Florida’s scenery and climate have long been associated as a location for making movies, but many of the films never reflected something positive or negative about Florida culture and life in the Sunshine State.  Despite a lack of state funding, film studios still find Florida’s uniqueness a logical spot to at least shoot outdoor scenes.

As a historian, I have selected films not on their quality, but because of their presentation in displaying a little bit of Florida, rather than a pretty beach, some palm trees, and a famous resort.

Most Floridians do not know that before Hollywood, California, Jacksonville, Florida was “The Winter Home of the Film Industry.”  The city was a few days’ train trip from the Northeast and soon, starting with Kalem Studios in 1908, thirty movie studios opened shop. Joseph Engel (Metro Pictures 1915) shot the first Technicolor feature-length film in Jacksonville, before heading to Hollywood to become MGM.

Movies may have been silent on the screen, but the reckless usage of public streets and parks angered the locals, most of whom disliked bank robberies, action scenes, and women wearing skimpy clothing.  One by one the studios and Oliver Hardy left to go out West, where they were welcomed.

Today, only one of those film studio complexes stand – Norman Studios on Arlington Road is a historic site.  It was also unique for Richard Norman produced films with all-black casts and crews, including THE FLYING ACE, the first film shot inside flying airplanes. His big star was Oklahoma rodeo performer Bill Pickett and THE BULL-DOGGER was his best-selling film.

No Florida movie list would be complete without THE YEARLING (1946), with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman, based on the top-selling novel by Florida’s most beloved author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The film and the book captured life in rural Central Florida with all the trials and tribulations of its rural inhabitants.

Another Rawlings book was CROSS CREEK

Filmed in Ocala National Forest near Cross Creek where Rawlings’ farm stands as a tourist attraction.  A Florida classic book and film by a Florida author set in the actual locations   Seven Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for its realistic cinematography of rural Florida. 

WHERE THE BOYS ARE (1960) convinced generations of college students to come to Florida (at first Fort Lauderdale) for Spring Break. Way back then, I was a high schooler thinking about majoring in set design (Gads) and I met Dolores Hart in the lobby of the Hotel Avery in Boston, where she was rehearsing for The Pleasure of His Company.  She said go to college and see what you really like – she went to Northwestern.

Despite being one of the five top American actresses, Dolores wed God and became a Benedictine nun, finally being Mother Superior Dolores in three documentary films.

One of Ron Howard’s finest films is COCOON (1985), where a group of senior citizens in Saint Petersburg find a fountain of youth-produced by aliens from Antarea. While the plot is sci-fi, the theme is very Florida – retired people surviving on fixed incomes in a changing America.  The sets are all real places.  The cast is residing in the Suncoast Manor Retirement home.  Don Ameche danced his way to a supporting actor Oscar at the Coliseum Ballroom, located opposite the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame.

Speaking of science fiction, the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, filmed at Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee, paved the way for Florida being the center of films with underwater filming.  Water and Florida have been big from Ester Williams to Sea Hunt to Flipper, whose Ivan Tors worked on Creature sets.  The 1954 film was actually a black and white 3D movie.

Since we are on the subject of Florida’s warm waters, I select for the children’s category DOLPHIN TALE (2011), based upon the real story of Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail in a crab trap, was rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and given an artificial tail.  The cast and added story is Hollywood, but the locations and dolphins are real. I find it interesting that the Director Charles Martin Smith, whom you may recall as an actor in American Graffiti and The Untouchables.

Ron Howard doubles up with APOLLO 13 (1995), the story of the 1970 lunar mission crisis in which we told the world “Houston we have a problem.”  Ironically, this mission failure convinced the Russians to give up moon landings.  While many indoor sets were in a California studio, the outdoor scenes could only be filmed in the real places in Brevard County. 

It is time for a sleeper.  Comedies seem to be in shortage in Florida, but I found SUMMER RENTAL (1985) funny even if it is not one of John Candy’s best films.  He is an overworked air-traffic controller who comes to Florida on a family trip to Redington Beach, John’s Pass, and the Beach Theater.  Everything, of course, goes wrong.  I am reminded of the film every time I go to WDW in the summer heat, thunderstorms, and overcrowded mobs of crying babies.  It is a perfect Florida nightmare movie.

Florida has built complete villages since the 1920s (Coral Gables), but in recent years planned communities like The Villages and Celebration have been developed. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) where Jim Carey (Truman Burback) is raised in an artificial TV reality town and tries to escape.  Seahaven actually exists in the form of the real planned town of Seaside in the Panhandle.

When I graduated from High School, my family moved to Port Charlotte, one of those giant “retirement type” towns that spread across a former Vanderbilt cattle ranch.  As a newspaper editor and mystery book lover, my father was friends with Florida’s great author John D. MacDonald from Siesta Key. A FLASH OF GREEN may not have been a box office smash, but the Fort Myers setting of land developers and shady county commissioners fighting environmentalists over a waterside development is pure Florida realism.  It is a classic MacDonald story. Gads! Ed Harris is now in three of my film choices!

Here is another sleeper.  Victor Nunez, an independent Florida filmmaker made ULEE’S GOLD (1997), a tale of a reclusive beekeeper and Vietnam vet (Peter Fonda) living in the Panhandle forests of Carrabelle and Wewahitchka.  The film is filled with realistic looks at people and places in one of Florida’s least understood areas.

It is rare that a film showing a state’s dirty linen is ever made but ROSEWOOD (1997) tells the 1923 story of the destruction of a small black town near Cedar Key after a white girl falsely told her father she had been raped by a black man instead of her white boyfriend. While the Vin Rhames character is fiction, the violence of the event, the white shopkeeper’s (Jon Voight) use of a rescue train, and the girls hiding in the well are historic events.  Rosewood was never rebuilt. The film was made in Lake County and Sanford.

BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF (1953) captured the sponge industry of Tarpon Springs before it ended.  You can even enter the saloon (now a restaurant) where Robert Wagner and Gilbert Roland tangled.   GOLDFINGER (1964) glamoured Miami Beach and made the Fontainebleau the place to honeymoon, provided you don’t paint your woman in gold.

Charlize Theron got an Oscar playing a Daytona Beach prostitute who becomes a serial killer.  MONSTER (2003) was filmed in some of the actual locations.  Like Ted Bundy, who was caught in Florida, the state’s serial killers come from elsewhere to enjoy a place where half the people are newcomers.

The Florida Keys are an obvious film choice.  TRUE LIES (1994) with Arnold Schwarzeneger and Jamie Lee Curtis gave the world a scenic view of Seven Mile Bridge.   My favorite, however, is MATINEE (1993) in which William Castle-type film promoter opened a budget horror movie in the Key West theater – unfortunately, it is during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Since I am not doing content editing or teaching this summer, I will be active in putting out POD updated versions of several Florida books.  You will see some excerpts and photographic material from some of these books which will be available on Amazon.

About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at www.floridahistory.org
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