California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or to see, but believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot if you ain’t got the do re mi. — Woody Guthrie
Most folks over a certain age are aware of the impact Woody Guthrie has on the social consciousness of America through his music and some may remember the 1976 movie loosely based on a portion of his autobiography. What does a major motion picture have to do with the California Delta?
While surfing movie channels the other night I was reminded of photographing a couple different locations as the cast and crew were creating a major motion picture that went on to garner Academy nominations and a few awards. It was 1975 and I remember being very excited to see it when it first came out. Since then I had given it little thought and it was fun to see it again after all these years.
Bound for Glory, a Hollywood film released in 1976, is loosely based on a few years of Woody Guthrie’s life while he was on the road traveling with – and writing songs about – the desperate Dust Bowl refugees who migrated to California for a better life. The film was directed by Hal Ashby, starred David Carradine as folk singer Guthrie, and won the Academy Award for best cinematography by Haskell Wexler. This was a big budget production and much of it was filmed in the California Delta.
A newspaper photographer sometimes draws plum assignments – this was one of them. As a staff photographer for The (Stockton, CA) Record (1974-1990) I had the opportunity to spend time on sets the production company built in downtown Stockton and Isleton.
Through the course of my work as a photojournalist I’ve had the opportunity to shoot several movie companies working in the greater San Joaquin County area. As exciting as that sounds, much of the time watching the production crew work is as thrilling as watching fruit ripen. This one was very different. Hal Ashby, the award winning director welcomed me and said I could shoot anything I wanted with only one caveat. Concerned about my camera noise, he asked, “Don’t shoot while I’m shooting, OK?” I had never been granted so much freedom on a movie set before or since.
Producers have been using the Greater California Delta area for shooting locations since the days of silent films. They don’t have to travel far from Hollywood and they know that the California Delta can look in film like anywhere else in the world. Here are just a few you may remember: Steamboat Round the Bend, 1935; All the King’s Men, 1949; Cool Hand Luke, 1967; Fat City, 1972; Howard the Duck, 1986; Young Indiana Jones TV series, 1992; The General’s Daughter, 1998; Bird, 1988; Delta Fever, 1986 – the list goes on and on. If you can think of any not named here please tell us in the comments section below.
Parting thought – The painstaking attention to detail in the making of this film deserved all the accolades it received. It is a visually delicious film to watch. However, I believe the story would have benefited greatly if it had stuck more closely to the facts and not strayed so far into the fictional realm. Seems to me that the real story is remarkable enough. Here’s an interesting fact: this is the first major motion picture to make use of the Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, the camera operator on this film. The soundtrack, of course, featured lots of great Woody Guthrie music, another reason to see this gem if you can. And don’t forget, it was filmed in the California Delta with lots of local extras.
Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple. —Woody Guthrie
Technical notes: the black and white film used was Kodak Tri-X developed in D-76 and the negatives were scanned to digital files on a Nikon LS-8000 film scanner. The movie was filmed in color but the newspaper at the time could only reproduce black and white photos. In the editing process for this essay a bit of warm tone was added to reflect the mood of the era.
Rich Turner explored, photographed, and aerial photo-mapped Antarctica as a Navy photographer, was a newspaper photojournalist for 19 years, and has operated his own fine art photography studio since 1990. “Delta Grandeur”, his traveling exhibit, is now touring California museums and libraries. His most recent passion is spreading the word far and wide about what an amazing place the Delta and Greater Bay Area is. With the help of very talented writers, artists and photographers, publishing this magazine seems a good way to do that.