Making movies in the Tahoe Sierra: Part II

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun.” | Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

More than 125 Hollywood movies have been filmed in the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region over the past 100 years. Starting in the early 20th Century, some of the most famous movie stars of their day patronized restaurants, bars and hotels spreading glitter, glamour and smiles in our mountain communities.

READ MORE: Read Part I of Mark’s two-part series

Early legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo filmed in Tahoe. Old-time superstars Tom Mix and Mary Pickford arrived by train, as did author Jack London, who enjoyed Truckee’s famous dog-sled races every winter. A movie version of Jack London’s novel, “Call of the Wild,” starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, was shot around Donner Lake and the Truckee River.

The lure of Truckee and Lake Tahoe for filmmakers wasn’t restricted to snow scenes. The movie that best portrays early Tahoe scenery is the musical, “Rose Marie,” starring Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald and a then-new actor Jimmy Stewart. The movie showcases points of interest including Carnelian Bay, Emerald Bay, Five Lakes, Cascade Lake and Granlibakken. Filming took two months during the fall of 1935 and involved nearly every resident of Tahoe City in one way or another.

Enthralled with the landscape, directors chose Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, Donner Summit and the picturesque Lake Tahoe Railway along the Truckee River for the settings of their movies.

Housing and feeding everyone associated with the film pumped plenty of money into the local economy — every available room was booked for the duration of the shoot. Most cast members stayed at Chambers Landing on the West Shore. Nearly 1,000 Native American Indians and Hollywood extras were hired and they all camped at Al Richardson’s resort near Emerald Bay. Carl “Pop” Bechdolt Sr. of Tahoe City secured the concession to feed the cast out of his Tahoe Inn kitchen for 50 cents per meal. Never one to pull punches, Bechdolt said, “Jimmy Stewart was a real nice guy. Nelson Eddy was also down-to-earth — a peach of a guy. Jeanette McDonald on the other hand was a real pain.”

Jeanette McDonald with Pop Bechdolt’s pet deer. | Courtesy North Lake Tahoe Historical Society

Enthralled with the landscape, directors chose Lake Tahoe, Donner Lake, Donner Summit and the picturesque Lake Tahoe Railway along the Truckee River for the settings of their movies. Log cabins, teepees, propped-up building fronts and other examples of Hollywood’s perception of Western lore were erected throughout the area and commonly seen from the railway’s coach windows and open observation cars as the narrow-gauge train traveled between Truckee and Tahoe City.

Actor Tom Mix and his famous horse, Tony, showcased the railroad by using the train to make Royal Canadian Mounted Police adventure movies. Buster Keaton starred in a silent movie depicting a replica of the famous 1831 DeWitt Clinton locomotive — the first steam engine in New York — rolling on the Tahoe rails. The locomotive was complete in every detail except that an automobile engine powered it. In one dramatic action scene, Bill Desmond, an early star of Western pictures, jumped from the top of a moving railroad car into the Truckee River as the smoke-belching train chugged across a bridge.

Movie producers included footage of Tahoe steamers cruising across the lake with snow-covered mountains behind. Taking advantage of Big Blue’s extraordinary water clarity, in 1924 Buster Keaton starred in “The Navigator,” a movie filmed underwater in the depths of Lake Tahoe. Wearing a primitive diving suit and standing on the lake’s sandy bottom, the actor is shown working on the propellers of the steamer “Tahoe.”

The year before, Keaton had nearly drowned in the fast-flowing Truckee River during one scene in “Our Hospitality” when his safety line snapped and the actor was swept downstream. The cameraman kept rolling, however, and Keaton liked his own fear-stricken face so much that he used the footage in the movie.

Things slowed down during World War II, but the movie business fired back up in the post-war era. In 1951, Elizabeth Taylor co-starred with Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun” filmed near Cascade Lake.

Former longtime resident Dana Scanlon recently shared his memories of the opening day of the Truckee airport when it was relocated west to Martis Valley. The original airport site was just south of where the modern agricultural inspection station is today on Interstate 80. Scanlon and a childhood friend attended the opening of the new airport and were given the opportunity to each hold large posts upright with ribbon stretched tight between the tops of the posts. The official opening of the new airport occurred when a small plane flew in low, breaking the ribbon to loud applause.

Scanlon said there was much excitement in 1953 when John Wayne was in town for “Island in the Sky.” According to Scanlon, Wayne and the whole film cast stayed at Donner Lake Lodge during the shoot. Other actors involved in this production included: James Arness known for his role as Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke;” Andy Devine, a cowboy comic sidekick who frequently patronized the Sky Tavern ski resort near Mount Rose, and Fess Parker, a TV actor known for portraying American heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Truckee’s Boca Mountain served as the main backdrop for “Island in the Sky,” a movie about a downed aircraft with a freezing, starving crew led by pilot John Wayne. During winter and spring, atmospheric inversions often produce dense fog in Martis Valley that obscures the lower elevations of the surrounding peaks and mountains, making them appear to be floating “like an island” above the pool of fog.

In the early 1960s, when Frank Sinatra owned the Cal Neva Casino, Scanlon recalled that Sinatra’s plane was frequently seen at the Truckee airport. John Travolta now owns the aircraft.

Cinema buffs are familiar with the Mafioso character Fredo Corleone, who was “whacked” at Lake Tahoe near Homewood in a scene from “Godfather Part II.” During the 1984 filming of the cult classic, “Hot Dog… The Movie” at Squaw Valley ski resort, many locals were incorporated as extras. More recent flicks, such as “Misery,” “Cobb,” “The Bodyguard” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies,” all contained sequences filmed in the region.

Film production is an economic boon for the area and since the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association contributes financially to attract directors and producers to the beauty of Big Blue, the hits should keep on coming.

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.