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FAVORITE 'BACK LOT' FOR MOVIE MAGIC: : Program Surveys How County Has Masqueraded As Distant Locales in Films

September 24, 1987|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

The next time the movie classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" shows up on TV, take a closer look at the German countryside where the battles of World War I are being fought. That's not Germany at all in the Academy Award-winning 1930 film--it's Corona del Mar.

And in "Compulsion," the hard-hitting 1959 film about the Leopold and Loeb murder-for-thrills case in Chicago of the 1920s, you can spot the old Santa Ana Courthouse standing in for a courthouse in the Windy City.

Orange County has masqueraded as many distant cities and countries during its long but little-heralded relationship with Hollywood, a connection that will be explored on Saturday in an Orange County Historical Society film program at Chapman College in Orange.

"In the teens and the 1920s, because of the variety of our towns and landscape, Orange County was looked upon as Hollywood's favorite back lot," says local historian and author Jim Sleeper, who is working on his second book about Hollywood films shot in the county.

At Saturday's Orange County "Centennial Film Festival," Sleeper and Chapman College film professor Paul Frizler will provide commentary, along with slides and film clips.

"Beginning in 1910, when D.W. Griffith directed the first motion picture in Orange County ('The Two Brothers,' starring Mary Pickford), until the advent of talkies, which forced film makers into sound stages, more than 500 films were shot on location in Orange County," Sleeper said.

There was a gap in the 1930s when film makers moved indoors, Sleeper said, but near the end of that decade Orange County locales began to reappear in the backgrounds of films, thanks to the development of directional microphones that reduced the background noise that plagued early talkies.

Frizler said Orange County was popular as a film location because it "was close, yet far out of the mainstream, which gave (film makers) a chance to get away from Hollywood. . . . Parts of Orange County were so close you could go down for the day, yet get a totally different effect."

Frizler is assembling clips that show the county in films from the 1910s through the 1980s. Among the missing will be scenes from Charlie Chaplin, even though "The Little Tramp" was filmed in the county.

"(Chaplin's material) is not discernible as Orange County," Sleeper said. "I chose (Buster) Keaton's stuff because it's better (for showing locations). I like to use 'All Quiet on the Western Front' to show how they made Orange County look like Germany."

The program will be held in Chapman College's Memorial Hall, beginning at 6 p.m. with music by a ragtime pianist, a barbershop quartet and a Dixieland jazz band. The film clips will follow at 7. After an intermission, "The Girl Most Likely," a 1957 film starring Jane Powell and Cliff Robertson that was shot in Newport Beach, will be shown in its entirety.

Tickets are $10 at the door.

Proceeds will help pay for a bibliography of Orange County histories that the society plans to publish in conjunction with Orange County's 100th anniversary celebration in 1988, according to Louise Booth, society general chairwoman.

"Old films are significant for local history because they were shot here and helped make history," Sleeper said, "and secondly because they frequently captured local backgrounds (on film) and thereby helped preserve local history."

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