Bound for Glory

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

The attention to detail on this set was mesmerizing.  Costumes (Oscar nominated), props and set design made me feel like I had pushed the 1930 button in Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s WAY-BACK machine.

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.

Looking like a photograph that could have been made in the 1930’s of displaced farm families, these two extras on the set of “Bound for Glory” are waiting for the director to call “ACTION”.  This elaborate set was built with meticulous detail on the edge of Isleton in the heart of the California Delta.

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.

Bound for Glory director, Hal Ashby, discusses a scene with David Carradine as Woody Guthrie.

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.

Young extras on the Isleton set.
Actors are doing their thing inside the car while the crew pushes and pulls the car – for silence the engine is not running.  Note the box light sitting on the hood of the car.

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.

Extras waiting for their call in a lounge area on the outskirts of Isleton.
Extras at their places waiting for the call for action in the Isleton ‘labor camp’.
David Carradine, Elizabeth Macey, and Randy Quaid wait for direction in a scene inside the vintage car as it rolls down a levee road in the California Delta. The baby is uncredited.
David Carradine in the character of Woody Guthrie between takes on the set.
Arlo Guthrie, though he wasn’t involved in the production of the film, visited the downtown Stockton set as crews were setting up a traffic scene.

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. 

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  • Other movies I can think of filmed on location in the Delta are, “Life”, feat. Eddie Murphy, Locke, CA, , Russian film, “American Daughter” Locke, CA. I was an extra in that film.

    • Thanks, Corie! Part of the enjoyment will be recognizing some of the downtown and Delta locations.

    • Thanks Gene. It would have been fun for a while. Over several days I got to know some of the crew; a good bunch of folks working really hard. It’s not as glamorous as we might think.

  • I remember it well. Pineapple of Pineapples restaurant in Isleton was a huge fan of Kung Fu, for many years after the filming Pineapple had a framed photo of David Carradine of the two of them.
    Russ Myers made a few movies in Locke and Walnut Grove.

  • I loved seeing these photos. I, along with Cindy Mellis and Eileen Corren were the certified teachers for the children during the filming….it was a wonderful movie and a wonderful experience for me.

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