From Scene to Shining Scene: 50 States in 50 Films, Part One

Happy birthday (give or take a couple of days), United States of America. It may seem to that vast section of the U.S. not bordered by an ocean that–as far as Hollywood is concerned–America consists solely of New York and southern California, plus a few exterior shots of Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. The star-spangled history of film, however, is one that indeed stretches across amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, and to all those other patriotic locales. Every state in the union has had at least one moment of big-screen glory…some more than others, of course, and not always where one would think (for example, very little of Fargo takes place in North Dakota).

All this gives rise to the question, “What are the key motion pictures that best depict the state they were filmed and/or set in?” Well, I’ve seen a lot of movies, and I’m proud to say that I’ve set foot in all 50 states, so the following is my own reasonably informed, if probably rather subjective, list. I’ve tried to avoid as many blatantly obvious choices (e.g., Raising Arizona, Mississippi Burning, Oklahoma!, and so forth) as possible. And just to make it a little more difficult, I’m going to skip all candidates primarily set in eight often-filmed cities: Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Fasten your seat belts, because it’s a long tour (and be sure to check here for Montana through Wyoming): 

Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird — Ah, Sweet Home Alabama…no, like I said, nothing too obvious. For some reason, the Yellowhammer State seems to excel as a setting for courtoom films of both the comedic and dramatic persuasions. And while some might opt for the lighthearted legalities of My Cousin Vinny, I’m Alabammy bound to go with a more somber choice, the 1962 adaptation, with Gregory Peck, of Harper Lee’s timeless novel.

Alaska, The Gold Rush — The forbidding frontier of America’s 49th state has been on display in a variety of recent movies, from Emile Hirch’s wanderings Into the Wild to 30 Days of Night’s vampire-fighting residents of Barrow and even the Simpson family in The Simpsons Movie. My Alaskan pick, however, is Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent masterwork, where his Little Tramp heads off into the Klondike to make his fortune and learns how to make a meal out of an old boot.

Arizona, My Darling Clementine — When one thinks of the Grand Canyon State and cinema, one almost automatically thinks of director John Ford and such films as Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers. And the Ford saga that best exemplifies Arizona’s pioneer spirit and wild and woolly past–along with offering plenty of majestic footage of Monument Valley (on the Arizona-Utah border) and other locales–is his 1946 take on the Earps’ and Clantons’ showdown at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.

Arkansas, Sling Blade — Since cartoonist Al Capp never specified that the Ozark hillbilly burg of Dogpatch was in Arkansas, I’ll pass on Lil’ Abner and go instead with Billy Bob Thornton’s Academy Award-winning 1996 character study, shot by the writer/director/star in his native state.

California, Sideways — So, what’s left in the Golden State once you take out L.A. and San Francisco? Quite a bit, as it turns out, from Tyrone Power’s The Mark of Zorro heroics to the all-star shenanigans of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. I’ve opted to go with a California picture of a more recent vintage, Alexander Payne’s 2004 wine country seriocomedy.

Colorado, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut — While I’ve never actually lived in Colorado, 1999’s big-screen spin-off of the taboo-breaking TV toon sure seems to sum up the highs and lows of what daily life must be like in the Centennial State, even without invasions by Satan’s minions. Give runner-up status to The Shining and Red Dawn.

Connecticut, Mystic Pizza — Something about movies, food and the Nutmeg State just makes them seem to go together. And while a strong case could be made for the Barbara Stanwyck holiday fave Christmas in Connecticut, it’s too easy a pick for my liking, so I’ll go with this 1988 “slice-of-life” tale starring Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish.

Delaware, Empire Records — My diminutive birthplace, the Diamond State, is usually relegated to toss-away joke status on the big screen (Funny People, for example), and perhaps the most famous Delaware-set movie of all time never even mentions that fact (I’m talkin’ about you, Fight Club!). While the “indie record store versus big chains” plotline of this 1995 coming-of-age story may not seem appropriate for a state that’s home to so many corporations and banking concerns, at least the setting does offer a chance to celebrate the joys of tax-free shopping.

Florida, Where the Boys AreFlipper, Key Largo and The Cocoanuts were all considered, but to much of the country–especially those of college age–the Sunshine State means Spring Break, Spring Break means Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Lauderdale means the original 1960 seaside romp with Connie Francis, Dolores Hart, Jim Hutton and the ever-tan George Hamilton.

Georgia, Gone with the Wind — Oh, come on…was there ever any question? Sorry, Deliverance and Driving Miss Daisy.

Hawaii, Blue Hawaii — From Here to Eternity and Diamond Head covered the more serious side of Aloha State life, and everyone from Charlie Chan to Ma and Pa Kettle has visited Honolulu, but no one rode the Waikiki waves like Elvis Presley did in this 1961 musical, the first of three Hawaii-centric Elvis films ( followed by Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style).

Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite — Preston, Idaho, no longer depends on potatoes to sustain its economy, thanks to the movie fans who regularly flock to the tiny town to see Preston High School and other locales where teen misfit Jon Heder displayed his “mad skills” as the title star of 2004’s cult comedy.

Illinois, The Breakfast Club — The Land of Lincoln means more to film buffs than just Chicago. For example, there are two cities each linked to a different guy named Michael Myers (Aurora, the home of Wayne’s World, and Haddonfield, the setting for Halloween). And, of course, there’s the fictitious town of Shermer, where teen angst auteur John Hughes set several of his popular ’80s comedies, with this 1985 effort serving as perhaps his most archetypal work.

Indiana, Breaking AwayHoosiers for the Hoosier State just seemed too easy a pick, so I went with 1979’s rousing salute to bike racing, quarry diving and leg shaving. If you prefer a good Christmas story set in Indiana, there’s always…well, A Christmas Story.

Iowa, Field of Dreams — Whether or not Iowa is truly Heaven I’ll leave up to its residents, but 1989’s ode to baseball, family and Midwest mysticism edges out The Music Man and The Bridges of Madison County for my Hawkeye State selection.

Kansas, Paper Moon — Since only about 15 minutes or so of The Wizard of Oz is actually set in Kansas, I don’t think it qualifies. It may not usually seem like a sunny place in movies (In Cold Blood or The Day After, anyone?), but the Sunflower State shone the finest–even in ’30s-style black-and-white–in director Peter Bogdanovch’s 1973 con artist comedy that starred father/daughter duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal…long before they became the stuff of reality TV infamy.

Kentucky, Harlan County, U.S.A. — It’s basically known for horse racing and coal mining, so my Bluegrass State choices were eventually narrowed down to Secretariat and Harlan County, U.S.A. I settled on documentarian Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1974 chronicle of a brutal early ’70s miners’ strike.

Louisiana, Southern Comfort — With the Big Easy (not to mention the film The Big Easy) out of the running, the logical Pelican State choice might have been All the King’s Men. But, while the 1949 film’s story was based on Louisiana politico Huey Long, the state was never mentioned by name. This led me out to the bayou, and to Walter Hill’s 1981 thriller of National Guardsmen whose weekend maneuvers become a fight for survival against Cajun gunmen.

Maine, The Cider House Rules — Picking practically any Stephen King film–from Salem’s Lot to Cujo to Misery to The Shawshank Redemption–will more likely as not land you in the Pine Tree State, and that just seemed too easy to me. Instead, let’s go with the work of another author, John Irving, and director Lasse Hallström’s 1999 screen translation of Irving’s novel. “Goodnight, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England.”

Maryland, Hairspray — One cannot discuss Old Line State cinema–Baltimore, specifically–without mentioning the area’s two filmmaking favorite sons: directors Barry Levinson and John Waters. Each made wonderful looks at life in Maryland’s largest city in the 1960s, but I’ve got to give the top spot to Waters’ original 1988 version of Hairspray (minus the Broadway score, but with the one and only Divine) over Levinson’s Diner.

Massachusetts, Plymouth Adventure — Cambridge is a separate city from Boston, so Good Will Hunting would still qualify under my self-imposed “No Beantown” rule. But to really get at the heart of the Massachusetts mentality and the Purtian work ethic, why not go with actual Puritans? Thus, this 1952 depiction of the Pilgrims’ voyage, starring Spencer Tracy as the captain of the good ship Mayflower, gets my Bay State nod.

Michigan, Detroit 9000 — “It’s the murder capital of the world,” read the tagline for this 1973 “blaxploitation” actioner about a pair of Motown cops (Hari Rhodes and Alex Rocco) trying to catch the crooks who robbed a political fundraiser. It may not be the best endorsement for visiting the Wolverine State, but neither are such Michigan-based movies as a documentary about the auto industry’s decline (Roger & Me) or a comedy about sex-starved teens and pastries (American Pie).

Minnesota, Purple Rain — Since Fargo does indeed split its time between Minnesota and North Dakota, I figured the film that gives you the most Gopher State for your movie-watching buck is Prince’s 1984 musical/drama, which takes the audience from the hottest dance clubs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to the frigid “waters of Lake Minnetonka”…or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Mississippi, In The Heat of the Night — Many Magnolia State movies have centered around the area’s tempestuous racial history (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Misssissippi, A Time to Kill), but none perhaps did so as powerfully as 1967’s Best Picture Academy Award-winner with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

Missouri, Meet Me in St. Louis — Like Maine and Stephen King, the Show Me State is forever linked to an author, Mark Twain. But choosing a single film version of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn proved to be a challenge. On the other hand, Missouri’s largest city will forever be associated in the minds of moviegoers with Judy Garland and this beloved 1944 MGM musical, set during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Well, that’s half the country down, and we’ve still got quite a bit of travelling to go, so check out the second part of my rundown here. In the meantime, please let me know if I missed a particular favorite film from your home state.