Everyone knows that little tune that Mickey Mouse whistles while on a boat in the beginning credits of a Disney movie. What was the idea for this scene anyway? This scene was taken from the first ever film that Mickey Mouse appeared in, Steamboat Willie! In fact, Steamboat Willie was the film that kickstarted Disney into making movies. Do you know what Steamboat Willie was based off of? Steamboat Bill, Jr.! But do you even know what Steamboat Bill Jr. is? Probably not. Steamboat Bill Jr. was a silent film made in the 1920s, along with many other silent films. What you also may not know is that half an hour away from our very own town of El Dorado Hills is where many silent films of the 20th century were made. That place is Sacramento! Sacramento is famous for being the home to the production of silent films because of its great location to film and of its abundance of famous actors that filmed there.
First of all, what were silent films and why were they such a good source of entertainment? To give a backstory, in the 1900s two men made a bet that all four hooves of a horse lifted off the ground when galloping. When a horse gallops, it is too fast for the human eye to catch whether all hooves lift or not. One of the men hired Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer, to capture a picture of the horse when it was galloping. In order to get many shots of the horse in motion, Muybridge took a burst of photos that made the camera’s shutters open and close in a fast motion, allowing him to get many pictures. Upon looking at all of the pictures together, Muybridge noticed that when he moved from one to another, the picture appeared as it was moving, thus comes the phrase motion picture. When motion pictures were invented after Eadweard Muybridge’s discovery, people were fascinated that they could see motion in front of them instead of a static picture. Muybridge exclaimed that he could bring the deceased back to life whenever he pleased, as he could make a film of whomever he wanted and play it whenever he wanted. He continued to pursue making motion pictures–which actually took place in Sacramento–and eventually they became a cheap source of entertainment for the working class, immigrants, and children. Motion pictures were especially beneficial for immigrants because there was no language barrier since the films were silent and technology was not that advanced to add sound yet. Eventually, progressives took over film to publicize Victorian values–which made film into a more expensive and valued form of art. As the demand for more films grew, more were made. Sacramento could be said to be the birthplace of silent films because it is where the first ones were made. It was great place to film movies because it was a relatively ‘“open” town, with a booming underground economy of bootleg liquor, gambling, and prostitution” (Bengston). This made it easy for producers to put whatever they wanted in their movies because of the openness of Sacramento. Many physical features of Sacramento also played a big role in why it was such a great place to film. It had many different landscapes that producers could build off of such as rivers, mountains, and farmland. As silent films started to become more popular, producers started to make them better. This included making films outside as well as making scenes on moving objects. To make a film outside there must be good weather, and Sacramento was usually good for that.
One of the most popular scenes from Steamboat Bill Jr. was filmed in Sacramento! Did you know that? Most people don’t, but it is a big part of Sacramento and you can go stand right where it happened! One of the most famous silent film actors, Buster Keaton, was featured in this film. Buster Keaton has starred in many films, but one of his most popular films was Steamboat Bill Jr. The part that was filmed in Sacramento was when the house wall fell down and Keaton was standing in the exact spot so that the door went right over him. This was one of the most historic scenes and it happened right here in Sacramento. Not a lot of people can say that they stood where one of the most historic scenes for silent films was filmed. It is so historic because a stunt like this has never been done before and they did it perfectly. Another famous silent film actor is Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin has not only acted in movies but has also directed them. Some of his famous movies are The Kid, The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights. In Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Gold Rush, a scene was shot just a few hours away in Truckee. For those of you that don’t know Truckee is a town up on the North Side of Lake Tahoe. The part that was filmed here in Truckee was a scene where men had to climb up a “2,300-feet pass dug through the mountain snow” (Filming the Gold Rush). Charlie Chaplin is most famous for his acting in the film The Tramp, but he is also famous for his directing of films. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are two of the most well-known actors of the silent film era.
Not only do you know so much more about silent films, but also why Sacramento was such a famous place to film and about the most well known actors of that era. Sacramento might be a busy city now, but back then it was one of the central hubs of film making. Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. is just one of the many famous actors that came out of the silent film industry. The famous scene in Steamboat Bill Jr. is one of the most iconic scenes that was filmed back then and it just happens to be that it was filmed just thirty minutes away from where we live. Right here in Sacramento! Charlie Chaplin is also another famous actor from the silent film era. Charlie Chaplin is a double threat. He acted in many silent films, but also directed many silent films. While many think that Sacramento is some old train town, it is actually rich with the history of silent films, so if you ever need something fun to do but want to tie it into history, Sacramento is the place to go!
Article by Kaitlyn Vannucci and Deanna Frack
Bengston, John. “Buster Keaton Steamboat Bill, Jr. Locations.” Silentlocations.wordpress.com. WordPress. 18 April 2011. Web.
“Best Movies Filmed In Sacramento.” CBS13 | CBS Sacramento,
“Directors Cuts: Top 5 Charlie Chaplin Movies.” Nerdist, 23 Mar. 2015,
“Filming The Gold Rush.” Charlie Chaplin : Filming The Gold Rush, http://www.charliechaplin.com/en/films/2-The-Gold-Rush/articles/5-Filming-The-Gold-Rush