shot at Fallen Leaf Lake. And in 1994, James Cameron took to Truckee to film some sequences of True Lies: Donner Pass Road, along the north side of Donner Lake, is used during the opening scene of the action-comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Jeremy Piven as FBI informant Buddy Israel hiding out in Tahoe

2006 provided one of the best opportunities to spot a slew of stars and celebrities hanging out in Tahoe for a filming: Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces is set in Tahoe (on the Nevada side) and features Jeremy Piven of Entourage fame as Las Vegas magician and FBI informant Buddy “Aces” Israel, as well as Ryan Reynolds in the role of the FBI agent in charge of protecting “Aces,” Ben Affleck, Alicia Keys, Jason Bateman who broke thanks to his role in the short lived Fox sitcom Arrested Development, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta and Matthew Fox, Jack Shepard in Lost among other things. The plot is set in Lake Tahoe and centers on mafia and gambling so the Nevada casinos were a great fit: many scenes were shot in the MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa (Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe, NV) which stands in for the “Nomad Casino” in the movie. Other scenes were also shot at the Shoreline Cafe, on Lake Tahoe Blvd in South Lake Tahoe, CA.

1950s and 1970s were not the heyday for on location filming in Tahoe, but that’s when two of the most iconic movies ever were filmed there

It is hard to pick the most iconic movie ever shot in Tahoe and if I had to, I would make a point to answer that there is not such thing as the most iconic movie ever shot in Tahoe: there are two. To be fair, for neither of them is the majority of the action set in Tahoe but both movies tell a story of a power, how some people try to rise to it and how hard they can fall. Both use the lake as a backdrop for a death scene.

In one of them, Lake Tahoe marks the beginning of the end for a starstruck character whose ambition blinded him into foolishly thinking he could get rid of what was holding him back by letting it go at the bottom of a lake. He does not realize that his attempts at social success will be the demise of him.

In the other one, a character who has successfully eliminated all obstacles on his way to risen to power comes to the realization that not only can’t power and money buy you what matters the most, they will also take away from you what you’re holding dearest to your heart. It is lonely at the top.

Tahoe is where Montgomery Clift was ready to commit murder for Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes in A Place in the Sun

The first one is George StevensA Place in the Sun (1951) with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), it tells the story of George Eastman, a poor working man who hopes that his hard working and skills will finally get him accepted within the power social circle that his uncle and cousins belong to. George Eastman enters the story as an outcast and a relationship with the factory girl Alice Tripp played by Shelley Winters seems to be the best he can get at the beginning. But when he successfully works his way up in the factory to become a legitimate member of the exclusive circle, how is he supposed to resist the irresistible, personified by Elizabeth Taylor in the role of socialite Angela Vickers? What he always yearned for is now within his reach and he doesn’t look back when he decides to go for it.

Elizabeth Taylor's and Montgomery Clift's romantic get together in A Place in the Sun

Lake Tahoe provides the perfect setting for a romantic getaway as George spends a idyllic holiday with Angela and her high society friends. The chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift was so blatant that, as reported in Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Kitty Kelley (Elizabeth: the last star), when Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was invited to watch the rehearsals of the stars on set, she quipped “Elizabeth, where on earth did you ever learn to make love like that?” Ms. Kelley adds that Ms. Hopper raced off to her typewriter to tell the world about the “the magnificient lovebirds.” The lake scenes are the ones of a blossoming romance.

But Lake Tahoe is also where things will take a turn for the worst, as Alice shows up to confront George about her unplanned pregnancy and the consequences of his actions. While George takes action to drown Alice in the lake, it remains unclear whether her drowning is actually an accident or a murder. Whatever happened and whatever was in George’s heart when he did or didn’t do what he should or shouldn’t have done, the moral of the story is that power hunger can be a destructive force.

The location filming took place in October and the temperatures had dropped. But this was little concern to George Stevens who wanted to shoot lake scenes as if they had occurred during the summer. During the drowning scene, Mr. Clift and Ms. Winters asked for their double to get into the water for the scene were the row boat capsizes. Mr. Stevens, fully dressed, jumped into the cold water; and after he got out, he started giving directions to his actors. Both Ms. Winters and Mr. Clift ended up doing the scene.  However, it was Elizabeth Taylor that ended up being the most affected by the October filming.

17 year old Elizabeth Taylor shot the bathing scene in freezing Tahoe water in October

The beach scene where George and Angela cuddle by the side of the lake originally had both Ms. Taylor and Mr. Clift splashing around in the water. When Mr. Clift refused to do it due to the freezing temperatures, Mr. Stevens rewrote the scene to have only Ms. Taylor run into the lake. Ms. Taylor was 17 years old at the time of the filming and had been trained, as a child actor, to be cooperative. It had snowed in Tahoe at that time of the year and crew members had to hose the snow off the ground before the take. She ran into the water over and over again until Mr. Stevens was satisfied. Her mother, Sara Taylor, who acted as her agent and manager for the studio, was infuriated with Mr. Stevens: fearing for her daughter’s health, she had brought to his attention the fact that Elizabeth was menstruating at the time and that the cold water not only made cramps worse, it could also imperil future pregnancies. Since that movie, and for twenty years, Elizabeth Taylor had it written in her contracts that she was not to work during her period. She had four children.

Al Pacino was alone at the top in Tahoe in The Godfather Part II

The second iconic Tahoe movie is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974).

The Corleone compound on Lake Tahoe in The Godafther Part II

The movie was shot in 1974 and the Michael Corleone’s storyline, set in 1958, is heavily set in Tahoe, where the Corleone compound is located. The compound used for filming is located in Fleur du Lac on the West shore of the Lake, between Tahoe City and Homewood.

The film opens with young Vito Corleone fleeing Sicily in 1901 and arriving in New York, but the 1958 storylines opens, similarly to The Godfather, with a family celebration: the First Communion of Michael’s son Anthony. Similarly to The Godfather, family reunion and business meeting quickly get mixed up as Nevada Senator Pat Geary meets with the Godfather.

The family’s operations have extended beyond New York into real estate and gambling and Michael moved his family to Tahoe from where he runs things. But his rise to power becomes a burden as he alienates some of his closest family members. The gorgeous setting becomes hostile when an assassination attempt is carried against Michael Corleone that likely involves “someone close.” But Michael is not a man to flee in the face of threats and danger, he is a man who carefully plans his move to make sure he comes out of the fight more powerful.

Michael's brother Fredo is shot by Michael's bodyguard Al Neri while fishing on the Lake

It is not the assassination attempt that upsets him, that’s to be expected when you are in his business and he understands that, which doesn’t mean he will tolerate. What “breaks his heart,” is realizing that his own brother, Fredo, played by John Cazale, was involved. And while he won’t take any action against his brother as long as her mother is alive, he can’t let this betrayal go unpunished. Even Fredo’s tearful apology and explanation, which leads to Fredo’s aparent reintegration into the family, can’t move Michael now. And when Fredo agrees to go fishing with Michael’s bodyguard Al Neri on Lake Tahoe, we have to wonder  if he knows what is about to happen. His secret to catching fish is to say the Hail Mary before he casts the line; hearing him say it as Al Neri stands up to shoot him in the back of the head, it makes for an heartbreaking scene. This assassination is probably the turning moment that definitely makes Michael the Godfather.

The Godfather Part II: Michael, Kay and their children by the Corleone compound, before the separation

In The Godfather Part II, Michael not only loses his brother, he loses his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) who cannot bring herself to see her children brought up in a world of crime and violence. To a certain extend, Michael loses his whole family. Kay and Michael’s separation, following the revelation of Kay’s decision to get an abortion, is violent. Michael’s reaction when he runs into Kay at the Tahoe compound where she came to visit the children is no less violent: his closing the door in her face is an indication that she made a decision to step out of this family, therefore she doesn’t exist to him anymore. It is a denial she ever meant something to him.

As the movie ends, Michael is left reflecting on what had happened to his family. In a flashback to family celebration of Vito’s birthday in December 1941 where Michael announces he has enlisted in the Marines. This scene happens before the events recollected in The Godfather and while we knew from the first opus that Michael’s intentions had been to keep his distances with his family’s business, the scene casts an interesting light on his ideals and values as a young man. It also shows what his relationship with Fredo could have been: as everyone seems upset that Michael is dropping out of college to go to war, only Fredo supports his decision.

Michael is left alone contemplating the lake, but then again, hasn’t he always carried this loneliness with him?

American legend Walt Disney orchestrated the ceremonies of the  Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960 

One of the 30 flagpoles of Squaw Valley 1960 Winter Olympics bearing a commemorative plaque signed by Walt Disney

Because I wanted to end his post on a more optimistic, I decided to add the contribution of Walt Disney to the history of Tahoe and Hollywood. Mr. Disney’s involvement with Tahoe had nothing to do with movies, but it had to do with TV.

In 1960, the Winter Olympics were held at Squaw Valley, CA in North Lake Tahoe. These were the first Olympics for which the broadcast TV rights were awarded to the highest bidder: CBS’s bid ran $50,000 and the Eye won the exclusive rights for the US (NB: the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin were the first to be broadcast but to local audiences only, the 1956 Winter Olympics were the first to be broadcast internationally).

Walt Disney was named the Chairman of Pageantry and produced both the Opening and Closing ceremonies. Walt Disney was obviously not new to the world of entertainment, and moreover he had gained TV experience in the years prior to the Olympics: he had successfully launched the Mickey Mouse Club on ABC between 1955 and 1959 as well as the Walt Disney Presents series that ran for five decades in the US. In addition, he had been researching shows and parades for the last few years as he was crafted plans for his ambitious theme park project (the first Disneyland Park was opened in Anaheim, CA in 1955).

Walt and Lilian Disney at Squaw Valley, CA (courtesy of the Walt Disney company)

Walt Disney had planned a grandiose opening ceremony that involved 3,700 high school musicians and choir members that were to be led by band director Clarence Sawhill and choir director Dr. Charles Hirt respectively. An article by Scott Richter in the 1993 Disney News recounts how things were about to take a turn for the worst on February 18, 1960, the very day of the opening ceremony. Ten inches of snow had fallen over Squaw Valley and cold wind was blowing. The band and choir couldn’t even see the directors amidst these snowfalls. The safe bet option was to move the ceremony indoors, in a skating rink. This would have met drastically cutting the number of musicians and singers involved. A decision that neither Dr. Hirt, nor Mr. Disney, were ready to make. Despite the risk of having the musicians and choir members not being able to see the conductors in the midst of this blizzard, Dr. Hirt and Mr. Disney decided to take a chance.

In what sounds like a true miracle out of a Disney movie, Dr. Hirt recalls that:   “The clock ticked down to showtime, and at that moment, the sky parted and the sun shone. It was a miracle. My choir was in front of me. I could see them. Clarence could see his band, and he could see me. And the program went off without a hitch. Then, just at the very close of the final Olympic hymn, the sky covered up again and the blizzard resumed.”

What do you know: reality can be stranger than fiction. Why couldn’t it be more magical too?

Vanessa Méheut