The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2002, Volume 48, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

By Gregory L. Williams
Curator of Photographs

Images from the Articles

San Diego, as early as 1898, was one of the premiere western locations for the early motion picture industry. For over 100 years San Diego supplied the movies with western vistas, shorelines, military bases, parks, hotels, neighborhoods, actors and theaters. Over 700 theatrical films and television productions have been shot in the San Diego County, including Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, The Stunt Man and Top Gun. With the creation of the San Diego Film Commission in 1976, San Diego continues to be one of the nation’s most important locations. But filming of our city is not new. Long before Marilyn Monroe romped on the beach at Coronado, Gloria Swanson was dressing up at the Hotel del Coronado. Sixty years before Peter O’Toole acted in The Stunt Man, Hollywood’s dashing original stunt man, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., was scaling the cliffs of La Jolla. And 70 years before Tom Cruise punched a hole in the sound barrier in Top Gun, Mary Pickford was in her own flying machine drama on North Island. Motion pictures have enriched the cultural life San Diego over the past century and in turn San Diego has enriched the movies.

The exhibition” Filming San Diego: Hollywood’s Backlot,” which opened on June 20, 2002 at the San Diego History Center Museum, documents over 100 years of motion picture activity in San Diego. While the first motion pictures were produced on the east coast, the use of San Diego County by film crews began before Hollywood had consolidated its hold on the industry and has continued as the film industry searches for locations outside of Los Angeles.


After spending much of the early part of 1897 filming short scenes of parades, waterfalls, and trains on the east coast, Edison Manufacturing Company Kinetograph Department manager, James H. White, turned toward the west. Funded by railway and steamship companies hoping to promote tourism, White and photographer Frederick W. Blechynden reached San Francisco by late August. Filming short scenes up and down the west coast, these Edison Company filmmakers visited San Diego in February 1898 just prior to an excursion to China. In San Diego White and Blechynden stationed their camera on Broadway and filmed a trolley car moving up the downtown street. Next the pair filmed the beginnings of a rabbit hunt in front of the Hotel del Coronado as men on horses began to pursue unseen rabbits. The last scene shot by the crew consisted of dogs playing in the surf apparently at Coronado beach.

Filming activity was rare in San Diego over the next decade but filmmakers occasionally came to the area. The novelty of motion pictures in the San Diego area is apparent in news reports of August 1901 when a cameraman named Ramsey came from Los Angeles to shoot three short motion pictures. Ramsey shot scenes of the Coronado Ferry, the Chula Vista Yacht Club, and the main street of Coronado’s Tent City. Next Ramsey wanted to film children in the pool at Tent City. Bathing suits were provided and children were asked to bring toy sailboats. As an added inducement, free rides were offered on the Coronado merry-go-round. The last film took place at the Hotel del Coronado beach, but the filming had to be re-done the next day because too many people stood on the beach and stared at the camera instead of moving about naturally. The films were to be exhibited in” principal points in the interior of California and Arizona.

In search of a location somewhat more tropical than Chicago in winter, the Selig Polyscope Company’s Francis Boggs and Thomas Persons stumbled off a train in Los Angeles in 1907 intent on completing the first movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo. They found a” hungry hypnotist” who had never heard of the movies and cast him as the West Coast Count. After some shooting behind a laundry in downtown Los Angeles, the troupe traveled down to La Jolla. According to historian Terry Ramsaye’s rather whimsical view, Persons fitted the hypnotist with a white wig and then a great La Jolla wave tossed him in the ocean. Boggs and Pearson jumped in the water to save the wig and later the hypnotist. From all appearances the La Jolla segment of the first feature film made in California was filmed near the La Jolla Cave’s” White Lady” rock sculpture.

Allan Dwan’s” Flying A” Studios

One of Hollywood’s pioneer directors, Allan Dwan was born in Canada and trained as an engineer at Notre Dame. Sent out to San Juan Capistrano as a scenario writer, Dwan inherited a troupe of American Film Manufacturing Company (nicknamed the Flying A) actors and cowboys when their director went on a drinking binge. Headquartered in Chicago, the Flying A was founded in 1910 when it essentially conducted a talent raid on Essanay, another Chicago studio. In search of western frontier land and seeking to avoid patent enforcers, Dwan found Lakeside at the end of a railway line in San Diego and shot movies there for three months. Next, Dwan moved to La Mesa where he opened up a storefront studio and filmed throughout the backcountry of the San Diego County. At one point in La Mesa, Dwan faced down a thug hired by the Edison Company’s patent enforcers. Edison demanded anyone using camera equipment be licensed to use it. Independent operations like Dwan’s Flying A thought otherwise.”

Between May 1911 and August 1912, Dwan filmed over 150 films in San Diego County. The films were usually western adventures or comedies with an occasional local documentary. The Flying A westerns were popular with the public and kept Dwan and his crew extremely busy. The Dwan westerns gave the Flying A the ability to mount large advertising campaigns, create additional films, and become a player in the motion picture industry. While mostly filming in the backcountry near La Mesa, some sets were built behind the Flying A Studios. Dwan would occasionally film a cowboy chase scene and then build a plot around that chase. Dwan’s troupe of actors became very popular with the public. The mainstays were Pauline Bush (the” Madonna of the Movies” and later Dwan’s first wife), J. Warren Kerrigan (usually the good guy) and Jack Richardson (usually the ‘heavy’). Other cast members included George Periolat, Jessalyn Van Trump, Marshall Neilan and Louise Lester. Motion picture periodicals noted the growing prominence of J. Warren Kerrigan by reporting on his every move. There were reports of a vast amount of fan letters from young ladies as a result of his La Mesa movies, a report that he was going to open a movie theater in La Mesa, and that he had suffered an injury from a bad fall on the set. Also noted was an event prior to Thanksgiving 1911 when the local fire marshal entered the Flying A studio to round up” volunteers” to fight a brush fire. While the actors eluded the marshal, cowboys who rode for Flying A were rounded up and forced to fight the fire for 48 hours. Dwan threatened a lawsuit because he lost several days of production.

Ranging from melodramas to comedies, Dwan’s films dealt with topics such as horse thievery, water rights, kidnapping, cattle rustling, lawmen verses bandits and ended with the triumph of right over wrong. While the westerns were created for a nationwide audience, San Diego County place names often were used in titles such as: The Mystical Maid of Jamacha Pass, The Winning of La Mesa, The Bandit of Point Loma, Bonita of El Cajon, The Land Baron of San Tee. Other titles are more emblematic of the type of movies Dwan was trying to make. These included: The Cowboy Socialist (also known as The Agitator), The Yiddisher Cowboy, The Horse Thieve’s Bigamy, The Rustler Sheriff, The Poisoned Flume, The Blotted Brand, An Assisted Elopement and many others. After filming in the backcountry during the week, Dwan often stayed at the newly opened U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. In town he viewed movies in local theaters and plotted the stories for the next week. At other times he ventured elsewhere in the San Diego area to film documentaries such as: Curtiss’s School of Aviation, The Caves of La Jolla, Point Loma Old Town, San Diego, Winter Sports & Pastimes of Coronado Beach and The Fifty Mile Auto Contest. In the Spring of 1912 Dwan took his crew to the Hotel del Coronado to film probably the first feature film on Coronado. The Maid and the Man set the trend for plots that dealt with a young man in search of romance at the large hotel. Motion Picture World noted that the film offered a” bewildering array of settings whose equal have certainly never before been seen in motion pictures.

While most of the films are lost, the plots of numerous Flying A films are still accessible. Included here are the plots of a few Flying A movies:

The Sagebrush Phrenologist (1911)” Here is a lively western story, telling how a traveling phrenologist examines the bumps of a ranchman and his family, explaining to them what they are fitted for. Straightway they begin to practice what he tells them. A series of amusing situations follow. The picture closes with a very funny scene, the professor thoughtfully examining his own bumps.” Bonita of El Cajon (1911). “Bonita is the daughter of a rustler who has the misfortune to fall in love with a sheriff. Her lover is subsequently captured by the rustler band and is held hostage. A dialogue between Bonita and the hostage makes up this rather poignant story. When Bonita’s father arrives on the scene, he is angered by his daughter’s love for the peace officer and shoots her.” The Winning of La Mesa (1912).” The story of Tex Garvin, proprietor of a gambling hall in La Mesa and his lady of the evening, Pretty Peggy. Peggy becomes reformed by a handsome minister, the town’s new arrival — much to Tex’s dismay. Jealous conflict is averted by the timely work of Peggy.” The Agitator or The Cowboy Socialist, (1912). ” An out-of-doors picture of Southern California. The agitator is the foreman who comes back to the ranch from a vacation in the city with his head full of crazy ideas. He preaches to the cowboys and gets them full of whiskey and incites a riot. They demand that the ranch owner divide his wealth. The owner and one brave cowboy fight the gang through a hedge of pine trees. The battle is continued later around a place of refuge with the owner’s daughter and the cowboy firing over the little breastworks.

After turning out over 150 productio ns in San Diego County, Dwan moved his troupe to Santa Barbara in 1912. In Santa Barbara, he teamed up with such screen luminaries as Lon Chaney Sr., and Victor Fleming. Later he worked with D.W. Griffith and is credited with inventing a camera tower used in Intolerance. In 1915 Dwan returned to San Diego to direct Mary Pickford in A Girl From Yesterday—an aviation film on North Island. This film may have been the first feature to receive U.S. military aviation assistance. In 1919 Dwan directed Soldiers of Fortune and invited the whole town to come out and work as extras while Balboa Park masqueraded (as it often did) as a South American republic. During this period Dwan directed stars such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Gloria Swanson. In the 1930s he directed Shirley Temple in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Other later films included Suez, Brewsters Millions and many westerns. His most important later movie was The Sands of Iwo Jima(1949) which was filmed with John Wayne at Camp Pendleton. Dwan didn’t stop directing movies until 1961 (50 years after arriving in California) and up to a few weeks before his death at the age of 96 he was talking about producing a new movie.

Early Silent Films & the Exposition

During Flying A’s tenure in La Mesa and prior to the 1915 Exposition several film companies came to San Diego to attempt to open a studio or film movies. Many companies saw Flying A’s success and wanted to exploit what Flying A saw as the” beautiful El Cajon Valley way down on the edge of Southern California. “These included Ammex Motion Picture Manfacturing Company founded in 1911. Praising the climate and pure water and planning to make westerns, Ammex promised San Diegans a major motion picture” plant.” The company even signed a deal with the government of Baja California to exclusively produce films in northern Mexico. Eventually just a few films came out of Ammex’s Studio. They included The Trial of Guilt and Ashes of Memory. Ammex was out of business by early 1913. Hot on the heels of Flying A was the original movie cowboy William” Broncho Billy” Anderson, co-founder of Essanay Studios. Broncho Billy bought a house in Lakeside and over a period of three months filmed several” Broncho Billy” and” Alkali Ike” westerns in the area. The company then moved to northern California and signed a contract with Charlie Chaplin. Singing the praises of East County San Diego and noting the presence of Flying A in La Mesa and Essanay in Lakeside in early1912, Motion Picture World mentioned the growing trend of companies interested in locating to East County. The New York Film Manufacturing Company intended to open a studio at Lookout and Palm Avenues in La Mesa in 1912, according to the report.

The Kalem Company, an early producer of independent films came to San Diego in 1911 and filmed Flower Parade at San Diego (1912). This film described as a” scenic out of the ordinary” showed floral covered floats with” beautiful California girls” being” pelted” with flowers from officers on warships.

Another popular location in San Diego for moviemakers was Ramona’s Wedding Place. The Estudillo House in Old Town was rebuilt as Ramona’s Wedding Place about 1910 as San Diego tried to cash in on the public’s fascination with Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona story. Even prior to Dwan’s arrival in La Mesa, the Selig Polyscope Company wanted to return to San Diego. Selig signed contracts in January 1911 with the San Diego Electric Company (witnessed by promoter R. Beers Loos, father of writer Anita Loos) to have exclusive rights to film at Ramona’s Marriage Place and Mission Cliff Gardens. Selig paid a dollar each for this privilege. Its not clear if anything ever came of the contract. In the spring of 1912 Nestor Company cameraman William Paley arrived in San Diego to shoot documentaries about the area. His first effort was Estudillo House California which, of course, played up the Ramona connection. Paley made one more film, Interesting California and then left the area. The Edison Company released the The Old Monk’s Tale in February 1913. It was filmed at Ramona’s Wedding Place and featured Harold Lloyd in his first role. Later, one of the great comedians of the silent screen, Lloyd took the role apparently because he was down to this last nickel. He bought some doughnuts to tide him over and set about looking for acting work. He is listed as living at the Hotel Tioga in the 1912 San Diego Directory. Ramona’s Wedding Place was used again in 1917 for The Cost of Hatred a tale of multi-generational love and hate.

Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company shot several films in the area between 1913 and 1915. Sennett starred in Barney Olfield’s Race For Lifealong with Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops. Filmed in Lakeside, this story concerns an auto racer who must save Mabel from being run over by a train. Fatty Arbuckle, another Sennett star, and Normand starred in at least 45 movies together between 1911-1916. Two of those movies took place in San Diego. The 1913 movie was Fatty at San Diego: A Jealous Husband. The 1915 movie, Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, was filmed during the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park and gives a good view of the activities of the fair including a brief shot of the motion picture film processing at the Exposition movie studio. In the film, Fatty and Mabel, a married couple, watch a parade in downtown San Diego and then rent a motorized cart at the Exposition. While Mabel makes a quick shopping foray, Fatty can’t keep from flirting with and then chasing after a petite woman. He follows her into a hula pavilion where he also is attracted to the plump Hawaiian dancers. Meanwhile, Mabel is looking for him, and so is the petite woman’s husband. The ensuing arguments attract the cops, and it all plays out in front of the Horton Plaza fountain. Keystone also made several short documentaries about the Exposition in San Diego.

The 1915-1916 Exposition in Balboa Park brought a great many filmmakers to San Diego. With the widespread use of Spanish Colonial architecture in the park, the film industry saw a ready-made set for movies. Local studios that used the park included the Pollard Picture Plays Company, the Western Branch of Lubin Studios, and a troupe from the Nestor Company (later associated with Universal). Motion picture industry magazines tout ed the area and several more companies were rumored to be setting up studios. These included the Superior Film Company” capitalized at $100,000 and ready to open a plant in Kensington Park in 1915 and the famous Lasky Company which was rumored to be ready to open a studio in San Diego in 1915. The San Diego Directory lists several film companies during the Panama Exposition that were actually operating in town. These included the United States Film Corporation (1914) in Kensington; the Bell Motion Picture Manufacturing Company (1915); the Dudley Motion Picture Company (1915) and the Maya Film Company (1915-1916).

Lubin Film Studio in Coronado

Siegmund Lubin was one of the true motion picture pioneers. First in direct competition with the Edison Company, Lubin had to join Edison and form the Motion Picture Patent Company after eight years of lawsuits. Lubin, a German born Philadelphian and optician by trade, invented projectors, owned several studios and theaters, made many movies, and stole a few during the industry’s infancy. Lubin even remade Edison’s The Great Train Robbery frame by frame. On September 26, 1915, Lubin was lauded with his own” Siegmund Lubin Day” by the Exposition on the occasion of the opening of a western branch of his studio in Coronado at First Street and Orange Avenue. Orchestrated by Lubin’s west coast branch manager, Wilbert Melville, the Lubin Company rented property from John D. Spreckels and built an outdoor stage. Spreckels added the provisio that all employees of the Studio had to live in Coronado. This did not, however, stop Melville from filming at Balboa Park, Balboa Stadium and elsewhere. Melville used Balboa Park as American military headquarters in the Philippines in As the Twig is Bent—a story about the ill effects of divorce. By January 1916 the studio was turning out almost ten films a month. Many of the Lubin titles were directed by Melville, written by Julian La Mothe and stared such actors as Adda Gleason, Lee Shumway, Melvin Mayo, Violet McMillan and George Rout h. Other titles were directed by Edward Sloman and Paul Powell. With titles such as Retribution, The Black Sheep, The Embodied Thought, The Hopeless Game, and Love’s LawMelville sought to cash in on the public’s desire for heavy-handed moralistic melodramas. But with a lack of funds and no reliable distributor, the studio closed down in May 1916.

Pollard Picture Plays

In November 1916 the Pollard Picture Plays Company established headquarters in Balboa Park. Harry A. Pollard set up the Company to produce films starring his wife Margarita Fischer. Fischer (1886-1973), known as” the American Girl,” a bright eyed and prolific actress, starred in several San Diego movies between 1915 and 1917. From a nude frolic on the shores of La Jolla, to a cookout at Sunset Cliffs”and a chase up the California Tower in Balboa Park, Margarita Fischer’s film work took in many genres and showed the diversity of San Diego’s filmmaking landscape. She was a child actress who by the age of 17 had acted in over 50 plays. She began her movie career with her husband, director and actor Henry Pollard, in 1910. After making at least 18 movies for Selig-Polyscope in Chicago in nine months, she joined the American Film Company. By 1914 she had made many films including the first filmed version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she was voted Photoplay’s most popular star beating out Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford.

While many film studios applied to set up a studio in Balboa Park, Pollard Picture Plays was one of the few granted such permission. In 1916 and 1917 Pollard and Fischer produced a slew of films such as The Pearl of Paradise (1916), Miss Jackie of the Navy (1916), The Butterfly Girl(1917), The Devil’s Assistant (1917), and The Girl Who Couldn’t Grow Up (1917). Included among these were early comedies about the Navy, some of the earliest horror films, South Seas dramas, and slapstick comedies. One of the surviving Pollard films is The Pearl of Paradisewhich was filmed in Balboa Park and La Jolla, but features a scene in which a fight takes place at the top of the California Tower and ends with a character being pushed out of the tower. This movie was one of the first uses of Balboa Park as a Latin American republic.

J. Gordon Russell, a publicist for Pollard Picture Plays, cited several factors why San Diego was the place to film. Using the example of the film Miss Jackie of the Navy he noted that the Hotel Del Coronado was used as a fashionable beach resort; the courtyard of the hotel was used as a” south sea island;” Mission Valley was used for jungle scenes; and San Diego’s bungalows were used for domestic scenes.” With her mountains, meadows, parks, ravines, beaches, strand, desert, valleys, islands, variegated coast lines, beautiful homes, handsome business blocks, and the wonderful (1915) Exposition, San Diego more than meets the requirements for ‘variety of the outdoor scenery’ than any other city in the old or new world,” Russell exclaimed.

Pollard Picture Plays stayed in Balboa Park until the end of 1917 when the company went broke because of distribution problems.”We would have stayed here [in Balboa Park] too. It was a lot cheaper [than Los Angeles],” Fischer said in 1969. She later joined the American Film Company in Santa Barbara and made several more films. During World War I she changed her name from Fischer to Fisher to show solidarity for Americans fighting in the war. Her last film was a re-make of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1927. For many years Fischer and Pollard lived in Rancho Buena Vista in Vista. Her husband Harry A. Pollard died in 1934. Margarita Fischer attended a retrospective of early San Diego films in 1969 when the city celebrated its 200th anniversary. She died in Encinitas in 1973.

Grossmont Studios

A. H. Sawyer and Bert Lubin (no relation to Seigmund) founded the S-L Studios in the Grossmont area in the early 1920s. With the backing of Metro Pictures in Hollywood and local investors, Sawyer and Lubin began construction on a large studio near present-day Severin Drive and I-8. After filming two movies, Garments of Truth and Your Friend and Mine, S-L Studios ceased to exist. Also about this time the Hart-Loring-Wells Production Company began production of an” Egyptian” epic at S-L Studios. The company began construction of five outdoor sets including a pyramid and other buildings they claimed would amount to the” largest ever built in motion pictures, exceeding any of those in D.W. Griffith’s famous production Intolerance.” As with other financially limited productions the Egpytian epic was never completed or released, although excerpts were shown in La Mesa.

San Diego investor Colonel Ed Fletcher took over ownership of the S-L Studio and renamed it Grossmont Studios in 1925. Publicized as another Hollywoodland, ordinary La Mesans got the chance to act in several movies filmed at the studio.”Among these productions were many” poverty row” westerns produced by William Pizor. In 1927, J. Stuart Blackton Jr. (the son of the founder of Vitagraph Studios) brought out a bevy of Hollywood stars and intended to make the Grossmont Studios fully functional. As with other attempts at financing silent era studios in San Diego County, the big celebration was followed by financial reality and nothing came of Blackton’s plans. Grossmont Studios was used to produce films until 1929 when it became a roller skating rink. After another incarnation as a restaurant it burned down in the 1934.

La Jolla Cinema League

The La Jolla Cinema League was founded in 1926 and attempted to promote motion picture productions by groups not associated with large commercial studios. The League produced between five and ten melodramas and newsreels that ranged in length between five and seventy-four minutes. The productions were usually photographed by P. H. Adams, directed by R. G. S. Berger (who owned the house where many productions were filmed) and starred a consistent troupe of actors many of whom were related to Adams or Berger. The film’s photography was impressive and the acting was decent. The sets were realistic and of historic importance because they showed early 20th century architecture in La Jolla including the Casa de Manana, a historic hotel. The plots of the productions are standard melodramas and yet quite complex with sufficient character development. There are, of course, moments of un-reality such as people getting shot but not badly hurt and palm trees in a setting that is supposed to be England. Yet these films show creativity, advanced production values, and might well stand-up with low budget commercially produced silent films. The movies included Consuelo di Capri, the first production of the League, in which a group of thugs try to wrestle the deed to valuable property away from an old man by kidnapping his daughter. In Avarice an unsympathetic miser acts miserly and ends up locking himself in his own safe. Virtue’s Reward or Blood for Bond deals with a weekend party that is disturbed when bad people try to steal bonds from good people.


In the 1960s San Diego was called, “the movies’ stepsister.” A newspaper article noted that San Diego was often used but never represented in the movies. Balboa Park easily transformed into a South American republic or someone’s castle. The Hotel del Coronado has often appeared as Florida. Fallbrook looked enough like the French Countryside for D.W. Griffith to film there. Julian appeared as Texas. The desert in East County has been host to battles from wars both modern and ancient. More recently, San Diego has become popular for filming both exteriors and the interiors of buildings. In recent years among the most popular interior locations for filmmakers have been an abandoned hospital and at a bankrupt resort. San Diego can be transformed into another place because of its vast acreage, the ocean and coastline, the mountains, the desert and an infrastructure necessary to maintain the seventh largest metropolitan area in the United States. All of this has been and continues to be taken advantage of by filmmakers.

Balboa Park Locations

From the beginning of American involvement in World War I through the end of the silent era and beyond, two main locations take center stage in non-military San Diego movies: Balboa Park and the Hotel del Coronado. These locations also supplied the movies with similar themes. Balboa Park was featured in movies about South American revolutions or movies in need of palatial estates, and Coronado was quite logically featured as an upscale resort.

The use of Balboa Park in the movies was directly related to presence of the ornate Spanish Colonial architecture that was constructed for the 1915-1916 Exposition. Balboa Park’s public squares, outdoor dining areas, lily pond, and architectural ornamentation helped satisfy the public’s appetite for south-of-the-border romance and revolution. The Park was featured as a banana republic capitol (Douglas Fairbank’s The Americano), a royal castle (Mary Pickford’s Rosita), and home to the rich (Citizen Kane). The Americano, written by director John Emerson and his wife, former San Diegan Anita Loos, was filmed in Balboa Park in December 1916. The story concerns Fairbanks as American mining engineer Blaze Derringer, who helps prevent the military overthrow of a South American president and wins the president’s daughter. Allan Dwan’s Soldiers of Fortune (1919) stars Wallace Beery in a remake of Richard Harding Davis’s story about another mining engineer in the midst of South American revolution. Dwan filmed the battle scenes from the rooftops near the Plaza de Panama square and invited hundreds of San Diego extras to march down the Prado. The Dictator (1922) staring Wallace Reid (dead six months later from drug use) is a remake of a 1915 film and concerns a taxi driver who saves a republic from revolution. There are battle scenes in the Plaza de Panama and a fight in the lily pond. In Mr. Billings Spends His Dime, Walter Hiers sees a South American president’s daughter in a newsreel and races to marry her and save her father’s republic. There were other South American costume dramas including A Perfect Gentleman (1928) in which Monte Banks (impersonating Napoleon) dances with a senorita and leads his soldiers directly into the lily pond.

After a few years break the South American republic drama-comedy returned to Balboa Park in 1939 in Magnificent Fraud. Akim Tamiroff stars as an actor hired to imitate an assassinated president. Balboa Park was used for exterior shots around the mythical presidential palace. Paramount publicists admitted that it was cheaper to use Balboa Park than it was to build a set. The most striking addition to the park was the twenty-two foot statute of Tamiroff that appeared in front of the Museum of Art for a day or two. Based on San Diegean Charles G. Booth’s story, Magnificent Fraud was recreated in 1988 as Moon Over Parador starring Richard Dreyfuss.

As Balboa Park became internationally known because of its two Expositions in 1915 and 1935, and because of the prominence of the San Diego Zoo, filmmakers continued to use the park after the revolution craze had died out for movie audiences. Films such as Citizen Kane (1941) San Diego, I Love You (1944), The Fireball (1950), Rampage (1962) A Ticklish Affair (1963), Captain Milkshake (1969), Top Dog (1995), The Tiger Woods Story (1998), Almost Famous (2000) and Traffic (2000) shot small segments of the park or the Zoo to illustrate San Diego, a sporting event, or a scene useful to the plot. The zoo was used in Robert Mitchum’s Rampage and mentioned in Congorilla (1932) and Hey There, Its Yogi Bear (1964) when Yogi requests a transfer from Jellystone Park to the Zoo. More importantly, San Diego’s part in Citizen Kane is small, but nevertheless relevant. In a fictional newsreel at the beginning of the movie, Balboa Park doubles as Kane’s Xanadu—his mansion in Florida. Included are shots of the El Cid statute, the zoo aviary, the Museum of Art and the Prado.

Coronado Locations

Built in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado is one of the few great surviving wooden lodges from the late 19th century. It has always attracted high-end travelers in search of a pampered ge t-away and many celebrities including those from Hollywood vacationed at the hotel throughout the twentieth century. Local studios such as Lubin and Pollard filmed at the hotel, but it wasn’t long before the Hollywood studios focused in on Coronado. Rudolp h Valentino came to the hotel in 1918 a few years prior to his superstardom for a role in The Married Virgin. He plays a devious and charming Italian count who blackmails and seduces his way into the well-to-do McMillan family.”After bribing the father and seducing the stepmother, he finally marries the virgin daughter. The marriage, though, is not consummated and the daughter becomes the” Married Virgin.” The use of the beach, the gardens and the hotel itself show the potential of the Hotel as a film location. A few years later Gloria Swanson and Valentino apparently filmedBeyond the Rocks (1922) at the Hotel. Swanson returned to act for Allan Dwan in The Coast of Folly (1924) in which Gloria played a young heiress and her mother. It was one of at least eight films in which Dwan directed Swanson. These movies established the hotel as a location for films about young men in search of fortunes and heiress’s in search of romance or vice versa. The view of the hotel as a playground for the rich was cemented in the 1930s with the film Coronado starring Johnny Downs and Jack Haley. The story of a rich college kid who finds romance with a talented singer living at the modest Tent City, Coronado features a finale with Haley singing a song about” Coronado by the sea & .” The song is essentially a call for all depression era youth to gather up their coins and use the San Diego area as a recreation mecca. In Yours For the Asking(1936) George Raft plays a casino operator who joins up with down-on-her-luck socialite Delores Costello to open a casino in her family mansion. The Hotel del Coronado is shown once again as a playground for the rich.

While several other movies were filmed at the Hotel del Coronado the two most important San Diego movies were Some Like It Hot (1959) andThe Stunt Man (1980). The director of Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder, told Cameron Crowe in Conversations with Wilder that” I was just looking for something that looked like a hotel in Florida. I was shown the hotel, and that was it.” The story centers around two Chicago musicians (Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis) who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and must dress in drag to escape to Florida. Once again the hotel is filled with musicians, gangsters (including George Raft again) and millionaire guests, but the film shows the hotel as a resort in Florida. Into this mix comes film legend Marilyn Monroe who stars as a nightclub singer. In mid-September 1958 Lemon, Curtis, and Monroe were filmed frolicking on the beach at Coronado. Scenes also take place on a nearby dock and on the steps and porch of the hotel. A bus driving up to the hotel gives the viewer a good look at the hotel. Many San Diegans flocked to see Monroe on the beach. She was accompanied on the beach with her make-up man Whitey Snyder, her acting coach Paula Strasberg, and her then husband playwright Arthur Miller. They stayed in one of the bungalows adjacent to the hotel. While Wilder set the movie in Florida viewers can notice an elevated peninsula that is actually Point Loma and would never have been part of Florida’s flat landscape.

The Stunt Man was filmed in 1977-1978 at the Hotel del Coronado, the Children’s Pool in La Jolla and in Flinn Springs. An enormous amount of action takes place around the hotel’s roof, dining room and other areas. While in most respects the film is a departure from the early films shot at the hotel, there are once again a gaggle of entertainers (this time actors) wandering around the grounds attempting to figure out their love lives. While The Stunt Man deals with a director and a stunt man who are trying to film a movie, the hotel is portrayed as a beautiful building that, at times, is on the verge of being blown up by World War I German troops. In her review of the movie Pauline Kael of the New Yorker declared that” if there were such a thing as a masterpiece of a location” the Hotel del Coronado” was it.” The Stunt Man (released in 1980) was the first of a large number of movies filmed in San Diego at the end of the 1970s. This was because of Hollywood’s desire to find locations outside of Los Angeles, but also because of the influence of the newly created San Diego Film and Television Bureau. A film about the making of The Stunt Man entitled The Sinister Saga of the Making of the Stunt Man was released by director Richard Rush in 2000. Other films shot at Coronado include Wicked Wicked (1972), Loving Couples (1980), and K-9 (1990).

Films Along the Waterfront

San Diego’s waterfront, fishing industry, and recreation areas have provided filmmakers with a gritty San Diego Harbor and the sporty recreational areas of Mission Bay. The results have ranged from an out-of-control octopus, to an immigrant hidden in a large shark, to Jerry Lewis being lifted out of Sea World by helicopter. The waterfront is represented in movies such as Tiger Shark (1932), which deals with San Diego’s tuna fishing industry, a large shark, and a love triangle. The fishing scenes were filmed aboard the bait boat EMMA R.S. in May 1932. Based on a book by San Diego reporter Max Miller, I Cover the Waterfront (1933) focuses on a cocky reporter who exposes a sea captain who is smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants into San Diego. While the movie is based on a book specifically about San Diego, the movie was not filmed here. In Chubasco (1968) a troubled youth is sentenced to serve time on a tuna fishing boat instead of going to prison. Set in the San Diego’s Portuguese tuna fishing community, it was filmed in downtown and Point Loma using local boats. While this maybe a weak film, it does capture some of San Diego’s fishing industry in full glory. Another tuna fishing movie shot in San Diego was Tuna Clipper (1949) starring Roddy McDowell. The sultry side of San Diego is revealed in Anna Lucasta (1958) staring Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. Though not filmed in town, the movie portrays San Diego’s waterfront as a place filled with bars where sailors and prostitutes hang out. Other movies that show a sultry side of San Diego in passing (mostly not filmed here) include I Want to Live with Oscar winner Susan Hayward; Kitten With a Whip (1963) starring Ann-Margaret; The Brothers Rico (1957); Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood (1956); Where Are Your Children (1944—” the first drama of juvenile delinquency to hit the screen”); The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947); and I Was a Shoplifter (1950).

After World War II, the movement to create a large recreation area out of Mission Bay resulted in several films with connections to flying, sailing, water skiing, and Sea World. These films, mostly from the late 1950s through the 1970s, show San Diego as a favorite vacation destination, but also as somewhere else. While The Tarnished Angels (1957) was filmed on Mission Bay and Dutch Flats, it fictionally takes place in New Orleans. Based on Pylon by William Faulkner, the movie concerns a love triangle between journalist Rock Hudson, barnstorming pilot Robert Stack, and his daredevil wife, Dorothy Malone. An aviation film with real life San Diego connections is The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. San Diegans are portrayed as laid back but determined folks who built Lindbergh the best airplane possible. Though some scenes were filmed in San Diego, the city is not readily evident in the movie.

Sea World makes appearances in Doctor Dolittle (1967) with Rex Harrison and in The Big Mouth (1967) where mobsters pursue Jerry Lewis because he looks like a notorious rival gangster. Lewis also filmed parts of The Family Jewels (1965) and Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) near San Diego’s water. Tentacles (1977), a film about a giant killer octopus terrorizing sailors and divers in a fictional Ocean Beach, was an Italian production filmed partly at Sea World and in the Point Loma area. A water skiing competition in Mission Bay is featured in Freaky Friday (1977), in which a mother (Barbara Harris) and daughter (Jodie Foster) exchange lives for a short time. Sea World and a group of California mini-skirted go-go girls make cameo appearances in Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1967), a horror film starring John Carradine.

Downtown to the Border

It has taken a long time for downtown and nearby neighborhoods to be presented as San Diego and to be used for an entire movie. From the 1930s to the 1950s filmmakers would send a small crew to shoot scenery or send the entire production to town for only a few days. In fact two films with the name San Diego in the title (San Diego, I Love You (1944) and Down in San Diego (1941) were barely filmed here. Despite this San Diego has been portrayed as a vibrant and complex town and sometimes (at night) as a mysterious noir-ish type of place. Even San Diego, I Love Youreveals a great deal about a wartime San Diego where there was no place to lodge, the busses were full, and the town was extremely busy. One film that covers most of Southern California has a few scenes in San Diego and ends with a mad dash for the border is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In the movie, almost every well-known American comedian and Spencer Tracy hunt for a treasure. Yet if San Diego is in this movie, it is hard to recognize.

Increasingly though, within the last 25 years filmmakers have used multiple locations and shot entire movies here. One example of a film using the mosaic of downtown and elsewhere in San Diego is Scavenger Hunt (1979). A group of relatives must go on a scavenger hunt to win their rich relative’s fortune. This attempt at madcapery used locations such as the Westgate Hotel, Pacific Beach, Scotty’s Playland in Lakeside, San Diego Bay, the Zoo, the San Diego Museum of Art, a La Mesa bridal salon and shopping center, a La Jolla gym, the Crown Point Market, Farkas Store Fixtures at 12th & F (a car drove through their window), the former Police Department on Harbor Drive, and the locker room at Jack Murphy (Qualcomm) Stadium.

In recent years San Diego’s downtown has been host to many law enforcement dramas. While not always strictly police dramas, these movies have used San Diego to show off a metropolitan community that can not always control its populace. Movies such as A Force of One (1979) with Chuck Norris, K-9 (1989) with James Belushi, and Traffic (2000) have dealt with narcotics trafficking and San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border. Beyond the drug smuggling there is a large business in trafficking immigrants from Latin American. Some films such as Borderline (1980) or El Norte (1983), which have divergent points of view, focus on the ways San Diego is used as a crossing point for immigrants from the south. Immigrants in El Norte see the bright lights of San Diego as evidence of a brighter future. The immigrants in Borderline are portrayed as victims of greedy human traffickers. Other films have used the border for a variety of plotlines. In Little Nikita (1988) a shoot out takes place between an American agent (Sidney Poitier) and a Soviet agent on a walkway to the border. In Outta Time (2002) a student smuggles medicine of some sort across the border and in Captain Milkshake (1969) hippies are searched but successfully smuggle pot across the border. These relatively recent movies were preceded by movies filmed in or taking place in San Diego about the border such as I Cover the Waterfront (1933), Border Flight(1936); Forged Passport (1939); and The Breaking Point (1950) based on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

Other movies using downtown and surrounding areas for much or part of their plot include Mr. Jones (1993) with Richard Gere, In God We Trust(1980) with Marty Feldman and Hardcore (1980) with George C. Scott. While Hardcore and In God We Trust show the remnants of a sleazier San Diego, Mr. Jones shows our town as place of renewal. Three 1990s comedies Mr Wrong (1996), Flirting With Disaster (1996) and My Blue Heaven (1990) reveal downtown and elsewhere in San Diego as hectic and busy places that do not exactly speak of a laid back California lifestyle. In Mr. Wrong a young man takes an important phone call while a plane landing at Lindbergh Field drowns out the phone conversation. In Flirting With Disaster a New Yorker warns his son,” San Diego has a big carjacking problem. They bump you, and when you stop, they mutilate you.” Whether San Diego is a hectic, fun, laid back, corrupt or troubled place, it is apparent that through the rather unreal eye of the movies San Diego is a unique cosmopolitan town with its share of complex wonders and troubles. One movie that reveals those wonders in the context of growing up in San Diego is Almost Famous (2000). The film, director Cameron Crowe’s homage to growing up in the 1970s, is not only about coming of age in San Diego, but about youth in general in the 1970s.”The old distinction that San Diego could be used as Anywhere U.S.A. in the movies was blurred in Almost Famous. Finally there was a movie about San Diego itself having an effect on the nation as a whole.

North and East County Locations

The northern and eastern areas of San Diego County have presented filmmakers sufficient open space to film movies with big budgets or small budgets in a variety of genres including science fiction, western, military, gangster, and horror movies. It is the part of the county that is most often represented as somewhere else. Oceanside has been the scene of many westerns, the desert has been used for imaginary battles, Fallbrook was used by D.W. Griffith as the French Countryside in Orphan’s of the Storm (1921), and a Julian ranch appeared as Texas in a Dean Martin movie. Alternatively, the Del Mar Fairgrounds have been used as a both as a racetrack (in 1938’s Stablemates) and as a fairground (in 1947’s Nightmare Alley), the Palomar Observatory has appeared as an observatory and Warner’s Hot Springs appeared just as it was & a ranch (in the 1936 version ofRamona).

The Del Mar Racetrack opened in the mid 1930s with investments from Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and other Hollywood stars. The racetrack soon became a favorite playground for Hollywood’s elite. One set of 1941 photographs shows twenty to thirty stars at opening day of the races. Included were Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, George Burns, Buster Crabbe, and many others. Filmmakers used the racetrack for a few movies. In 1938 both Stablemates staring Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney and Sing You Sinners staring Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray used the track for location shooting. In the 1990s The Grifters (1990) staring former San Diegan Annette Bening and the locally produced Love Always (1997) used the track for location shots. Also filmed in Del Mar was the 1914 verision of Mary Pickford’s Tess of the Storm Country. It was directed by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter

Several early westerns were filmed in the Oceanside area and the mountains east of there. These included Cecil B. DeMille’s The Virginian (1914) partially filmed on Palomar Mountain, Girl of the Golden West (1915), and The Rose of the Rancho (1914). Also filmed by DeMille in North County was The Man From Home (1914) which was filmed at the Cleveland-Pacific mine near Escondido.”Among the films shot at Rancho Santa Margarita (now on the grounds of Camp Pendleton Marine Base) is The Love Brand (1923) staring San Diego native Roy Stewart. The Pride of Palomar, (1922) concerning a young soldier returning from World War I who winds up in a land dispute with a Japanese man, was filmed at nearby Rancho Guajome. Other Oceanside area movies include Blanche Sweet’s wartime thriller Unpardonable Sin (1918), Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet(1955), and Gregory Nava’s A Time of Destiny (1988), which was filmed at Mission San Luis Rey and throughout the county. In 1957 two episodes of the television series” Zorro” starring Guy Williams also were filmed at the Mission San Luis Rey.

In the southeast portion of San Diego County a few early films including Red Lights (1923) and Beggars of Life (1928) used the trains and treacherous path carved by the San Diego & Arizona Railroad for their plots. Beggars of Life starred Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen as outlaw railroad hobos and was directed by William Wellman. In the mountains near Julian, Texas Across the River (1966) a comedy-Western starring Dean Martin was made on the Starr-Richardson Ranch. Dean Martin arrived for work at the Ramona Airport in Frank Sinatra’s jet.

Several horror or science fiction films have been shot in San Diego County locations. Among the most well known was Invaders from Mars (1953) in which Martians land on earth and take over the minds of the adults living in a small town. The movie was partially filmed at Palomar Observatory. Another Palomar Mountain project was Crater Lake Monster, (1977) about a dinosaur lying dormant in Crater Lake that is suddenly awakened by a meteor crash. The film’s director William R. Stromberg used David Allen, the same animator/claymation artist who made Mrs. Butterworth and Swiss Miss commercials in the 1970s, to create the effect of a rampaging dinosaur. Meanwhile in Lakeside, an independent filmmaker came to town and filmed Slaughterhouse (1987), a horror movie about the owners of a bankrupt slaughterhouse who kill people.

In 1884 Helen Hunt Jackson, disgusted by the treatment of Native Americans, wrote the novel Ramona hoping it would be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Indians. Ramona failed to help with the civil rights of Native Americans; it did, however, romanticize the” Old California” of ranchos, orchards and missions. How did the story of a woman who married an Indian and then became caught up in a web of prejudice and tragedy evolve into a public relations boom for Southern California? Ramona introduced Americans to Southern California where Anglos, Indians, and Mexicans lived and worked together. A second book by another author purported to have found the” real Ramona.” Then there was the long running annual play in Hemet, California. San Diego County includes the town of Ramona and the Estudillo House in Old Town, which became known as Ramona’s Wedding Place when it was reconstructed. Within thirty-five years at least five movies based on Jackson’s Ramona story were released. The first Ramona was played by Mary Pickford in1910, and she was followed by Adda Gleason (who often acted in San Diego movies) in 1916, Delores Del Rio in 1928, Loretta Young in 1936 and Ester Fernandez in a 1946 Mexican version. The 1936 version with Young and Don Ameche and was filmed at Warner Hot Springs and in Mesa Grande. There was even a film about the daughter of Ramona entitled Daughter of the West (1949). The Ramona tradition in Southern California and San Diego resulted in a well marketed and romanticized view of Ramona’s home state. Over the last few decades many of the tenants of that romance have been debunked. Ramona’s Wedding Place in Old Town was given back its old name, the Estudillo House, despite the fact that it was the main marketing tool for Old Town for decades. Yet, the influence of the Ramona story still permeates through Southern California and the Ramona movies helped expand the romanticized view of the land of Ramona.


On July 11, 2002, the Turner Classic Movie cable television network presented four movies in one evening dealing with the various aspects of Navy life & .on a submarine (Operation Petticoat) on shore (A Ticklish Affair), in the air (Wings of the Navy), and at sea (Here Comes the Navy). Despite a variety of trivial tidbits and informative movie facts, the host introducing the movies didn’t ment ion that all four movies were partially filmed in San Diego. It is easy to overlook San Diego’s contribution to military movies—”even if three of the movies mention San Diego by name in the films. Conversely, the fact that four diverse movies filmed in the same place outside Hollywood could be thrown together for a night of television speaks volumes of the contribution of San Diego both to the military and to the history of military motion pictures.

Americans get much of their” news” about our military, police actions, and wars through the movies. Despite extensive news coverage, live remotes, and Pentagon briefings, the movies personalize the stories of men and women in war, training for war, or experimenting with the tools of war. Our military leaders have recognized this and given Hollywood access to equipment, personnel and military bases. Hollywood also recognized that these personalized stories of men in battle filled theater seats. Hollywood has often been willing to give up some artistic freedom in exc hange for access to military facilities and for bigger box office receipts. Our military leaders have always been willing to lend a hand when the political winds were right if (after tweaking the script a bit) it could be perceived that a movie would show the military in a positive light, assist in recruitment, and help with Congress at appropriations time. It is a deal that has worked for both entities. As a result of this partnership the American public has been presented with fictionalized accounts that illuminate carefully selected parts of our nation’s military history.

Into this mix comes San Diego, home of Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corp Training Depot, the Navy Training Center, the air bases at North Island and Miramar, the Pacific Fleet, Navy SEALS, submarine bases and the South Bay shipyards. In the parallel universe of the movies San Diego is a training ground for raw recruits, it is a World War II Pacific Theater battleground (just add the palm trees), it’s the home of great aircraft carriers, and courageous submarine crews, frog men and later Navy Seals, and it is home to hot shot pilots learning to tempt the extremes of their flying machines. And in the movies it is not only Tom Cruise, but Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and Fred MacMurray who fly those planes to kingdom come. And then there is John Wayne storming the sands of Iwo Jima to create the model American soldier hero of the last half of the twentieth century. But in reality he is being filmed storming some hill on Camp Pendleton and Allan Dwan, San Diego’s pioneer moviemaker, is directing Wayne on how to become mythic.

Over 100 movies have been filmed about the military in San Diego. These include movies set entirely in San Diego locations and movies that showed a short scene of a San Diego location or the interior of ships, barracks or submarines. As early as 1915 the film industry found that San Diego had the facilities, locations, and equipment to tell the stories of our military. Being only two hours down the road from Hollywood, San Die go was also convenient. Hollywood’s biggest stars came to town to train, fly, or sail–celluloid style– while using real equipment and expertise based in San Diego.

Aviation Movies

From pioneering aviation at North Island to the modern exploits of pilots at Miramar, the story of men in the air, and their problems on the ground have not only been captured in Top Gun, but in movies such as Dive Bomber, Devil Dogs of the Air, Test Pilot , and Hell Divers. Produced to fill theaters and to increase recruitment, San Diego’s aviation films have not only entertained viewers, but have also provided fodder for the early debates over the use of aviation in our armed forces.

The first aviation movie filmed in San Diego may have been Curtiss’s School of Aviation shot by Allan Dwan for the Flying A Studio in 1912 on one of his weekend jaunts into San Diego from La Mesa. In A Girl From Yesterday (1915), Allan Dwan returned to San Diego and directed Mary Pickford in what may well have been the first use of aviation scenes in a movie with the co-operation of the U.S. Army at North Island’s Rockwell Field. On May 3, 1915, Capt. Arthur Cowan ordered seven biplanes to be lined up in front of the hangar. Two took off for flights as the camera captured the action. Glen Martin acted the part of the hero and was paid $700 for performing aerial stunts. San Diego History Center photos shows Mary, her mother, Allan Dwan, and other stars at North Island, but the film was also shot in Los Angeles. In Peter Bogdonovich’s oral history with Allan Dwan, Dwan tells the story about how Mary Pickford’s mother wouldn’t allow Mary to go more than 100 feet above the ground in a plane. Dwan had Martin fly Mary way up in the mountains around Griffith Park in Los Angeles, but never more than 100 feet above those mountains.

Hot on the heels of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and the release of the first best picture Oscar winner, Wings (directed by one-time Rockwell Field instructor William Wellman), three aviation-related motion pictures were filmed in San Diego. These were Flight, The Flying Marine, and The Flying Fleet. Frank Capra’s 1929 movie Flight (filmed after Capra’s first San Diego movie Submarine in 1928) was filmed in and around El Cajon and concerns flying marines who chase bandits in Nicaragua. The first aviation film with sound, it was also the first sound movie to play at the Spreckel’s Theater in San Diego. One story indicates that local extras fired blanks at Marines who were assigned to the production. The Marines reportedly were not pleased. Filmed partially at North Island, The Flying Marine (1929) starred Jason Robards Sr. and concerned two brothers who fall for the same girl. The first movie to receive a local commander’s permission to use Navy aviation equipment at North Island, The Flying Fleet(1929) is also the first story by Frank “Spig” Wead to be sold to Hollywood. Using North Island, as well as San Diego Bay, the Hotel del Coronado, the Santa Fe Station and elsewhere, the film concerns the rivalry between Ramon Navarro and Ralph Graves, graduates of Annapolis who are assigned to San Diego. Both pilots vie to win Anita Page (whom they meet aquaplaning in San Diego Bay) and to fly an experimental plane to Hawaii.

While many of the subsequent movies Wead wrote dealt with other topics and places, he often set his movies in San Diego. Born in Peoria, Ill. Wead graduated from the Naval Academy in 1916. During his career he commanded one of the first squadrons of planes to operate from an American aircraft carrier. Wead once held five world records in naval aviation and led the squadron that won the Snyder Cup in Paris in 1925. In 1926 Wead suffered a broken neck in a fall at his Coronado home. His aviation career was over. At San Diego’s Naval Hospital his writing career began.”He became the dean of Hollywood aviation screenwriters during the 1930s. Wead penned several San Diego-related screenplays including Hell Divers(1931), Test Pilot (1938), Dive Bomber (1941) and Destroyer (1943) and became the “unofficial public lobby for naval aeronautics.” Despite his lack of mobility, Wead returned to the Navy in World War II and became a decorated war hero. John Ford and Frank Wead worked on two films together, Airmail (1932) and They Were Expendable (1945). Wead died in 1947 in John Ford’s arms. Ford decided to direct a movie biography of Wead only after being convinced that no one else could do it right. Wings of Eagles (1957) starring John Wayne is the story of a “belligerent, brave, eccentric, visionary man with a fanatical dedication who & is doomed to be alone,” according to Ford’s autobiography.

While there were several other movies filmed about aviation in San Diego in the 1930s, Wead’s movies are the most important (with the exception of Devil Dogs of the Air) and shed light on how San Diego fit into the world of military aviation. In addition to The Flying Fleet, Wead wrote Hell Divers with Clark Gable and Wallace Beery, Test Pilot with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy, and Dive Bomber with Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray. His movie plots usually consisted of two pilots competing for the affections of a woman, a competition between pilots for a dangerous mission, and the rescuing of one pilot by another or the death of one pilot. Dive Bomber dispenses with the romantic interests in the plot quickly and then focuses on aviation medicine and the experiments relating to pilots blacking out at certain altitudes. This leads to a fatal crash next to the Point Loma Lighthouse. Dive Bomber was filmed in Technicolor, which necessitated 600 pound cameras being mounted on photography planes. The movie also came under investigation by an isolationist Congressional Committee because of military participation in the movies. The Congressmen accused the Navy and Warner Brothers of collaborating to make propaganda. This debate ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Other San Diego aviation films with romantic triangles, competitive pilots, the Naval Air Station at North Island, and similar plots to Wead’s stories included: Devil Dogs of the Air (1935) with James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, Men With Wings (1938) with Fred MacMurray as a reckless barnstormer and Ray Milland as a scientifically inclined pilot; Wings of the Navy (1939) where George Brent and John Payne compete for Olivia DeHavilland; Flight Command (1938) with Robert Taylor and Olivia Hussey; and The Marines Fly High (1940) with Lucille Ball. In Devil Dogs of the Air James Cagney stars as a barnstorming pilot who joins the Navy. Cagney and Pat O’Brien get tangled up with each other, a waitress at a diner, and a mock invasion of Black’s Beach in La Jolla.

After World War II, aviation movies returned to tell the stories of the war and later, the Korean War. In Task Force (1949) Gary Cooper stars in an overview of naval aviation. Cooper, an aviator during World War I, becomes an advocate for the importance of aviation in the military after the war. But he has limited success until the outbreak of World War II when he gets to prove the importance of air power in battle. Flying Leathernecks(1951) was filmed at Camp Pendleton and stars John Wayne and Robert Ryan who battle over discipline while the Marine Flying Corps participate in the battle of Guadalcanal. The last San Diego movie directed by Allan Dwan, Wild Blue Yonder (1951), stars Forrest Tucker and Wendell Corey as World War II Army Air Corp pilots training for missions in the South Pacific. The Korean conflict is brought to life in Men of the Fighting Lady(1954) with Van Johnson starring as a pilot on the Aircraft Carrier “Fighting Lady.” Taken from stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Postby James A. Michener, it was filmed at the same time as The Bridges at Toko Ri, another Michener effort about the similar events.

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hawaii is referred to in San Diego movies such as The Flying Fleet, Wings Over Honolulu andDive Bomber. At least three movies with San Diego connections deal with the attack. In Harm’s Way (1965) starring John Wayne and directed by Otto Preminger concerns the Navy’s attempts to rebuild after Pearl Harbor. During the filming of Tora Tora Tora (1970) warplanes painted with a Japanese insignia were lifted onto the U.S.S. Yorktown at San Diego and then transported to Hawaii for use in the film. Government assistance on this film resulted in a 60 Minutes investigation. In addition a train scene in Pearl Harbor (2001) was filmed at the Campo Railroad Museum.

Top Gun (1986) staring Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards (later of ER), Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan is the story”of hot shot pilots sent to Miramar Naval Air Station for advanced training. They compete to become the best in their class, the “top gun.” Cruise carries on with civilian instructor McGillis and loses some nerve when Edwards is killed in a crash but he redeems himself during an international crisis. The top grossing film of 1986 Top Gun was filmed at many locations including Miramar Air Station, the Point Loma Lighthouse, the Navy Training Center, a beach cottage on the corner of South Pacific and Seagaze Drive in Oceanside, the Windsock Bar & Grill near Lindbergh Field, the Kansas City Barbecue, and on Laurel street near Union. Top Gun is probably the best known San Diego movie. There have even been attempts to preserve the cottage in Oceanside where Cruise and McGillis acted. Top Gun was the culmination of three generations of aviation movies in San Diego. Tom Cruise followed Ramon Navarro, Jimmy Cagney, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Van Johnson as actors who have played hotshot pilots.

Other aviation movies such as Firefox (1982) with Clint Eastwood, Flight of the Intruder (1991) and the Top Gun parody, Hot Shots! (1991) were partially filmed in San Diego. Moving into the space age both the TV mini-series “Space” and blockbuster movie Apollo 13 had segments filmed in San Diego. While there are not a lot of song and dance aviation movies, Flying Down to Rio (1932) was filmed in an area called “Cabrillo” near San Diego according to the American Film Institute index. The film featured Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first movie and several hundred chorus girls singing and swaying while strapped to the wings of a fleet of airplanes.

Ground Forces

With the use of the Marine Corps Training Depot, Camp Pendleton and other bases in movies such as Tell It to the Marines (1926) and To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), San Diego has shaped how Hollywood portrayed the training of soldiers. When those soldiers have gone to war, San Diego has been used as a battleground in movies such as The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and First to Fight (1967). Many early World War II battle movies were shot at Camp Pendleton. Battles such as Iwo Jima, Tawara and Guadalcanal were re-fought more than once in San Diego County.

The first of the San Diego training films, Tell It to the Marines was filmed at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot and Santa Fe Station. It follows the exploits of Lon Chaney, a hardnose sergeant and William Haines who joined the marines to hitch a train ride to San Diego so he could gamble in Tijuana. A very popular movie with the public and the military, Tell It to the Marines sold Hollywood on the idea of using San Diego for military movies and on the idea of using Lon Chaney (the man of a thousand faces) as a man with his own face. On the eve of World War II, Tell It to the Marines was remade as To the Shores of Tripoli. John Payne stars as a reluctant marine while Randolph Scott stars as a tough drill instructor at MCRD. At one point Payne and Maureen O’Hara go driving in Balboa Park. Payne stops the car, but after a kiss O’Hara sees another couple smooching and decides she wants nothing more of such activity. While most of the movie was shot before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ending was changed after the attack. Military training for the younger set is portrayed in three movies filmed at the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, later Brown’s Military Academy. These include Eyes Right! (1926) with Francis X Bushman Jr., Dinky (1935) with Jackie Cooper, and Military Academy With That 10th Avenue Gang (1950).

Two World War I movies had scenes shot in San Diego in the late 1930s. Directed by native San Diegan W.S. Van Dyke, They Gave Him a Gun(1937) stars Spencer Tracy, Gladys George and Franchot Tone. This anti-war movie follows a triangle of characters from World War I and afterwards as Tone changes from a timid clerk to a war hero and into a gangster who likes to use guns. This movie was filmed at Camp Matthews, current site of University of California at San Diego. The Fighting 69th is one of ten movies that Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien starred in between 1934 and 1981. This time Cagney is a brash and tough-as- nails kind of guy who ultimately cowers under fire and causes the death of many of his Fighting 69th comrades. Given one more chance he saves many lives and is killed. The movie takes place in New York and in France, but was partially filmed in eastern San Diego County near Warner’s Hot Springs.

Part of Hollywood’s role in World War II was to make movies to inspire the home front. Being unable to go anywhere near the Pacific theater battle areas, Hollywood chose Camp Pendleton, a former rancho in Oceanside to make two movies about early World War II battles. Gung Ho! (1943) is the true story of Carlson’s Raiders, a group formed seven weeks after Pearl Harbor from Marine volunteers to attack Japanese held islands. The movie follows the soldiers training and their attack on Japanese controlled Makin Island. Guadalcanal Diary (1943) is the epic tale of the early World War II battle starring Anthony Quinn and Lloyd Nolan and based on the book by Richard Tregaskis. A large number of military movies were made in San Diego from 1943 to 1945 as the studios tried to supply patriotic movies to the public. These included Otto Preminger’s In the Meantime, Darling (1944), Marine Raiders (1944), Destroyer (1943) with Edward

G. Robinson, Pride of the Marines (1945) with John Garfield, Salute to the Marines (1943), See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), The Fighting Seabees (1944) with John Wayne, Wing and a Prayer (1944) with Don Ameche, and The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) with Gary Cooper.

Called one of the best films to come out of World War II, Sands of Iwo Jima was filmed at Camp Pendleton. The film’s director, Allan Dwan returned to movie making in San Diego County 40 years after arriving to direct westerns in La Mesa for the “Flying A.” In his first Oscar-nominated performance, John Wayne portrays hardnose Sargeant John Stryker who pushes his recruits to extremes. Stryker’s techniques pay off during the battle of Tawara and the famous assault of”Iwo Jima. The three surviving Marine vets who raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi have small parts. Dealing with an individual instead of a whole brigade, The Outsider (1961) looks at the effects of Iwo Jima on one soldier. Filmed at MCRD and Camp Pendleton, this film biography stars Tony Curtis as Pima Indian Ira Hayes, as one of the marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. The movie follows Hayes’ life from basic training, to his tragic life after the war.

Several other movies relating to ground action during World War II were filmed in San Diego during the first twenty-five years after the war. Till the End of Time (1946) stars Guy Madison, Robert Mitchum and Dorothy McGuire in a film about GIs who have difficulty adjusting to civilian life after World War II. The soldiers are processed through MCRD before being sent back to civilian life. Starring a gaggle of 50’s heartthrobs, Battle Cry(1955) follows the training, combat and romances of a group of recruits during World War II. Based on the novel by Leon Uris, it was filmed at Camp Pendleton and the Naval Training Center. The Young Lions (1958) features the parallel story of two soldiers in World War II, a German played by Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift as an American. A desert battle scene was filmed in the Anza-Borrego desert. A Vietnam era melodrama/war story about a soldier’s experiences in World War II, First to Fight stars Chad Everett, Dean Jagger and Gene Hackman (in one of his earliest roles). Everett returns stateside after winning a medal for service at Guadalcanal to find a wife and face battle fatigue. When he decides to return to combat he is paralyzed with fear, but is able to overcome it. Locations of this movie include many training fields and barracks at Camp Pendleton. Producers in search of another blockbuster after the success of Patton (1977) with George C. Scott, decided to make MacArthur (1977), the biography of General Douglas MacArthur. The film stars La Jolla native Gregory Peck and begins in 1942 with MacArthur pledging to “return” to the Philippines and ends with his firing by President Harry Truman in 1951. It was filmed at Silver Strand Beach in Imperial Beach, Camp Pendleton and the Santa Fe Depot.

Navy and Submarine Movies

The fact that so many military, especially Navy, movies were filmed in San Diego, is a testament to how much Hollywood and the military depended on San Diego. According to Lawrence Suid in Sailing on the Silver Screen, during the Korean War one military official noted that instead of “filming in Korean waters” the movie Men of the Fighting Lady “can just as well be shot & in waters outside San Diego.” And so it was. The presence of the ocean, aircraft carriers, submarines, and other ships, as well as frog men and equipment have often resulted in Hollywood using San Diego as a base of operation to film movies about the fleet, submarine operations and navy personnel. The San Diego location was by no means the most publicized aspect of many of the following movies, but the filming generated enough local excitement for one 1957 San Diego Union headline to read “New Film Capital? Three Films Shot in Area This Month.”

Films about navy life include scenes relating to shore leave, ship duty, mock battles, and fighting. Movies filmed in San Diego about Navy life have used the Naval Training Center, Camp Pendleton, the docks around town, and the ships stationed here. Here Comes the Navy (1934) starring James Cagney and was filmed at the Naval Training Center and aboard the U.S.S. Arizona (later sunk at Pearl Harbor). Cagney and Pat O’Brien star as antagonists who get stationed on the same ship. Next, Cagney dates Gloria Stewart (elderly Rose in Titanic, 1997) who turns out to be O’Brien’s sister. In the end Cagney saves O’Brien from falling off a dirigible. In Thunder Afloat (1939), Wallace Beery and Chester Morris star as feuding friends who come together to stop a German U-Boat during World War I. The film Fighting Coast Guard (1951), directed by native San Diegan Joseph Kane and starring Forrest Tucker, concerns the Coast Guard’s contribution to World War II. Another story of raw recruits heading into battle is Away All Boats (1956), starring Jeff Chandler and George Nader. Included are scenes from the Navy’s largest amphibious maneuvers up to that date. After some difficulties, the crew learns how to manage the ship and participates in the amphibious landing operation at Okinawa. Clint Eastwood has an un-credited role in this movie. The Gallant Hours (1960), is a biography of Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr. (James Cagney) as he commanded the naval battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Strangely there are no battle scenes in this movie, but plenty of narration and dramatic music. Filmed at Camp Pendleton and elsewhere around San Diego, Cagney attended the premiere of this movie at the Fox Theater in San Diego.

A significant number of movies dealing with submarine warfare and underwater warfare have been filmed in San Diego. It could be argued that San Diego is among the most used locations for filming submarine dramas especially during the late 1950s. While submarines movies have been filmed in San Diego as far back as 1915, the first wave of such movies were shot at the submarine bases around San Diego Bay between 1928 and 1937. Yet, it wasn’t until after the Korean War that submarine movies made a comeback in San Diego. Between 1957 and 1959 at least seven movies about submarines had a San Diego connection. The 1950s also saw two important movies about frogmen or what later became Navy SEALS. In the succeeding decades only three submarine movies were made in San Diego, but they were generally considered blockbusters whether they received good or bad reviews from the critics.

One of the first uses of a Navy submarine in the movies, A Submarine Pirate (1915) was filmed in part at the San Diego Navy Yard and made with the assistance of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. Syd Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) played a bumbling waiter who discovered a plot to hijack a Navy submarine. Released prior to World War I, the Navy used the film as one of it most effective recruitment tools. Submarine (1928) was a box office success and helped cement Frank Capra’s reputation as a first rate director. The film deals with two Navy divers and drinking buddies who become entangled with a woman named “Snuggles.” Soon they hate each other. The drama ends when a submarine is sunk and the friends must work together to rescue the endangered crews. The production company of Submarine D-1 (1937) spent three weeks in San Diego on submarines, cruisers and tugboats with the cooperation of the Navy. Actor Pat O’Brien, did have some trouble, though, when real sharks appeared as he entered the water for a scene. Ronald Reagan also had a role in this movie, but he was deleted from the final version. This was another film written by Frank “Spig” Wead. In 1937 Capra’s Submarine was remade as Devils Playground and featured a sinking submarine, an unfaithful wife, and heavy drinking. Historian Lawrence Suid notes that despite these unflattering images of the seafaring life, the Navy felt the film might educate the public about submarines.

Submarine movies took a hiatus in the 1940s, but returned to San Diego with a vengeance in the 1950s. In Hellcats of the Navy (1957), Ronald Reagan starred in his only film with future first lady Nancy Davis. The drama is about a submarine captain who must leave a frogman—and his rival for Nancy—behind to die to save the rest of his crew while they hunt for an undetected Japanese mine. Glenn Ford stars as an obsessed sub captain in Torpedo Run (1958), who searches for a Japanese aircraft carrier that had previously caused him to torpedo a merchant ship carrying P.O.W’s including his wife and child. Ernest Borgnine is along for the ride. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) features Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster going head to head in cramped quarters with Gable as a submarine captain bent on sinking a particular Japanese ship during World War II. Don Rickles is along for the ride in his first role. The production company was allowed access to Navy facilities, a submarine, a destroyer escort and tugboats. In The Battle of the Coral Sea (1959), a submarine captained by La Jolla native Cliff Robertson is captured by Japanese troops prior to the battle of the Coral Sea. Other World War II submarine movies with San Diego locations included Up Periscope (1959) starring James Garner and Operation Petticoat (1959) starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in a comedy about a pink submarine. Marion Ross starred as one of the nurses. The rash of 1950s submarine movies ended with On the Beach (1959), a doomsday drama with a San Diego twist. Gregory Peck stars as an American submarine captain in Australia when a nuclear bomb wipes out most of the world. The film shows how people react to this impending disaster. A faint radio signal sends Peck and his crew to the electric power plant in Carlsbad, but their hopes are dashed when what they thought was a radio signal turned out to be a coke bottle tapping against cement.

Starting in the late 1960s the Cold War provided plots for submarine movies filmed partially in San Diego. Ice Station Zebra (1968) starring Rock Hudson concerns a very cold war confrontation between the Soviets and an American submarine underneath the surface in the arctic ice. Seemingly few questions were asked as to why a film set on North Pole was filmed partially in balmy San Diego, but the production came to town for four days to shoot scenes at the submarine base and abroad the U.S.S. Ronquil. In Gray Lady Down (1977) a nuclear submarine is sunk off the coast of Connecticut and an experimental vessel must be used to rescue the sub’s crew. After six years of negotiations, script revisions and the Navy’s suspicions about participating in a disaster movie, the film was completed. The movie crew was in San Diego for two weeks shooting aboard the USS Cayuga and at the Navy Coordination Center. In The Hunt for Red October (1990) the Navy, anxious to show the submarine service in a better light than in Gray Lady Down and duplicate the recruiting success of Top Gun, cooperated with Paramount to made this pre-thaw Cold War drama. Sean Connery, a Soviet submarine captain, heads for the U.S. with the intention to defect.

Hollywood also used San Diego equipment and locations to produce movies relating to underwater diving operations. Producers of The Frogmen, (1951) descended on Coronado’s Underwater Demolition Team headquarters (predecessors of the Navy SEALS) to learn about the role of frogmen in World War II.”The result was a story about a commander (Richard Widmark) who must win the respect of his new crew. Up to this point materials about the frogmen had been mostly classified. In another frogmen movie later in the decade, Underwater Warriors (1958) told the story based on the exploits of Commander Francis D. Fane (USNR). Starring Dan Dailey, the movie concerns the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Unit near the end of World War II and in Korea. Filmed off Coronado with an occasional appearance of Point Loma, The Frogmen and Underwater Warrior were among the only films dealing with underwater demolition to receive Navy assistance. Much later, and despite some reluctance, the Navy provided some help to Navy SEALS (1990) about Navy SEALS who encounter terrorists with high tech weapons.

Military Comedies

Hollywood brought some productions down to San Diego not to show the strength of our military but for laughs. Mostly a domestic comedy with a cameo appearance by what appears to be the entire San Diego Fleet, A Ticklish Affair (1963) floats across San Diego like very few movies had since the silent era. After a decade of serious submarine dramas, this movie starring Gig Young, Shirley Jones and Red Button goes portside and gives the viewer a glimpse of the Zoo, Balboa Park, downtown, and the edge of Point Loma. At the climax of the movie a young boy is lifted by a set of weather balloons and blown across San Diego. First he’s hovering above the Balboa Park golf course, then he’s seen over what appears to be the construction of I-5 near the Ford Building (currently the Aerospace Museum), and next he’s floating past the El Cortez building where a drunk is having a morning drink at the top floor bar, and finally, he’s flying over Point Loma just past the lighthouses. Meanwhile Gig Young has commandeered a blimp to rescue the boy. Gig lowers himself out of the blimp to save the boy, but not before Red Button has to shoot the balloons. This is the second blimp rescue in San Diego navy movie history, the first being in 1935 when James Cagney rescued Pat O’Brien from a rope dangling below a blimp in Here Comes the Navy.

Another set of “military” comedies in the 1950s dealt with Francis, a mule who talked. Donald O’Connor brought Francis and crew to the Amphibious Base on Coronado in the spring of 1955 to film Francis in the Navy. The March 14, 1955, issue of the Amphibian pictures stars such as Donald O’Connor, Martha Hyer, Jim Backus, Myrna Hansen (Miss U.S., 1953), and a “comic” named Clint Eastwood romping around Coronado. A portion ofFrancis Joins the WACS (1954) was also filmed in San Diego.

Comedians Abbott & Costello and singers the Andrews Sisters also had some interaction with San Diego. Prior to the filming of Buck Privates(1941) Abbott & Costello and the Andrews Sisters performed at Camp Elliott. Portions of their next film, In the Navy were filmed at the Naval Training Center. The song, “Were in the Navy Now” became the official training tune of the Naval Training Center. A couple years later, the Andrews Sisters appeared in Moonlight and Cactus (1944) a movie about women on a San Diego ranch.

Some movies attempted to bridge the gap between the Japanese and the Americans after World War II by showing how troops and sometime stereotyped Japanese citizens interacted or had romances. While many of these movies were made after the success of Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Sayonara (1957), the connection between Asian-Americans and San Diegans was first explored by the Edison Company in 1913’s In the Japanese Tea Garden. This romance of Japan was filmed at the Japanese Gardens then in Coronado. Later in the decade the Japanese Gardens were used for Her American Husband (1918) which as alternately titled: Mr. Butterfly. Hearst’s The Pride of Palomar(1922) also dealt with Japanese-American issues. Among the post-World War II San Diego based films of this genre Cry For Happy (1960) stars Glenn Ford and concerns a Navy photographic team who use a Toyko geisha house as their headquarters. Nobody’s Perfect (1968) deals with the misadventures of the crew of the U.S.S. Bustard and stars James Whitmore, David Hartman, Nancy Kwan and Doug McClure. Dick Van Dyke and Nancy Kwan star in Lt. Robin Crusoe (1966) about a military pilot who crashes and ends up on a deserted island that, of course, is not deserted. Van Dyke finds a chimp named Friday in this film. The U.S.S. Yorktown was host to the premiere of this film. Van Dyke, Buddy Ebsen, Fred MacMurry, Eva Gabor and others attended. Like Van Dyke’s film, many early San Diego silent movies such as The Pearl of Paradise and Why Sailors Go Wrong (1928) romanticized the south sea islands while stereotyping the inhabitants of those islands. An early comedy on the Robinson Crusoe theme, Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932) starring Douglas Fairbanks deals with a rich guy who bets a friend he can survive on an island for a month. He meets a girl named Saturday and danger comes his way. It was filmed in Tahiti and on a yacht from San Diego.


When the San Diego Union asked the question is “San Diego New Movie Capital?” in 1957, there seemed to be an optimism that the motion picture industry would soon bring endless productions to town. This did not happen. In the last few years of the 1950s there was more filming activity in San Diego than there had been since the silent era, culminating with filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado in September 1958. Yet, movies made from the 1930s until the early 1970s (generally 20 to 40 movies made per decade in San Diego) were made in one location or a set of related locations such as military bases, the Hotel del Coronado, or Balboa Park. But there was no follow-up. After serving as the location for one of the great comic classics, Some Like It Hot, the Hotel del would not host another movie until 1972. In the 1960s the industry used Mission Bay even more often than local military bases. It also became apparent in the 1960s and the early 1970s that if a production wanted to film in more than one place, the production would run into red tape such as the need for permits from the police, the port, or the Coastal Commission. In some cases the best action was subterfuge.

The producers of the 1963 film A Ticklish Affair decided to step out of the box. They wanted to have a car chase of sorts which called for a series of scenes from Balboa Park to downtown to Point Loma. The film’s location director noted that it took a long time to convince the city to let them film and the police department put all kinds of “stumbling blocks” in their way. A decade later in 1974 the television show “Harry O” used San Diego as its main location. This opportunity to showcase San Diego was lost when the series left town after thirteen weeks of headaches relating to permits, cost overruns, the Screen Extras Guild, and poor communication with the city. As a result of this problem, Mayor Pete Wilson and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce formed the San Diego Motion Picture and Television Bureau in 1976. It later became the independent agency known as the San Diego Film Commission.

Almost immediately San Diego saw the economic dividends of having a film commission. With the filming of The Stunt Man, Scavenger Hunt, Hardcore, and other productions San Diego saw more production in the five years between 1977 and 1981″(close to 35 films) than it had in the previous 15 years. This turn-around was directly related to the Film Commission’s work with studios along with the growth of film facilities and talent in San Diego. In the mid 1980s the Commission facilitated the production of Top Gun which unlike movies such as Some Like It Hot used several locations around the county instead of just one or two. The 1990s brought an explosion of movie and television production to San Diego. The Film Commission brought Stu Segal Productions to San Diego. With a sound stage and the ability to film throughout the city, Segal brought several long running television shows (“Silk Stalkings” and “Pensacola: Wings of Gold”) and made for television movies to town. In 2000 San Diego again made news in film circles with the production of two blockbuster movies: Traffic and Almost Famous. The potential that filmmakers like Allan Dwan and Harry Pollard first recognized in the second decade of the twentieth century seemed finally to have been realized in the last decade of the century.

When the large Hollywood studios lost their complete hold on movie production in the 1960s, many independent filmmakers created their own companies. While the y still may need Hollywood for distribution, these independents have left their mark on filmmaking in that last 30 years. As in the silent era, San Diego has seen its share of independent studios and production companies come and go. With the growth of San Diego the need for studios to make locally produced corporate, military and documentary films has grown. Studios such as Roger Tilton Productions, Foursquare Productions, Stu Segal Productions and a whole host of others have met this need. At the same time locally based studios and production companies have created a whole set of locally made feature films and television shows for viewers outside of San Diego. Those independently created movies and television shows that have ranged from the controversial and”poignant to the exciting and downright weird.

Roger Tilton Productions came to San Diego in 1961 and for a few years was one of the few production facilities available for film productions in the city. Used for commercials, documentaries, and an occasional feature film by anyone in need of production facilities, Tilton assisted many productions in the 1960s and 1970s. Tilton was also responsible for many innovations in large screen movie productions. The company also produced and directed the 1984 volleyball movie Spiker. This local film deals with athletes training for the U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team. Michael Parks stars as the tough coach. It was filmed throughout San Diego including La Jolla, a Soup Plantation restaurant, and the municipal gym in Balboa Park.

Richmark Productions founded by Richard Crawford received some publicity in the late 1960s for planning to produce movies in San Diego. Captain Milkshake was the only film produced. This story about a young marine home on emergency leave from Vietnam portrays San Diego as a slightly schizophrenic place filled with right-wing bigots and stoned, skinny-dipping hippies. In the middle of this is the young marine who is courted by both sides. Filming throughout San Diego at parks, beaches, and the border, Crawford shot his Vietnam War scenes near the Mission Trails Park. Filmed in black and white, color (the battle scenes), and with some psychedelic light show explosions, Captain Milkshake has music from the San Francisco bands Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band, and Country Joe and the Fish. Though this film opened in many cities, it was unable to secure national distribution and was banned by the military. But San Diego’s answer to Easy Rider stands on its own.

Four Square Productions was founded by locals John DeBello, Steve Peace and others out to make fun of horror movies in their first feature Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Four Square has grown into a large studio that produces features, documentaries, corporate films, and sports shows. A movie in which mutant tomatoes attack and kill people, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) concludes with the world being saved by a song called “Puberty Love.” It has spawned three sequels: Return of the Killer Tomatoes (with George Clooney, John Astin, and a cameo by Gary Condit, 1988); Killer Tomatoes Strike Back (with Rick Rockwell, 1990), and Killer Tomatoes Eat France (1991). In 1990 Fox TV broadcast a Killer Tomato cartoon series. Four Square has also produced such features as Black Dawn (1997) and Happy Hour (1987), a spoof about beer drinking.

Cinewest was founded by locals Isacc Artenstein and Jude Eberhard. Their features include: Break of Dawn (1990) the story of Pedro Gonzalez, a Mexican immigrant who became a political activist for Chicano rights”in East LA during the 1930s and Love Always (1997) about a young, down on her luck, San Diego woman who travels to Spokane by way of Boston and Las Vegas in response to a marriage proposal she receives on a postcard from an ex-boyfriend.

In 1991 Stu Segal Productions opened the largest film and television studio in San Diego. It has grown to 11 acres. Segal came to San Diego to produce the television series “Silk Stalkings” and has since produced 500 television series episodes, 30 made-for-television movies and six feature films. TV series have included “Renegade,” “Push,” “Pensacola,” “18 Wheels of Justice”, and “The Chronicle.” Segal also provided production services for the cheerleader film, Bring It On (2000).

The Offshore Model Basin is a research facility located in an Escondido warehouse. Though not directly concerned with the film industry, it houses large pools used for scientific research relating to offshore barges, propulsion testing, and the stress induced by waves. During the 1990s some of Hollywood’s biggest movies used the Offshore Model Basin to create water related scenes. Movies that have used the Basin include Titanic, True Lies, Free Willy II, Joe Verses the Volcano and The Rock.


While focusing on the films made or partially made in San Diego, this article has not addressed the hundreds of actors who have passed through San Diego or the hundreds of theaters in which the public has viewed their favorite movies. Both are focused on in the exhibition at the San Diego History Center that runs through the summer of 2003. The film industry has used San Diego as its “backlot” since its inception. During the silent era, San Diego was an important player in the presentation of westerns, melodramas and comedies to a nation hungry for the productions of an exciting and revolutionary industry. When Hollywood consolidated its hold on the industry, San Diego welcomed film productions interested in the military and thus played an important role in informing citizens about the advances or the stories of our Air Force, Marines and the Navy. San Diego’s lush landscape and architecture were also used in two of the most important films ever made: Citizen Kane and Some Like It Hot. In the last 20 years San Diego has become one of the nation’s most important alternative locations to Hollywood. While the term “backlot” can be used metaphorically for San Diego’s connection to the movies and most of the action in the last 100 years has taken place two hours north of town in Hollywood, when the movies come to town it has often been an event. San Diego has been the site of a large piece of movie history. Local citizens have found a great deal of excitement and pleasure when their town is on screen or being filmed. San Diegans have often been willing to play their part. When Allan Dwan called for the extras to show up at Balboa Park in 1919 for the filming of Soldier of Fortune, he claimed the whole town came out. And when the large crowd of spectators on the beach at Coronado got somewhat noisy during the filming of Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe looked over to the crowd, put her finger to her lips and said “shhhh.” Everyone quieted down just as they do when the movie comes on in a theater. Everyone agreed to be quiet on the set.”


Gregory L. Williams has been curator of Photographs at the San Diego Historical Society since 1997. He is the curator of the exhibition Filming San Diego: Hollywood’s Backlot, 1898-2002. In addition he has curated the exhibitions Weird San Diego, Faces of San Diego, Di Gesu: A Retrospective, San Diego: All In a Days Work, and others. He has compiled and written the Guide to the Photograph Collections of the San Diego History Center, Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Early American Research Reports, Guide to the Records of Consumers’ Research and other guides and articles. He has served as photograph editor for Balboa Park: A Millennium History; A History of North County San Diego; and San Diego After 1940. He has worked at the New Jersey Historical Society, Rutgers University, Colonial Williamsburg, the Oregon State Archives and the South Carolina Historical Society. He earned a masters’ degree from the University of Oregon.