by Mary Alice Kellogg
I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately, which isn’t surprising considering that it’s summer and the perfect time for doing just that. What draws me in, besides the plot, is the locale of films set in warm days, relatively long ago.
Now guess what the following films have in common with Sag Harbor: “Ride the Wild Surf,” “ Weekend in Palm Springs,” “Lilies of the Field,” “ North By Northwest” and “Sweet Smell of Success.” Many of you will know immediately that all but the last were filmed in the actual places the plot was set: Hawaii, Palm Springs, Arizona, South Dakota and Manhattan.
… And therein lies my appreciation for Our Town. I’ve been to all the places where these movies were filmed – even lived in a couple of them – and watching them again I can revisit what they used to look like and, more important, used to be. I can see Oahu as I remember it, when the focal point was the gracious, pink and low-rise Royal Hawaiian Hotel instead of today’s high-rise hotels crammed along the beach. I revisit childhood trips to Palm Springs when it was a charming, funky desert retreat reached by a two-lane blacktop, instead of today’s chain city of gated golf course subdivisions, outsized resorts and endless characterless malls linked together by too-wide modern freeways. “Lilies of the Field” was filmed in Tucson, my original hometown, in a singular Sonoran Desert setting which is now a sea of lookalike condo complexes dotted by occasional garden cactus groupings.
What captures me as I watch these films is the power they had to reveal the real spirit of place, regardless of plot. This spirit — physically and soulfully — may have been lost to time, but movie magic brought us there in real time and documents in fiction what the true locale had to offer. “Sweet Smell of Success” New York may be gritty and dirty, but that is what it looked like and was in those days. While much of “North By Northwest” had studio sets, the money shot was always the actual grandeur of where the key scenes were filmed. The landscape of these movies may be lost to thoughtless development, but the spirit time capsule on celluloid lives on.
I’ve also re-visited “M*A*S*H” and “South Pacific” lately; another point. The former was set in Korea, but shot in Southern California, and the latter was set in Tahiti, but shot in Hawaii (hey: a beach and a bunch of palms all look alike, right?). These days, understandably, financial considerations dictate that many films and television series supposed to take place in Manhattan instead be shot in Toronto. The American desert is often represented by cheaper sandunes in far-away countries — and any of us who know what a real desert looks like can only sigh at the inaccuracies and try to lose ourselves in the plot.
Which is why Sag Harbor rocks. Remember “Sweet Liberty?” I revisit this underrated movie often. Not only is it entertaining, sharp, and funny, but it was shot in Sag Harbor, which looks today like it looked more than two decades past … and a century ago, too. Our spirit of place is hard-won; we have preserved the look and the character of home. I’ll bet that the next big movie to be shot here – calling all filmmakers! – will stand up in decades to come (save for the plot and script, which none of us can control).
For Our Town holds itself dear with respect for the past as a way to the future. I don’t worry that I’ll see an old Sag Harbor-shot movie in my dotage and say:
“That was so beautiful but it’s lost.” Ain’t gonna happen, and that’s just one reason I love this village.