At the Movies
Hi, thank you for checking out our new blog, Folsom Unveiled. My name is Kaitlyn Scott and I’m Folsom Historical Society’s historian. Each week I will be highlighting a different topic related to Folsom’s history that not everyone knows about by diving deeper into a place, event, person or piece in our collection.
There is something extremely exciting when Hollywood comes to town. You might get to meet your favorite actor or actress, see a famous director or if you are really lucky; be an extra. A lot of movies and TV shows are filmed in and around my hometown and I am always excited to see locations I recognize on the big screen or on my screen at home. I think it helps with homesickness.
I am sure that’s how Folsom residents felt when film crews came to town and later when they watched the movies set in locations they knew very well and many of them were used as extras or asked to play small parts. Several movies were filmed in Folsom but this week I am going to talk about only three, two at the prison and one about gold dredges.
Let us start with the one about gold dredges because it is the oldest. The Hell Diggers was a silent film made in 1921 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation but released by Paramount Pictures. It starred Wallace Reid (who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) as Teddy, the superintendent of a dredging company and Lois Wilson as Dora, whose father is the leader of a group of farmers opposing the dredging company. The two are in love but Dora refuses to marry Teddy because his work is ruining farmland, so he worked with the farmers to build a dredge that does not destroy land. The farmers pitch in their own money to create the dredge but the company’s manager blows up the dredge. Teddy and the farmers fight the manager and his gang, and the company decides to use the new dredge with Teddy made the new manager. Oh, and of course Teddy and Dora get engaged. Filming took place on Dredge no. 4 and 10 (the dredge model at our museum is dredge no. 10!) and newspaper articles announced that the film crew wanted locals to gather at the dredges to be used as extras. The production also promised that the local theater could have a first run of the complete film and later articles discuss that theater owner J. Fraties went to San Francisco to create a contract with the production company. The film is considered lost as no known copy remains, which is unfortunate as it would be interesting to watch now and compare it with how Folsom looks today.
Next up we have Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison from 1951, which was originally called The Folsom Story. This Warner Bros. film starred Steve Cochran and David Brian and was Johnny Cash’s inspiration for “Folsom Prison Blues”. The film deals with a cruel warden, prison reform, prison violence, riots and escape, and was loosely based on the 1937 attempted escape from Folsom Prison that left Warden Larkin dead. The movie was filmed completely inside the walls of Folsom Prison except for scenes involving actress Dorothy Hart, who was not allowed in the main areas of the prison because of her gender.
They filmed for 6 weeks in the prison and in the empty building on prison grounds known as the “bug house” which was a psychiatric center that had been abandoned years before. Afterwards, actors said they were relieved to be done because of how immersive the experience was for them. Costumes for the “inmates” matched the uniforms worn by actual inmates at the time, the only difference was that the actors had a “0” in the front of their numbered shirts. When actors arrived on set they had to be searched and show identification, they had to keep track of their props, like wooden guns, so inmates didn’t take them and use them for a real escape and had to dial quickly if they used the phone so they wouldn’t set off alarms. A prison barber cut the actors’ hair for authenticity and prison guards were hired to play inmates, which must have been a strange change of pace for them but they earned anywhere from $15 to $55 a day depending on how long they were needed. Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison can be rented on YouTube for those of you who would like a peek into the prison without going there yourselves!
The third film I would like to share today might be familiar to those of you who have been reading these blogs from the very beginning. Reprieve, later known as Convicts 4 was released in 1962 by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation and starred Ben Gazzara, Vincent Price, Sammy Davis Jr., Rod Steiger and Stuart Whitman. The film was loosely based on the life of death row inmate John Resko, whose autobiography is also called Reprieve. Although it is filmed at Folsom Prison, the movie is supposed to be set in New York. We are lucky to have a photo album dedicated to the film’s production that was put together by two inmates at Folsom Prison, Marlin Vance and Edward Howe. It is full of fantastic photos and insider information about filming and the actors involved. Like The Hell Diggers and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, this film utilized locals to play various parts including former Folsom Mayor Bud Hannaford, Karey Leroy, the granddaughter of a Lieutenant at Folsom Prison and prison guards as inmates. Cars were also borrowed from locals to use in the film. Newspapers shared that locals were very excited to see some of the big stars and that people traveled to catch a glimpse of the filming process. The movie can be found on Amazon Prime video to rent.