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Celebrate! : Orange County's First 100 Years : Forging An Identity : The Back Lot

May 22, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Wong is a Times staff writer who specializes in entertainment stories. and

Picture it: The Pharaoh's charioteers driving Moses and the Israelites to the very edge of the Pacific Ocean just off Seal Beach . . . . One of the bloodiest battles of World War I raging across a ravaged no-man's-land at Corona del Mar . . . . The infamous trial of 'thrill killers' Leopold and Loeb in the old County Courthouse in Santa Ana . . . The transatlantic dirigible Hindenburg erupting in flames and collapsing over a field at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

It all happened and it's all in pictures--the reel version of the real thing--filmed in Orange County, a favorite neighbor to Hollywood back lots for nearly 80 years.

The reason for the county's popularity as a site for location shoots may not be as apparent today as it was a few decades ago before urbanization made the area synonymous with freeway networks, housing sprawl and shopping malls.

Consider the 1930 Oscar-winning masterpiece, "All Quiet on the Western Front." If director Lewis Milestone were to shoot the World War I epic today in the same Corona del Mar locale, the backdrop for his trenches and barbed-wire fields would be Newport Center's office towers, stores, roads and surrounding homes.

But back then, Orange County was a movie maker's paradise with its bucolically innocent locales: shimmering beaches, rugged canyons, dramatic promontories, spacious fields. And all this visual bounty was but a short train or auto trek from Hollywood.

ORANGE COUNTY'S BID FOR stardom as a film location started in 1910 with Hollywood's first artistic wizard, director D. W. Griffith. Historian Jim Sleeper, who wrote "Great Movies Shot in Orange County," says that the first movie filmed here was Griffith's one-reeler, "The Two Brothers," shot around the venerable Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Griffith was not the only legend-in-the-making on this historic project. Among those in the Biograph company at San Juan Capistrano's Mendelson House hotel was the young, curly-tressed Mary Pickford, then only on her way to eventual superstardom.

Griffith's effort launched a movie-making rush--more than 500 films were made in Orange County in the next 20 years, drawing some of the biggest names in Hollywood's silent-but-golden era.

In the 1917 version of "Cleopatra," Upper Newport Bay served as the coast of Greece, with sultry-eyed Theda Bara perfectly cast as the queenly vamp who reigned aboard the floating royal chamber.

The ever-smiling, ever-leaping Douglas Fairbanks built a French fort off the Upper Bay for "The Three Musketeers," the 1921 film that forever set the style for swashbuckling epics.

Rudolph Valentino, supreme matinee idol of the silent era, starred in the 1921 sea opus, "Moran of the Lady Letty," shot off Balboa and other local coves.

But it was Buster Keaton who used Orange County most in the 1920s--for five films, including the still-acclaimed 1924 "The Navigator," in which the great stone-faced comic tussled with an octopus in Newport Bay and encountered cannibals off Balboa Island.

Cecil B. DeMille, master of sin-and-salvation spectacles, used Seal Beach as the Sinai in his 1923 epic, "The Ten Commandments." Slapstick king Mack Sennett regularly dispatched his Keystone Kops and bathing beauties to Balboa and other seaside sites.

The movie rush slackened in the late '20s and early '30s when, for technical reasons, the first talkies were studio-bound, ruling out many location shoots.

But by the mid-'30s, according to Sleeper, major movies were again being filmed along the county's beach strip, among them "Captain Blood" (1935) with Errol Flynn, and the original "A Star Is Born" (1937) with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. "Juke Girl," a 1942 melodrama with Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, made use of flourishing farm fields in Garden Grove. And numerous other productions, including the ghostly comedy "Topper" (1937) and the canine soaper "Lassie Come Home" (1943), were shot in the woodsy splendor of the Irvine Park area.

EVEN AS RAPID GROWTH BEGAN TO erode much of Orange County's landscape, movie makers still were able to find the rustic oases and special sites they needed here, only a short distance from Hollywood.

The death-defying "chicken" race in the 1954 classic "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean, was filmed on a bluff at Dana Point, and Orange County-based stunt pilot Frank Tallman showed his skills in the plane-bursting-through-a-billboard scene in the 1963 slapstick marathon "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." The billboard was erected in the Laguna Canyon area.

In 1972, starkly futuristic-looking buildings on the UC Irvine campus provided backdrops for the simian sequel, "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes."

One of the most spectacular scenes shot in the county, no doubt, was the simulation of the Hindenburg dirigible disaster. Shooting at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station had two advantages: the mammoth World War II blimp hangars and the site's resemblance to the Lakehurst, N.J., field where the disaster occurred in 1937.

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