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

Earlier this week, I decided to mark the 4th of July with the first part of an alphabetical cross-country chronicle, listing my picks for the best–or at least the most significant–movie set in each state of the union. The article ended, appropriately enough, in the American heartland of Missouri, so let’s put on our hiking boots and make our way across the rest of the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

Montana, A River Runs Through It  — The Big Sky Country of Montana is the home of Little Big Horn, and so any film depicting the battle usually referred to as Custer’s Last Stand–from They Died with Their Boots On to Little Big Man–would qualify. But I wanted to choose something a little more peaceful, so I cast my line out and reeled in director Robert Redford’s 1992 drama about a minister, his two sons, and the shared love of fly fishing that draws them together.

Nebraska, Boys Town — When it comes to “Children of the Cornhusker State,” I was tempted to “Pick Flick” and cast my vote for Election, but nothing beats the good old-fashioned melodrama of Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan of Boys Town and Mickey Rooney as his rebellious new charge in the 1938 MGM melodrama.   

Nevada, The Shootist — Putting aside the neon lights of Vegas, Nevada’s other major town, Reno, was the setting for such divorce-related fare as The Women, but much of that film is set in New York. I looked further into the Silver State’s on-screen past and chose frontier icon John Wayne’s final film, a 1976 western in which he plays a terminally ill gunslinger making a last stand in the capital of Carson City at the turn of the 20th century.

New Hampshire, On Golden Pond — Did you know that Adam Sandler spent much of his childhood living in New Hampshire, and that his films Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, Mr. Deeds and Click are all set in the Granite State? I did…and yet for some reason I still picked the 1981 drama that earned Henry Fonda a long-overdue Best Actor Oscar for his performance opposite daughter Jane Fonda and first-time co-star Katharine Hepburn.

New Jersey, On the Waterfront — As much as I’ve enjoyed Kevin Smith’s comedic looks at Garden State slackerdom since Clerks, the best New-Jersey based film out there is still director Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning 1954 drama set amid the corruption-riddled Hoboken docks, with Marlon Brando in one of his best roles ever.

New  Mexico, High Noon — My main choices here were the classic 1952 Gary Cooper frontier drama and Them!, about ants that grow into man-eating behemoths after exposure to A-bomb test radiation and roam the desert. New Mexico, you certainly offer a wide array of cinematic diversity!   

New York, It’s a Wonderful Life — What’s left in the Empire State without the Big Apple? There’s always Niagara Falls (Niagara), Buffalo (Buffalo ’66), Long Island (The Amityville Horror) and West Point (The Long Gray Line), but I’ve got to go for the fictitious town of Bedford Falls, New York, the setting for the 1946 Yuletide favorite that’s the quintessential Frank Capra film.

North Carolina, Bright Leaf — Since my Iowa choice was Field of Dreams, I didn’t wish to repeat myself with another Kevin Costner baseball film, Bull Durham. So, as the Tar Heel State enjoys a longtime connection to the tobacco industry, I’m instead picking this 1950 Warner Bros. drama. Gary Cooper stars as a 19th-century businessman who makes his fortune thanks to a new cigarette-manufacturing process that soon has people across the country smoking like they’re addicted or something.      

North Dakota, Wooly Boys — As I  explained on Wednesday, Fargo really doesn’t qualify as a Peace Garden State pick, since the majority of the film takes place in Minnesota. There are plenty of vintage B-westerns with Dakota in the title, but I’m going with this 2001 contemporary frontier tale starring Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson as veteran Badlands ranchers. Sure, there’s Minnesota footage here as well, but there’s also lots of scenes of that vast North Dakota wilderness.   

Ohio, American Splendor — It’s round on the ends, high in the middle, and has a Hollywood heritage that includes The Man Who Came to Dinner, Bye Bye Birdie, and Howard the Duck. However, no film in my memory encapsulated Buckeye State life–“off the streets of Cleveland,” specifically–as well as this 2003 adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series.

Oklahoma, Cimarron — The wind may indeed come “sweeping down the plains” in the Sooner State, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, as I said in part one, was a mite too predictable as a selection. A film that’s not known to a lot of viewers despite its 1931 Best Picture Academy Award, this frontier saga featured dramatic re-creations of the 1889 and 1893 Oklahoma Territory land rushes.    

Oregon, The Goonies — You can’t get much further north in the Beaver State than the coastal town of Astoria, which was the shooting location and the setting for producer Steven Spielberg’s 1985 family/adventure thrill ride. The MGM musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers scored the second spot.

Pennsylvania, Witness — Living in Philadelphia, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much of the Keystone State lies west of the city limits, and how much of it has been brought to the big screen, from Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s subsequent zombie shockers to the midwinter Punxsutawney hi-jinks of Groundhog Day and the coal region drama of The Deer Hunter. And while the first reel or so of director Peter Weir’s 1985 drama features Philly, most of the film is set in the Amish community of central Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. 

Rhode Island, High Society — To younger audiences, Rhode Island means the Farrelly Brothers, who set Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and most of their comedies in the Ocean State. For much of the 20th century, though, Hollywood looked to Little Rhody’s toney town of Newport to symbolize high society…so what better place to put a film called High Society, MGM’s 1956 musical updating of The Philadelphia Story? 

South Carolina, The Patriot — If only more of Forces of Nature had shot more scenes at the legendary roadside attraction South of the Border, it easily would have gotten my South Carolina nod. And while The Big Chill merits mention, the Palmetto State Revolutionary War heroics of star Mel Gibson (based on the real-life exploits of Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion) give this 2000 historical actioner the top spot.   

South Dakota, Badlands — Sorry, Hitchcock fans, but only the last third or so of North by Northwest occurs in South Dakota, so I’m giving it a pass. Terrence Malick’s1973 crime drama, on the other hand, opens in the rugged title terrain and follows gun-happy sociopath Martin Sheen and teen runaway Sissy Spacek as they blast a violent path (inspired by the real-life story of  killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate) across the Coyote State on their way to the “promised land” of Montana. 

Tennessee, Nashville — Director Robert Altman’s multi-layered 1975 drama, set in the Volunteer State’s capital city and depicting the country music industry its fame was built on, is an easy winner over runners-up Inherit the Wind and Mystery Train.

Texas, True Stories — Can a single film truly encompass the rich lore and historical heritage of the Lone Star State?  The Alamo, Brewster McCloud, Urban Cowboy and Dazed and Confused each covered a part of Texas in their own special way, but the one film that to me best represents its cultural diversity, feisty spirit and downright quirkiness is this 1986 tune-filled travelogue/character study directed, co-scripted and hosted by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.   

Utah, Brigham Young — Well, Mormons are popular right now everywhere from politics to Broadway, and if it wasn’t for Brigham Young, protégé of church founder Joseph Smith, there might not even be a state of Utah today. Thus, this 1940 frontier biodrama starring Dean Jagger as the “American Moses” takes the top spot for the Beehive State over, say, the more contemporary SLC Punk

Vermont, White Christmas — If the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society had been set– as well as filmed–in Delaware, it might have gotten my First State vote. But the film’s prep school locale was Vermont, and as such it takes a seat in the back of the class to the beloved 1954 Yuletide musical starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and the scenic New England hotel they save from bankruptcy. 

Virginia, The New World — “Virginia Is for Lovers,” the bumper stickers used to read, but apparently Hollywood hasn’t been all that infatuated with those regions of the state not within a Metro ride of Washington, D.C. The story of the English settlement of Jamestown and of Captain John Smith’s rescue from death by Native American Pocahontas, however, has made it to the screen several times, and while Terrence Malick’s 2003 drama may lack the songs of the 1995 Disney version, its greater emphasis on historical accuracy wins out in the Old Dominion State contest. 

Washington, First Blood — The Evergreen State–particularly its largest city, Seattle–boasts a movie legacy that stretches from Elvis Presley (It Happened at the World’s Fair) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) to Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle) and the Twilight films. If you’re tired of the Space Needle and coffee bars, though, and looking for lots of evergreens and mountainous scenery, the 1982 debut of Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam vet-turned-fugitive John Rambo could be for you. 

West Virginia, We Are Marshall — The Mountain State is one of those places where characters seem to be from rather than an acutal film setting. Director John Sayle’s Matewan, based on a true incident involving 1920s coal miners and labor strife, is the runner-up here to another real-life drama, the 2006 depiction of how the entire state rallied around Marshall University after a 1970 plane crash which killed all 75 people on board, among them over 40 players and coaches with the school’s football team.    

Wisconsin, Come and Get It — America’s Dairyland comes up a little dry when one looks at Wisconsin-set cinema. With a list of choices that included the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, the sci-ri turkey The Giant Spider Invasion, and this Spring’s hit comedy Bridesmaids, my final pick was this 1936 drama–co-directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler–that starred Edward Arnold as a 19th-century lumberjack who climbs to the top of the timber business.  

Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain — Wyoming and westerns have been synonymous since the silent era, from such films as Gary Cooper’s title turn as The Virginian to Michael Cimino’s infamous box-office fiasco Heaven’s Gate. Ang Lee’s groundbreaking 2005 frontier drama, however, seems a fitting pick for the state nicknamed the Equality State.

Well, that was quite a trip. And even with all that travelling, there wasn’t any room for the District of Columbia. It’s not a state, so I skipped over it, but what would get the nod for the best D.C. picture? Something political like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Advise and Consent or All the President’s Men? One that’s more about day-to-day life, say Damn Yankees,  D.C. Cab or St. Elmo’s Fire? Or perhaps some “out there” entry like The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original, of course),  The Exorcist or The Werewolf of Washington? If you have an opinion on this or any of my state selections, please let me know.