And Movies by State continues with the Mid-Altantic States: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The movies have pretty much skipped over Delaware. Having been to Dewey/Rehoboth a couple of times and heard good things about the little state on the Delmarva Penninsula, it’s a bit perplexing. The so-so Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) and George A. Romero’s ill-conceived Survival of the Dead (2009) are two of the few major releases set in the First State.
Fortunately there is one key film set in Delaware. Fight Club (1999) is a classic satire of the disaffected 1990’s and the decline of classical masculinity. It also has Brad Pitt and Ed Norton showcasing some of the best work of their careers.
The District of Columbia
The District of Columbia should be a state, but that’s a topic for another day. Hollywood has set more films here than most states due to the city’s number one employer – the Federal Government. Presidential biopics like Lincoln (2012) and Nixon (1995) are always en vogue. The American President (1995), Murder at 1600 (1997), and Independence Day (1996) are part of a mid-90’s “let’s set genre movies at the White House” craze. White House Down (2013) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) are basically the same movie, part of the shortly lived 2013 “let’s blow up the White House” craze. The halls of Congress get their due as well, most notably in Frank Capra’s 1939 class Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It’s hard to select a most notable film set in our Nation’s Capital, and while there are plenty of films of equal note, no American film captures our fears of a government run amuck better than the all too historically accurate drama All the President’s Men (1976). Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman give legendary performances as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It takes the biggest political scandal in American history – Watergate – and turns it into the pinnacle of dark, 1970’s thrillers.
Not all films set in DC concern themselves with the Federal Government. St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) takes a look at disaffected Georgetown graduates, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the two or three best superhero films made during the current “let’s even give Ant-Man his own film” era.
Poor Maryland. It’s the setting of what many critics feel is the best TV show of all time (The Wire), but otherwise it hasn’t gotten much love from Hollywood. They powers that be in showbiz seem to think Washington and Philadelphia are much sexier settings, and tend to ignore the state in between. Sure, parts of movies are set there, like Wedding Crashers (2005), Funny Girl (1968), and Enemy of the State (1998), but it’s hard to find a movie that clearly focuses it’s attention on the Free State beyond relatively obscure fare like 2004’s Saved!.
Seabiscuit (2003) is a film of many settings itself. The underrated sports film features a climax at Baltimore’s hallowed Pimlico Race Course, home of Maryland’s most popular annual event, the Preakness Stakes. Horses may be the state of Maryland’s second favorite animal, but unlike blue crabs, they’re for riding, not for eating, and what a ride Seabiscuit had.
In contrast, lots of movies get set in Jersey. There are a couple of key genres of Jersey movie. You have your disaffected suburbanite films like Clerks (1994), Garden State (2004), and Mallrats (1995). You have your crime movies, like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) and Brian de Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998). And finally, you have your horror movies like the Friday the 13th series.
On the Waterfront (1954) may be Elia Kazan’s thinly veiled excuse for naming names in the 1950’s Communist witch hunts, but it remains a remarkable achievement in American cinema. Marlon Brando gives one of his best performances, and his “I could have been a contender” speech is known to people who haven’t even seen the movie. It is often ranked among the best American films, and with good reason – it’s a well made, emotional drama starring one of the best cinematic actors at the top of his game.
Pennsylvania films can be broken up into three regions. Movies set in Philadelphia include the classic screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940), classic drama Philadelphia (1993), and plenty of good films that don’t have the name of the city in the title like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Rocky (1976). Pittsburgh movies include Bob Roberts (1992), Groundhog Day (1992), Kingpin (1996), and the Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).
The most notable film set in the fine state of Pennsylvania is not set in either of these cities. It is set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) may be the single most watched American film – after all, how many other films have been seen once a year by millions of people for decades? Surprisingly, it wasn’t a box office success, and would have faded from memory if RKO hadn’t let the copyright expire. Fortunately this meant that TV stations could air the movie cheaply, and its success foretold a time when box office bombs could find a second life in another form of media.
Frank Capra’s holiday classic isn’t the only notable film set in between Pennsylvania’s big cities though. Gettysburg (1993) may be dry as sawdust, but it’s certainly not without its ambition. The heartbreaking coming of age film My Girl (1991) is set in the middle of the state as well.
We close out our Mid-Atlantic tour with West Virginia. West Virginia is a tough state to pinpoint region-wise. It isn’t quite Southern, not quite Northeastern, and not quite Midwestern. Hollywood doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the Mountain state either, except set low budget horror movies there. Examples include The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Silent Hill (2006), and Wrong Turn (2003). 1999’s October Sky and We Are Marshall (2006) are exceptions, but for the most part it’s horror, horror, horror.
One of the finest horror movies of all time is set in West Virginia after all. Night of the Hunter (1955) made a star out of Robert Mitchum and sits near the top of many lists of best American films. It blends together all the tools of horror, thrillers, and film noir up until that point to create a truly terrifying masterpiece.
Coming up next: a focus on a common setting of American movies, New York State.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe