Maryland movies, pre-Julia Roberts

Way Back When

High society: When a film about steeplechasing was made here in 1939, rolling cameras were a lot more unfamiliar to city residents.

April 08, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Marylanders have grown almost blase about the presence of Hollywood movie and television production companies filming on city streets or in towns across the state.

Seeing actress Julia Roberts having dinner in the bar at Sotto Sopra on North Charles Street while filming "Runaway Bride," or sharing the aisles at Graul's Market in Ruxton with Ned Beatty, former star of "Homicide: Life on the Street," is no longer a big deal.

The excitement of streets crowded with Haddad Co. movie supply trucks and portable dressing rooms or sidewalks littered with klieg lights and racks of costumes and props has definitely worn off for most Marylanders.

Now, they patiently wait in traffic until being able move on past the set or cross over to the other side of the street and continue their perambulations.

It is against this background that the Maryland Historical Society will unveil "Filming Maryland," an exhibition recalling the state's movie-making past and present told through film memorabilia and a lecture series. It opens April 15 at 201 W. Monument St. and continues through October.

However, back when movie-making here was still a rarity, locals were excited when 20th Century Fox arrived in the fall of 1939 to start shooting background shots for "Maryland."

The full-length Technicolor film, written by former Baltimorean Jack Andrews, glorified Valley society and "life, love and hell-for-leather riding in the Maryland steeplechasing and fox hunting country," said The Sun.

"Maryland," which starred John Payne, Brenda Joyce, Hattie McDaniel, Charles Ruggles, Walter Brennan and Fay Bainter, was directed by Henry King, who had directed such hits as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "In Old Chicago," "State Fair" and "Little Old New York."

Its chief cameraman was Ray Rennehan, whose filming a year earlier of "Gone With the Wind," had earned him an Academy Award.

In an interview with The Evening Sun, King said, "Our ambition is to make the film as genuine as possible." He relied upon local "technical advisers" Wallace W. Lanahan, S. Bryce Wing and T. Buchanan Blakiston.

While all major scenes had been completed in Hollywood with a chestnut in the starring role as the winner, King returned to Maryland to film the actual running of the Maryland Hunt Cup at the end of April 1940.

He had hoped that a chestnut would win the classic steeplechase that has the reputation of being the most difficult in the world.

"And in collaboration with the weather, the gallant horse won a $500,000 `wager' undertaken by the producers of `Maryland,' who risked everything on the gamble that a chestnut horse would capture the race in weather conditions suitable for the operation of the seven technicolor cameras spaced about the course," reported The Sun.

As cameras rolled, 20,000 spectators roared their approval as Blockade, a chestnut son of Man O'War owned by Mrs. E. Read Beard, navigated the four-mile course in nine minutes and 10 seconds, to win the race for the third consecutive year.

On Monday after the race, the Hollywood movie crew and 440 locals used as extras returned to the scene of the race to make final crowd shots, and then the movie was in the can and ready for editing.

In July, the film premiered at Baltimore's New and Centre theaters, with the usual Hollywood trappings of searchlights and movie stars alighting from dark limousines. Because his wife was expecting their first child, John Payne had Tyrone Power stand in for him.

"Baltimore femininity -- the old and the young -- very simply went ga-ga over Tyrone Power last night while cordons of police in front of the New and Center theaters tried in vain to hold back the young actor's ecstatic swarm of admirers," said The Sun.

"It made made no difference at all that Tyrone Power did not even have a part in the photoplay `Maryland,' the world premiere of which was being celebrated at the two movie houses."

Before the opening, the noted horseman and proprietor of Sagamore Farms, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, had entertained Hollywood and such local celebrities as Rosa Ponselle, her husband, Carle A. Jackson, and Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, at an elaborate dinner at his Glyndon farm.

While waiters in livery served mint juleps, guests dined on Maryland cantaloupe, raspberries, spoon bread, soft crabs, fried chicken and cucumber salad. Dessert was jockey ices -- horses and riders in cream.

However, a Sun reporter noticed that Brenda Joyce looked a little "peaked" throughout the dinner.

It was later learned that she was airsick during the entire 12 1/2-hour Stratoliner flight from Hollywood to Newark, while en route to Baltimore for the world premiere.

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