People have been making films in North Carolina – and generating headlines about those movies – longer than you may suspect. Back in the silent days, production companies came here for the same reason they do a century later: the state’s varied landscapes and less-expensive labor.
Silents didn’t require sound stages, and Western North Carolina provided the scenery for the short, black-and-white features. Ned Finley, a New York actor/director/producer/writer, made a number of Westerns in the Blue Ridge Mountains for Vitagraph. Quite the promoter, he vanished without a trace from his set in August 1915. The film company ballyhooed his disappearance in the press... until he was “found” in the Hendersonville area.
When the industry consolidated in Hollywood, the Carolinas were again in the backwater. The classic 1962 thriller “Cape Fear” with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, for example, was largely made in California; Savannah, Ga., was a stand-in for outdoor scenes.
In the 1980s, N.C. Gov. James Hunt pushed the the state to actively seek location filming. The Cape Fear area benefited greatly when Italian film maker Dino De Laurentiis opened a studio in Wilmington. It’s now called EUE/Screen Gems, and is still a player in motion picture and TV production.
Roughly 3,000 films and programs have been shot in North Carolina, including the Charlotte area (“Nell,” “Stroker Ace,” “The Color Purple,” “Shallow Hal,” “The Hunger Games,” etc.).
Right now, you can take a trip down Late Show Lane at the N.C. Museum of History, in Raleigh. “Starring North Carolina” – on display through Sept. 7 – is a major exhibit about made-here movies and TV shows.
The 8,000-square-foot exhibition has props and costumes from “Bull Durham,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and other big-screen projects, and from small-screen series such as Wilmington-filmed “Dawson’s Creek” and “Sleepy Hollow.”
Among the fan-tickling artifacts:
▪ Ricky Bobby’s No. 26 Wonder Bread race car from “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” partly shot at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Rockingham Speedway.
▪ The coonskin cap Fess Parker wore in the 1995 movie “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.” (Portions of it were filmed in Western North Carolina; the cap is on loan from the National Museum of American History.)
▪ Props from 2013’s “Iron Man 3,” shot in the Wilmington/Southport area.
With the exhibit wrapping up next month, admission is now half-off.
An especially prime day to go is Aug. 7: From 6 to 7:30 next Friday is “Earl Owensby: Tar Heel Film Legend,” a free-to-attend program featuring clips presented by Gardner-Webb University professor Noel Manning and Owensby himself.
Owensby opened his independent film studio in Shelby in 1973 and through the 1980s cranked out low-budget releases geared to drive-ins. He he produced them and starred in several – specialties included werewolf and redneck offerings, often filmed in 3-D – earning the nickname of “The Dixie DeMille” and making enough cash to start luring Hollywood productions to the state.
Owensby items on display in “Starring North Carolina” include the vicious, teeth-baring Rottweiler from his “Dogs of Hell.”
Relax: It’s just a prop.
“Starring North Carolina” continues through Sept. 7 at the N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St. in downtown Raleigh. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Open until 9 p.m. Aug. 7. General admission: free. Admission to “Starring North Carolina”: $5; $3 for ages 7-17, 60 and older, and college students (with ID). Details: www.ncmuseumofhistory.org.