By Spencer Bowman, Northwest Room Librarian
While there had been films made in Tacoma before 1925, such as Pacific Coast Motion Picture Company’s Gog-Gle-Hi-Te in 1916 and Listen, Look, and Laugh, a short comedy from 1921, the story of Tacoma’s involvement with major motion pictures truly begins with H.C. Weaver Productions, Inc. in 1925.
Harvey C. Weaver, head of H.C. Weaver Productions of Hollywood, found a new location for a filmmaking studio in the Titlow Beach area in 1924. The studio property consisted of a large studio building and a laboratory, spanning almost six acres of land. In 1925, the studio was built, and shortly after the company started its first production, Hearts and Fists, a lumber company themed melodrama —what happened to that film genre?!— with quite a tagline:
“From jazz and flirtation into the heart of the great north woods—an amazing plunge from the false pleasures of civilization into the stark realities of crude nature.” (2)
Many of the outdoor scenes were filmed around the Kapowsin area and others in the Clear Fir Lumber Co. mill at Day Island. The film would play for a week at the Rialto in January 1926, drawing exceptionally large audiences. Unfortunately, this film was lost and no copy of it has been found to this day, a common misfortune with early silent films.
Luckily, Weaver Productions’ second film, Eyes of the Totem did survive. Eyes of the Totem is a drama with an action-packed finale, and its story involves a window, a sinister stranger, and a double life. The film featured Tacoma street scenes shot on location and interiors, such as a cabaret scene, in the Crystal Ballroom of the Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma at South 7th and Commerce streets. This film can be purchased from the Tacoma Historical Society! Weaver Productions Inc. only made one other film, Heart of the Yukon, in 1927. In 1928, the Weaver studios closed and were converted into a ballroom that later burned down in 1932.
Since then, Tacoma has hosted other film productions. From the 1930s through the 1960s, few films were shot in Tacoma other than business films and small-time independent productions. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Hollywood started to tap Tacoma’s gritty side for sets and locations. Click any of the titles to access them in the library catalog!
99 and 44/100% Dead!, opens a new window This 1973 bonkers cartoon-inspired action/crime film starts with a high-speed chase along the Commencement Bay tide flats area. The film stars Richard Harris as Harry Crown and features Chuck Conners as Marvin “Claw” Zuckerman, who sports a robotic claw hand. This film is available from the library on a double-disk DVD set.
In 1975’s Cinderella Liberty, opens a new window, starring James Caan as a lonely Navy sailor who falls in love while on extended leave. This film features scenes shot on location along Pacific Avenue and at Puget Sound Hospital.
A film that was shot almost entirely in Tacoma that does not often get mentioned is 1976’s Sweet Revenge, opens a new window starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston. Channing stars as Vurrla, a car thief who is fixated on stealing a Ferrari Dino sports car while her public defender (Waterston) tries to connect with her. This film features many Tacoma locations including North 21st Street, Pacific Avenue, the County-City Building, and even the Carnegie section of the Main Branch Library!
One film that deserves an honorable mention, since some readers may be interested, is 1973’s Hit!, opens a new window. It stars Billy Dee Williams and features Richard Pryor. Shot partly in Gig Harbor and Port Ludlow, the story follows Federal agent Nick Allen (Billy Dee Williams), who is assembling an expert team to track down members of a French drug cartel. There are quite a few scenes that take place in downtown Gig Harbor in the latter half of the film.
After the 1970s, local film productions slowed down considerably. From the 1980s through the 2000s only four "big-budget" productions visited Tacoma.
In 1989 shooting began for I Love You to Death, opens a new window. This film included an all-star cast of Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Tracey Ullman, River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, and James Gammon. Among other Tacoma locations, a portion of this black comedy centers around a pizza parlor in the Bostwick building downtown located on St. Helens Avenue, and at the famous teapot building, Bob’s Java Jive, on South Tacoma Way.
The 1992 psychological thriller The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, opens a new window features the home of the main character Claire Bartel, played by Annabella Sciorra, located at 808 N. Yakima Ave, opens a new window.
10 Things I Hate About You, opens a new window is a Tacoma favorite. This 1999 teen romantic comedy is a modernization of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and featured breakout roles for Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Stadium High School features prominently in the film, as well as other north-end locations.
Get Carter, opens a new window is a 2000 remake of the 1971 Mike Hodges film and stars Sylvester Stallone. The film includes chase scenes that were filmed on Tacoma’s steep hills downtown including South 15th Street.
Although there are many other films we could have mentioned in our answer we wanted to stick mostly to films that we can provide access to and circulate. We invite you to check out these films and see the many ways Tacoma has been interpreted and captured in time. If are curious to explore more of Tacoma and Washington States' rich film history, please give us a call at (253) 280-2814 or make an appointment by visiting the link below!