It’s always nice to escape Los Angeles for a few days. Sometimes I forget how hectic life can be here, until I get away. And there are so many possible escape routes. The cliché is true: Travel for an hour in any direction and you’ll be in a completely new environment. You can go north to the mountains, east to the desert, or south to the coast. This week we went west, to the island of Catalina – Hollywood’s resort paradise for more than a century.
The main attraction on Catalina is the harbor town of Avalon. Though it represents only 1% of the land, this is where 99% of the population resides. Avalon has been a major tourist attraction since at least 1910, when filmmakers discovered it. The first film shot on the island was an Essanay one-reeler titled “Feeding Seals at Catalina Isle” (1910). Two years later, pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith came to make his short film “Man’s Genesis” (1912). He was followed by Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle, who made an international star out of the island’s oldest seal (“Big Ben”) in one of their Keystone comedies, called “The Sea Nymphs” (1914). Soon after, Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sid made the short film “A Submarine Pirate” (1915), which featured the first underwater scenes shot at Avalon. The stars of the silent film era were well entrenched on the island even before Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) transformed filmmaking into an art form.
Around the same time, Avalon experienced its own re-birth. In 1915, a massive fire destroyed half of the town. Director Thomas Ince used images of the devastation in his 1916 epic CIVILIZATION. That could have been the end of Hollywood’s love affair with Catalina, but instead it was just the beginning. In a sense, what rose from the ashes afterward was not the same island… but a mythic world, filled with heroes and monsters and mountains of melodrama.
In his book CATALINA IN THE MOVIES, Lee Rosenthal identifies the 1916 feature THE PEARL OF PARADISE as “probably the first South Sea Island movie made on Catalina.” For roughly the next four decades, Catalina was home to most of Hollywood’s shipwrecks, swashbucklers and swarthy pirates. Two versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND were shot there, one in 1918 and another one in 1924. Catalina also hosted two versions of CAPTAIN BLOOD (1924, remade in 1935 with Errol Flynn) and two versions of THE SEA HAWK (1924, remade in 1940 with Errol Flynn), as well as the early Technicolor movie THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks, and the big-budget OLD IRONSIDES (1926)… notable for an early appearance by Boris Karloff. Most of these films were not shot at Avalon, but at the two harbors of Isthmus, a much smaller town on the northern end of the island. Cecil B. DeMille made this his home away from home – returning multiple times to shoot exotic scenes for MALE AND FEMALE (1919), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923), FEET OF CLAY (1924), and THE KING OF KINGS (1925).
The interior of the island was also used frequently… for westerns! In all likelihood, this happened not because the landscape was ideal for the stories (though I admit that Blackjack Mountain looks quite a bit like Calabasas, where Warner Brothers filmed most of their early westerns with Errol Flynn), but because writer Zane Grey and actor Tom Mix had made Catalina their homes. Both men built houses on the northern hill of Avalon in 1918. Grey promoted the island in his 1919 nonfiction book TALES OF FISHES; Rosenthal says that Mix shot his first one-reeler here in 1919. DRUG HARLON (1920) was the first feature-length cowboy movie shot on the island, and it was followed by an early John Ford western called ACTION (1921). Ford, who spent most of his time on a yacht when he wasn’t on a movie set, returned to Catalina for MEN WITHOUT WOMEN (1930), SEAS BENEATH (1931) and THE HURRICANE (1937). Two of Zane Grey’s novels were later brought to life on Catalina: THE VANISHING AMERICAN in 1925 and THE GOLDEN WEST in 1932. The first film made a significant impact on the local culture: The filmmakers brought a small herd of North American bison to the island for filming and, when they were finished, simply released the animals into the wild. Today, descendants of those wild “buffalo” still roam the hills of Catalina.
Not all of Hollywood’s new additions were pirates and cowboys. In 1926, director Tod Browning brought actor Lon Chaney to Catalina for one of his most memorable roles. In THE ROAD TO MANDALAY, Chaney plays a creepy one-eyed criminal who follows his estranged daughter through the jungles of the Far East. I saw an incomplete bootleg video of this a few years ago, and was impressed – as always – by Chaney’s ability to inspire pity as well as fear. Even more unsettling: H.G. Wells’s sadistic Dr. Moreau set up camp at Isthmus in the 1932 film ISLAND OF LOST SOULS – indisputably one of the greatest horror movies ever made. (Why is it still unavailable on DVD?!) Also, I could swear that I read somewhere that KING KONG and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME were shot back-to-back on Catalina… but Rosenthal only mentions SON OF KONG (1933), so maybe I’m making that up.
By the end of the 1920s, Catalina was thriving under the ownership of Chicago businessman William Wrigley Jr., who built the island’s crown jewel -- the Avalon Casino -- as a monument to his 10-year-anniversary as owner. The casino featured a state-of-the-art movie theater for “talkies” (believe it or not, that newfangled technology wasn’t expected to last, so Wrigley was making a bit of a gamble on this one) and a grand ballroom that drew the top performers of the Big Band era. Our tour guide said that there was never any gambling here, adding that the Italian word "casino" originally meant a building used to host civic town functions.
Even as the rest of America suffered through the Great Depression, the resort community thrived. In 1935, Isthmus hosted its most expensive film project yet – the $2 million production MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. In terms of film production, this was probably the high water mark. In 1942, Catalina was closed to visitors for the duration of World War II. (The Wrigley family leased the entire island to the U.S. military at a cost of $1 per year.) One of the very few films that were shot on the island during this period was the 1943 film GUADALCANAL DIARY – key scenes were filmed at Little Harbor, on the western side of the island. Many years later, Isthmus was used for WWII battle sequences in the film MACARTHUR (1977). Catalina made another significant contribution to film history during the war period: Merchant marine James Dougherty was stationed at Avalon, and he brought his young bride Norma Jean Baker. The future Marilyn Monroe got a job pulling taffy at Lloyd’s of Avalon. From there, she went on to a modeling career, which in turn led to an acting contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946. Marilyn Monroe returned to the island in 1958, to shoot a handful of scenes for SOME LIKE IT HOT.
By then, Avalon’s star was waning… at least in Hollywood. The advent of affordable air travel meant that filmmakers started going further from L.A. to find exotic locations for their films. Avalon hosted many lower-budget television productions in the 50s and 60s, but fewer and fewer feature films. One of the biggest remaining draws for filmmakers was Avalon’s famous glass-bottom boats – featured prominently in the 1966 Doris Day picture THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT. These boats were famously used to shoot underwater sequences for JAWS (1974). I like to think of Spielberg's film as the culmination of a Catalina sea-monster tradition that goes back to an early screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK (as THE SEA BEAST in 1926); it continued with the Howard Hawks film TIGER SHARK (1932), mutated into a pair of 50s b-movies (THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES and Roger Corman’s MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR) and evolved into JAWS, the perfect beast.
Another famous horror movie from the 60s features Little Harbor on the west side of the island. Remember Rosemary’s impregnation nightmare in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)? She starts out by imagining that her bed is floating toward a tropical island. Unfortunately, when she gets to the beach, she’s suddenly surrounded by a bunch of naked old devil-worshippers. I suppose this sums up the island’s New Hollywood mystique. Beautiful shores, dark interior. Eternal sunshine above, terror down below.
On a similar note, Avalon’s historic Tuna Club served as the site of the first encounter between Jack Nicholson’s private eye and John Huston’s incestuous robber baron in CHINATOWN (1974) – a film entirely devoted to exposing the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.
What’s amazing is that, although Catalina doesn’t draw the trend-setting crowd like it used to, it still exudes the magic of its heyday. Everyone here seems to breathe a little easier (maybe because most of the fast-moving cars have been replaced by golf carts), and the locals are certainly proud of their island. Filmmakers still visit from time to time – mainly for pickup shots (see WATERWORLD, THE THIN RED LINE, PEARL HARBOR, etc.) – but the island belongs mostly to those who come to escape, and who instantly find themselves feeling “at home.”