By CORRI JIMENEZ | Moonshine Ink
Since as early as 1910, silent screen films to motion picture “talkies” have been produced in and around the Truckee area. Eighty of the nearly 100 films produced on Donner Summit were shot in Truckee during the heyday of these early films from 1914 to 1936.
With its numerous amenities such as lodging for movie crews and access via the Southern Pacific Railroad, in addition to its mountainous terrain and massive winter snow loads, Truckee was an ideal film location for the budding movie industry. During these early days of a young Hollywood, local businesses promoted the benefits of shooting in the region.
In the 1920s, the Truckee Motion Picture Association solicited movie companies to the area and was endorsed by the Southern Pacific Railroad. An advertisement by W.L. Maynard of the Southern Pacific Hotel boasted of the scenic value to the film industry, and an ability to portray a representation of places like Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. Maynard enticed Hollywood with Truckee and Tahoe’s “pine clad forests and open views, sage brush plains, and long Siberian wastes: river and lake scenes without number, covered with deep or shallow snow, open or frozen over.”
The local economy prospered from the film industry as early businessmen such as Dave Cabona, Wally Gellatt, Dan Smith, and Tim O’Hanrahan, promoted the town. In addition, locals stood in as both extras and laborers on sets in many of these silent films. For example, the film The Michigan Kid gave Truckee kids from the local grammar school the opportunity to be extras.
Aided by major endorsements like the railroad and hotel, silent screen films shot in the area boomed from 1919 to 1925. Forty-eight movies were filmed in the region ranging from dramas to westerns. In 1923 alone there were 15 movies filmed in Truckee.
The Iron Horse is a silent film commemorating the 55th anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad. It was filmed on Donner Summit and produced by Director John Ford. The film’s storyline is full of melodrama, such as Native American attacks, railroad worker strikes, evil villains, and gun-shooting, beautiful damsels. The movie crew employed 250 Chinese workers, some of whom were descendants of original railroad workers, to reenact drilling scenes with historical accuracy. Many of these scenes required steam engines to be disassembled and physically hauled to reach the summit shooting site. Crew members transported horses, cattle, and bison on the rails to the film location. During filming, a blizzard hit, and Ford ordered his crew to remove the snow because of his vision for a “Frederick Remington” style film. The Iron Horse is considered one of the biggest hits of the silent screen era and was listed on the National Film Registry in 2011.
In 1925, Charlie Chaplin directed and filmed The Gold Rush on Donner Summit, portraying the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush to Alaska. The film starred Chaplin as the “Little Tramp,” alongside Hollywood sweethearts Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. While the storyline centered around slapstick comedy, the film also incorporated hardship, starvation, and cannibalism. This was the film that debuted Chaplin’s now-famous dinner roll dance. Six hundred extras were transported from Sacramento to Truckee by train for a total of two weeks of filming on Donner Summit. The Gold Rush was memorialized on a brick building in Truckee’s Commercial Row as a tribute to Chaplin and his film.
Murder in the Private Car, the first talking picture, or “talkie,” was filmed in Truckee in 1934. Like Ford’s film, it featured the railroad and involved a tycoon daughter and murder. Starring Charles Ruggles and Mary Carlisle, the film even had an appearance by a young Sterling Holloway, who would go on to voice various characters in a number of animated Disney movies, such as Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and The Aristocats.
Prominent author Jack London wrote screenplays based on his popular novels and short stories, as well as original films, that were shot in Truckee. An Odyssey of the North (1914) and the Burning Daylight series (1914) are two silent films released prior to his death in 1916. Other movies produced after his death filmed in Truckee include Son of the Wolf (1922), Call of the Wild (1923), and White Fang (1936).
~ Corri Jimenez is an architectural historian and historic preservation professional working in the Tahoe area.
For more information and a list of summer activities in Truckee to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the First Transcontinental Railroad which played such a vital role in these early films shot in the region, visit goldspike.org or the Facebook page: Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration.
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