From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, Orlandoans flocked to movies at the Beacham Theatre on Orange Avenue. At 2 p.m. on July 8, July 29, and Aug. 26, the Orange County Regional History Center presents vintage movies related to Florida. Visit thehistorycenter.org and click “Events.” (Orange County Regional History Center)
Many summer afternoons during my childhood were spent at Orlando’s Beacham Theater, where my mom and I would venture in search of the latest musical. We probably saw “Easy to Love” (1953) there, starring Esther Williams in splashy production numbers filmed at Cypress Gardens.
Beginning in the days of silent films, Florida has been the setting or the inspiration for many movies. Continuing a “Flashback” summer tradition, let’s look at a few of the films with links to our state.
Making a splash
According to legends told at Silver Springs, wild monkeys in the area descend from a runaway troop used in filming “Tarzan” movies there. It’s more than legend, though, that Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller was truly an ace swimmer — the winner of five Olympic gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 games.
In “Tarzan Finds a Son” (1939), he made a splash with Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia Farrow’s mom) and Johnny Sheffield in scenes filmed at Wakulla Springs and Silver Springs (along with many scenes filmed on Hollywood sets).
The same two Florida springs provided underwater settings for “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), filmed in “Thrill Wonder 3-D Horrorscope” and cited as an influence on director Guillermo del Toro’s 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, “The Shape of Water.”
Orlando’s own Ginger Stanley Hallowell performed the swimming scenes for star Julie Adams, while Floridian Ricou Browning played the Gill-Man in the water, creating the torso-twisting swimming style that influenced aquatic movie monsters ever since.
Big top, beach and heat
A couple of years before “Black Lagoon,” the king of cinematic spectacle, Cecil B. DeMille, filmed “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) at the Sarasota headquarters of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Charlton Heston led a big cast including James Stewart as a mysterious (but not sinister) clown.
The circus is on the beach in “Where the Boys Are” (1960), the film that made Fort Lauderdale the 1960s mecca for spring-breaking college students, and a coastal location also plays a major role in “Body Heat” (1981), filmed in Lake Worth and Hollywood. In this modern version of 1940s film noir flicks such as “Double Indemnity,” Kathleen Turner did the Barbara Stanwyck part to perfection with lines to William Hurt such as “You’re not too bright. I like that in a man.”
Marjorie at the movies
With scenes filmed in Alachua County, the 1983 film “Cross Creek” is based on the life of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and stars Mary Steenburgen as Rawlings and Peter Coyote as her Floridian husband, Norton Baskin. Malcolm McDowell, Steenburgen’s real-life husband at the time, also appears as Rawlings’ legendary editor, Max Perkins. In the film, Perkins visits Rawlings at Cross Creek — something he didn’t do in real life.
Rip Torn plays a neighbor who was supposedly the inspiration for Penny Baxter, the father in Rawlings’ 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Yearling.”
Which brings us to the 1946 movie version. The first Technicolor film shot in Florida, “The Yearling” gleaned seven Oscar nominations. Young Claude Jarman Jr. won a special award for his portrayal of Jody, a part he won over thousands of applicants. (Be sure to get out the tissues for this one.)
Today, it’s hard to think of anyone but Gregory Peck as Baxter, but Spencer Tracy had been originally cast in the role in 1941. Filming of that initial attempt was canceled when the United States entered World War II. Tracy was not keen on the project, in any case. One of Tracy’s complaints, noted by Central Florida author and film commentator James Ponti, was that he couldn’t find a decent bar in Marion County.
Movies at History Center
Today at 2 p.m., the Orange County Regional History continues its Sun Screens series of matinees featuring films related to Florida. Screenings are also slated for July 29 and Aug. 26. Members free; $8 others. For details, visit thehistorycenter.org and click “Events.”
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at email@example.com, FindingJoyinFlorida.com, or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.
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