The “Celluloid Cellar” of Napa Valley is filled with a rare, diverse and prized collection of its portfolio of starring cinematic roles. Since the 1940s, Napa Valley has been sought out by the entertainment industry to be the location for dozens of movies.
For instance, within about a 12-month period during the 1950s, two high-powered Hollywood studios, Universal-International Pictures and Walt Disney Productions, set up shop in Napa Valley. They brought their respective, and large, crews, casts and superstars here to film “This Earth Is Mine” and “Pollyanna.”
The first of this cinematic duo to arrive in Napa Valley was Universal in 1958 to film “This Earth Is Mine.” Directed by Henry King, this romantic drama starred Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons as the leading man and lady. It also starred Dorothy McGuire, Claude Rains, Kent Smith and introduced Cindy Robbins.
Shortly after the filming had begun, the production was delayed briefly due to an urgent medical issue. Hudson was hospitalized for a short time at Queen of the Valley Hospital due to an infected foot. Apparently, he had injured his foot while skin diving off of Malibu in Southern California. Following his discharge from the local hospital, the filming resumed.
For the movie, 200 area residents were hired as extras, including Jack Borthwick, a local musician. Although he has passed away, Borthwick would frequently speak of the experience. He would recall his surprise of having to wait for long periods of time between takes of the band scene. Those scenes were filmed at the former Paradise Park Lodge, now Bothe State Park.
Two other local extras were quite the envy of many Napa Valley residents. Being cast as the stand-ins for Simmons and Hudson, Joyce Wheatley and Dick Merrifield had the rare opportunity to spend some time with the superstars.
The screenplay for “This Earth Is Mine” was based on Alice Tisdale Hobart’s powerful dramatic love story, “The Cup and the Sword.” Set in 1932, a year prior to the repeal of Prohibition, Hudson’s character was the trouble-making and illegitimate member of the Rambeau family, a wine-making dynasty. Simmons’s character was a proper yet quietly independent woman as well as Hudson’s on-screen love interest.
The primary locations for the movie were the Inglenook-Niebaum estate and winery. The movie also featured numerous shots of “Rambeau (Napa) Valley” and scenes of the Yountville train depot. However, the Charles Krug Winery was the setting for one of the hottest scenes of the movie. It served as the backdrop for the scenes where the sexual tension between Simmons’ and Hudson’s characters was at its steamiest, as per the 1950s.
A year later, 1959, Disney Productions arrived in St. Helena to film “Pollyanna.” Under the direction of David Swift, most of the movie was filmed in Napa Valley.
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This period-piece starred child actor Hayley Mills along with Richard Egan, Donald Crisp, Kevin Corcoran and a large supporting cast. Also receiving top billing with Mills was Jane Wyman. She would return to Napa Valley in the 1980s to portray the matriarchal character of the television series, or night-time soap opera, “Falcon Crest.”
To create the desired turn-of-the-20th-century appearance wanted for the movie, the Disney crew transformed the St. Helena area. They spruced up the St. Helena train depot with paint and plants. To conceal modern intrusions, such as power poles, they planted large trees. They also re-landscaped almost every location site.
The crew also created the script required “swimmin’ hole” by sand-bagging the Napa River above the Zinfandel Lane bridge to form the pool. For the mandated “natural rock” stepping stones used by Mills’ character to cross the river, the crew created them by using another 150 sandbags.
Disney also issued a casting call for local extras. Those who were selected were sent to wardrobe and make-up to be transformed into a period appropriate cast.
Since the 1950s, Napa Valley has continued to lend its natural beauty as a celebrated backdrop for dozens of other movies.
ANNOUNCEMENT: These two films will be shown as part of my upcoming course, “Napa in the Movies.” This four-week course will also feature two other Napa Valley filmed movies. This program is being offered through the City of Napa’s Parks and Recreation Department, Mondays, Oct. 28—Nov. 25 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.. (There will be no class on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.) The course fee is $50 per person.
Freshly made popcorn will be offered to complete your cinematic experience.
For more information and/or to register, visit cityofnapa.org/parksandrec or call 707-257-9529.