From Cameo to Close-up

Louisiana in film

By The Historic New Orleans Collection

New Orleans Uncensored (1955) by Columbia PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Louisiana’s climate and picturesque scenery have been attracting the attention of filmmakers since the silent era. From the grim urban landscapes portrayed in Elia Kazan’s Panic In the Streets (1950) to the lush Cajun Country backdrop of Roger Corman’s Swamp Women (1956), the state has it all. Film treatments—particularly adaptations of works by noted writers such as Tennessee Williams and Anne Rice—have played an important role in shaping national and international perceptions of our region and have helped fuel the rapid growth of the Louisiana tourism economy in the second half of the 20th century.

Thanks largely to tax incentives passed by the state legislature in 2002, the film industry has emerged as a significant economic engine for Louisiana. Inspired by the dynamic nature of the industry, The Historic New Orleans Collection has initiated an energetic collecting effort centered on Louisiana and film. Two major acquisitions—the Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, acquired in 2011, and the New Orleans and Louisiana Film Collection, acquired in 2012—form the core of THNOC’s film holdings.

From Cameo to Close-up highlights items linked to classics as well as lesser-known works in which New Orleans or Louisiana takes center stage. Featured, too, are more fleeting moments of fame, from productions in which the city or state makes merely a cameo appearance.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918) by National Film Corporation of AmericaThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Half-sheet poster for Tarzan of the Apes
1918; colored lithograph
2014.0213

Tarzan of the Apes—based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel—was filmed around Morgan City, Louisiana, in 1917. The film was a cultural sensation, earning more than $1 million and triggering countless other film adaptations of the story. Director Scott Sidney chose to shoot the film in Morgan City in part because the nearby swamps could provide a jungle-like backdrop.

Local African American men were recruited to play African natives; local circus performers—along with about 20 gymnasts from the New Orleans Athletic Club—were dressed up in ape costumes to complement the animal cast of the film, which included monkeys, chimpanzees, and an elderly lion. Scenes were shot on Avoca Island and Lake End Park, and aerial footage was captured in the Atchafalaya Basin. The poster depicts Elmo Lincoln, who played Tarzan, and Enid Markey, who played Jane, against a lush Louisiana landscape.

Jezebel (1938) by Warner Bros. PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Lobby card for Jezebel
1938; color lithograph
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2012.0093.143

Rumors have long existed claiming that Jezebel (1938) was made as a consolation to Bette Davis for losing out on the role of Scarlett O’Hara in a high-profile casting sweepstakes that began just months after the June 1936 publication of Gone with the Wind. Though the rumors are almost certainly false—the role of Scarlett remained uncast at the time of Jezebel’s release—it’s not hard to see how they originated.

Both stories are set in the antebellum South and feature strong, fiery heroines. Davis’s portrayal of the feisty Julie Marsden—who pursues her love (Henry Fonda as Preston Dillard) and battles yellow fever—was so captivating it won her the Academy Award for best actress in 1938.

The Foxes of Harrow (1947) by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.The Historic New Orleans Collection

Insert poster for The Foxes of Harrow
1947; color lithograph
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.0300.163

Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara star in this film set in antebellum New Orleans. Harrison plays Stephen Fox, the illegitimate son of an Irish aristocrat and a gambler, who moves to New Orleans in order to buy a plantation and build his fortune.

Based on a book by Frank Yerby, the film is the earliest known instance of a major studio’s adapting a novel by an African American author for the screen. Released in 1947, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best art direction (black and white).

New Orleans (1947) by United Artists' CorporationThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for New Orleans
1947; color lithograph
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.0300.52

Though musicians Louis Armstrong and singer Billie Holiday are not the stars of New Orleans (1947), the film is most notable for its inclusion of performances by them. New Orleans also features other jazz greats such as Woody Herman, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Charlie Beal, Zutty Singleton, and Barney Bigard.

Panic in the Streets (1950) by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.The Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for Panic in the Streets
1950; color lithograph
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.0300.63

This Elia Kazan–directed noir thriller, set and shot in New Orleans, deals with the outbreak of a plague in the Crescent City. Starring Richard Widmark and featuring Zero Mostel in a rare dramatic role and the debut of Jack Palance, this film won the Oscar for best writing in 1951.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) by Warner Bros. PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Six-sheet poster for A Streetcar Named Desire
1951; offset lithograph
Fred W. Todd Tennessee Williams Collection, 2008.0029.1

Maybe it’s the clang of the streetcar bells, or the cast-iron–festooned courtyards, or the way you can practically feel the humidity oozing out of the scene. Whatever the reason, there’s something about A Streetcar Named Desire that perfectly captures the sultry, exotic mystique of New Orleans.

Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play dissects family, love, and madness. The film, directed by Elia Kazan, netted Academy Awards for actors Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Ironically, the performer whose work is best remembered today—Marlon Brando, in the role of Stanley Kowalski—lost the Oscar for best actor to Humphrey Bogart (for The African Queen).

Although most of the filming was accomplished on a soundstage in California, the opening scene, in which Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans and rides the streetcar to her sister’s apartment, was shot in New Orleans. The streetcar seen in the film, Number 922, still operates on the St. Charles Avenue line.

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) by Universal Pictures Company, Inc.The Historic New Orleans Collection

Lobby card for Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
1953; color lithograph
2012.0093.99

Perhaps the funniest element of this 1953 science-fiction comedy is that Abbott and Costello never actually make it to Mars. The movie begins with the two finding themselves on a rocket bound for Mars, which veers off course and lands in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. After being forced back onto the rocket by a pair of bank robbers hoping to make an escape, the heroes wind up on Venus, conveniently populated by women only.

Swamp Women (1956) by Woolner Brothers Pictures, Inc.The Historic New Orleans Collection

Lobby card numbered 2 for Swamp Women
1956; color lithograph
2012.0093.173

One of legendary director Roger Corman’s earliest efforts, this low-budget horror film (1956) tells the story of three female prisoners and an undercover female police officer escaping from a Louisiana prison. Their mission? To find a cache of diamonds hidden in the swamp.

Swamp Women has the dubious honor of being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a television show from the 1980s and ’90s that skewered low-budget science fiction and horror films. The film was later reissued as Cruel Swamp and screened on television as Swamp Diamonds.

King Creole (1958) by René ChateauThe Historic New Orleans Collection

French lobby card for King Creole
1958; offset lithograph
2014.0102.74

The New Orleans–set story of nightclub singer Danny Fisher, showcasing the dramatic-acting abilities of music icon Elvis Presley, was both a critical and commercial success. Presley regarded the movie and his role as favorites of his acting career.

King Creole was filmed during a 60-day draft deferment for Presley, who was officially inducted into the US Army two weeks after production wrapped.

Join The Historic New Orleans Collection on June 7, 2020, at 7 p.m. for a virtual viewing of King Creole with historical context and behind-the-scenes tidbits provided by our staff experts. Learn more at #NOLAMovieNight.

New Orleans After Dark (1958) by Allied Artists ProductionsThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for New Orleans After Dark
1958; color lithograph
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.300.53

Recalling New Orleans Undercover in its dockside setting, this 1958 crime story involves two homicide detectives who go undercover as merchant seamen to bring down a drug smuggler.

The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962) by Bell Productions, Inc.The Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus
1962; color halftone
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.300.79

For people who grew up in New Orleans, certain culture references bring back fond memories, among them Mr. Bingle, Pontchartrain Beach, and Dr. Morgus. Sid Noel, as Morgus, presented late-night horror movies on the show House of Shock, premiering in 1959 and renamed Morgus Presents in 1987.

In 1962 a full-length movie was made starring Dr. Morgus and his trusty sidekick, Chopsley. The premise: Morgus has invented a machine that can turn people into powder and back. Unfortunately, the device is stolen by Bruno, the ruler of Microvania. Morgus and Chopsley must get the device back before Bruno can use it to sneak secret agents into the United States.

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.The Historic New Orleans Collection

Lobby card numbered 7 for Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte
1964; color lithograph
2012.0093.141

Perhaps as famous for the off-screen drama as the on-screen chills, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was intended to capitalize on the success of the 1962 hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by reuniting Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. However, if rumors can be trusted, tensions between the two stars—not illness, as cited—prompted Crawford to withdraw from the project. Olivia de Havilland replaced Crawford, and the film went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations. Exterior shots were filmed at Houmas House, in Darrow, Louisiana, while interiors were filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles. The portrait of a young Bette Davis seen in the movie is actually a prop from the 1938 film Jezebel.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film CompanyThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Black-and-white still for The Cincinnati Kid
1965; glossy gelatin silver print
2012.0093.194

Steve McQueen stars in this drama set in 1930s New Orleans. He plays the title character, an up-and-coming poker player who challenges Lancey “The Man” Howard (played by Edward G. Robinson) to a game. The film premiered in New Orleans, at the Saenger Theatre, in mid-October 1965, just a month after Hurricane Betsy. Proceeds from the premiere were donated to the Betsy Fund, which aided storm victims.

Easy Rider (1969) by Columbia PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for Easy Rider
1969; color halftone
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.0300.18

Wyatt (Peter Fonda), nicknamed Captain America, and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are riding motorcycles across America after selling a large quantity of cocaine in Los Angeles. Thus begins this classic road-trip movie featuring drugs, hippies, and other staples of America’s counterculture in the 1960s. Along the way, the pair picks up ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who is killed in rural Louisiana by locals who are intolerant of the countercultural lifestyle.

Captain America and Billy continue on to New Orleans, where they revel in the excesses of Mardi Gras. In this way, Louisiana plays a paradoxical role in the film, at once embracing and violently opposing behaviors outside the norm. Several key episodes were filmed in Louisiana: the restaurant scene, in Morganza; the cemetery scene, in New Orleans’s St. Louis Cemetery No. 1; and the final scene, filmed just north of Krotz Springs.

Mandingo (1975) by Paramount Pictures CorporationThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for Mandingo
1975; color halftone
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.300.44

Filmed at Ashland–Belle Helene Plantation in Geismar, Louisiana, Mandingo (1975) explores the brutalities and dehumanizing nature of slavery. The film pairs James Mason, as a cruel plantation owner, with heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton, as a slave.

The film raised eyebrows both for its graphic violence and its presentation of interracial sex. Though Mandingo received little critical acclaim, recent reviewers have characterized it as one of the most penetrating movies about slavery and an inspiration for Django Unchained (2012), by Quentin Tarantino.

J.D.'s Revenge (1976) by American International PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

Lobby card numbered 8 for J. D.’s Revenge
1976; color halftone
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.300.122

Set in New Orleans in the 1970s, this film stars Glynn Turman as Isaac, a young, mild-mannered law student who is possessed by the spirit of J. D. Walker, a hustler who died 30 years earlier. J. D.’s Revenge typifies the blaxploitation genre, which emerged in the ’70s and featured African American casts in stereotypical roles.

The Big Easy (1987) by Columbia PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for The Big Easy
1987; offset lithograph
1992.21.11

Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin star in this steamy thriller, but the city of New Orleans is often referred to as the real protagonist of the film. Many of the city’s landmarks, such as Tipitina’s, Antoine’s, and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, are featured in the film. Although native New Orleanians have maligned The Big Easy for its dubious accents, the movie was a critical and commercial success.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) by Warner Bros. PicturesThe Historic New Orleans Collection

One-sheet poster for Interview with the Vampire
1994; color halftone
Don Lee Keith New Orleans in Film Collection, gift of Teresa Neaves, 2011.300.29

Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, Interview with the Vampire, tells the story of Louis de Pointe du Lac, a 200-year-old vampire who has grown weary of life (or “unlife”) as a vampire.

The 1994 film adaptation stars Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress. Many of the scenes were filmed on location in Louisiana, at sites including Oak Alley Plantation, in Vacherie; Destrehan Plantation, in Destrehan; and Madame John’s Legacy, the Coliseum Theatre, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, in New Orleans.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibition was created from a physical exhibition on view from April 9 to November 26, 2014, at The Historic New Orleans Collection. The virtual exhibition was assembled by the staff of The Historic New Orleans Collection, which gratefully acknowledges the generosity of donor Teresa Neaves.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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