La Cañada Flintridge co-founder Frank Flint knew his way around the film industry. His millionaire brother, Motley Flint, bankrolled Warner Bros. out of bankruptcy.
Frank’s strategy for attracting the wealthy to buy property on his portion of Rancho La Cañada included promotions aimed at actors, actresses and other Hollywood types who had checked out of the sanitariums in La Crescenta after treatment for alcohol and drug addictions.
La Cañada Flintridge would go on to be a popular filming location for the industry. Over the years, it has been the setting for scenes in 30 nationally distributed, full-length movies, including the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as well as 27 television series.
When Flint built the namesake Flintridge Equestrian Club and Flintridge Country Club in the early 1920s, he gave good deals to movie moguls and celebrities, provided they inspect his real estate literature or, better yet, take a horse-and-buggy ride through his vast property. Among the first buyers were silent film star Betty Compson and her husband, film director James Cruze.
Many decades later, La Cañada Flintridge would list Kevin Costner, Vince Vaughn, Angela Bassett, Robert “The Music Man” Preston and other celebrities as residents.
Flint died in 1929, two years before the first movies were shot in La Cañada Flintridge. Golf legend Bobby Jones had been a regular at Flintridge County Club (now St. Francis High School). Jones agreed to demonstrate various skills for the camera at Flintridge CC in six 11-minute pieces, all titled “How to Play Golf.” They were sold to theaters as “film shorts” preceding the main feature in those days. The cameraman took numerous background shots of the mountains, Arroyo Seco and riding trails throughout Flintridge. Flint would have been proud.
In 1934, the first full-length feature film shot in the city was staged entirely at the golf club. Director George Marshall brought on a cast of 29 to film “Change of Heart.” His leading lady, Gloria Stewart, had been discovered while performing at the Pasadena Playhouse. Stewart was cast as a novice golfer who teams with a male pro to win tournaments; he eventually seeks her heart. Her jealous husband wins her back by learning how to play the sport.
Stewart’s long career in motion pictures culminated in the Oscar-winning “Titanic,” in which she played the elderly Rose; Kate Winslet was the younger Rose.
Flintridge Country Club closed during World War II. La Cañada Flintridge Country Club opened in 1962 and has hosted scenes for two television series: a 1994 episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and two segments (in 2004 and 2009) of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” starring comedian Larry David.
Large homes that Frank Flint envisioned as the crux of his city plan have attracted film teams over the years. However, a small brick house at 4587 Viro Road came to the attention of Frank Capra while he was filming a scene for the popular “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), with James Stewart and Donna Reed. When George and Mary Bailey celebrate the purchase of a new home by the Martini family, they’re all standing in front of the house on Viro Road.
Six other full-length films have featured La Cañada Flintridge homes or backyards, including “Bruce Almighty” (2003), with Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston. Homes were used for TV episodes of “How to Get Away With Murder,” starring Viola Davis; “Cannon,” with William Conrad; and “Barnaby Jones,” starring Buddy Ebsen.
In 1974, an episode of “Columbo,” with Peter Faulk, featured a backyard party attended by singer Johnny Cash at 861 Flintridge Ave.
City officials report that dwellings on Berkshire Avenue and Woodleigh Street have been the most popular for film shoots of all stripes, including commercials.
Hollywood would lick its collective chops if it had access throughout the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Live coverage of news events is permitted in the JPL auditorium, but shooting scenes for motion pictures, TV series and other commercial ventures requires the NASA equivalent of an act of Congress. However, the producers of the Oscar-nominated “The Martian” (2015) were allowed to film the exterior of JPL’s Satellite Communications Center.
Two local businesses received some on-screen exposure. In “Better Off Dead” (1985), actor John Cusack picks up a pair of skis outside Sport Chalet. Way up Angeles Crest Highway, movie scenes were shot at Newcomb’s Ranch restaurant for “The Vanishing” (1993), starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, and for the “Twin Peaks” television series in 1990.
Schools in town have appeared on celluloid for two films and four TV series.
At Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, formerly Frank Flint’s hotel atop the hill, the TV series “Mission Impossible” recorded an episode in 1968. Scenes for 1985’s feature-length “Mask,” starring Cher and Eric Stoltz, were recorded at Foothill Intermediate School.
At La Cañada High School, Ponch (Erik Estrada) and John (Larry Wilcox) enacted scenes for a 1977 episode of “CHiPs.” In 1968, LCHS found the cast of “Emergency” in its gymnasium to record an episode titled “Girl on the Balance Beam.” A third TV series, “The White Shadow,” with Ken Howard, spent time at La Cañada High. The school also hosted scenes for a 1981 horror film, “Graduation Day,” with Christopher George and Patch McKenzie.
Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), the largest source of information on American film and TV production, relies on film companies for its data. Many times, producers merely list cities instead of precise locations for film shoots. Thus, six films and four TV series in the database are designated merely as “La Cañada Flintridge” or “La Cañada” but don’t specify exactly where the scenes were shot.
The most popular film location in town, not surprisingly, is Descanso Gardens, with nine nationally distributed motion pictures and 13 TV series to its credit. Seven of those films earned more than $100 million each in today’s dollars.
In “Legally Blonde” (2001), Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson debate courtroom maneuvers while walking by Descanso’s greenhouse and gardens. For “The Wedding Singer” (1998), Adam Sandler stands in the west parking lot to “instruct” a friend on the tricks of driving a limo. Tom Cruise discusses strategy in the greenhouse for “Minority Report” (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg. In “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005), Ken Watanabe and Ziyi Zhang stroll through the Japanese Garden. Anthony Hopkins is deluged by rain during the filming of “Noah” (2014). Other big box office winners were “Congo” (1995), starring Laura Linney, and “America’s Sweethearts” (2001), with Julia Roberts and Cusack.
The daytime TV soap opera “All My Children” shot numerous scenes at Descanso’s Rose Garden and Main Lawn. For “Star Trek: Next Generation,” Descanso’s Live Oak Forest became Sherwood Forest. The wedding of Drs. Callie and Arizona in “Grey’s Anatomy” was filmed at Oaks Theater. In “Mad Men,” the Boddy Lodge became a gas station and diner for the Draper family.
Other TV series shot at Descanso Gardens include “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: LA,” “The Mentalist” and “Murder in the First.” Series airing in previous decades include “Falcon Crest,” “The Closer,” “Charmed” and Disney’s “Land of the Lost.”
John Gregory curated an exhibit titled “Hollywood Comes to Pasadena” at the Pasadena Museum of History. He is past president of the Pasadena City College Foundation.