Issue: Fall 2013
Hollywood Discovers Savannah
Hometown Boy Makes Good
If you mention “Savannah” in any conversation about movies and the first thing that pops into many minds is the film based on the sensational John Berendt book “Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil.” I have to confess: I had neither read nor seen the book or the movie, but for some unknown held reason held a fascination for the city. Maybe it was one too many historical novels about the old South or just the way the name rolls off the tongue—much more exotic than its famous and equally historic neighbor, Charleston, where a mini-reunion of my husband’s Dartmouth College class was held, and meant the realization of a desire born with the first reading of “Gone With The Wind.”
What unfolded in the too brief a stay turned out to be far more tantalizing than a movie location. Although as each day unfurled, so did the city, its film credits, its allure, its mystery, its significance and its undeniable tie to Hollywood, the place.
Nearly 50 films have been shot in Savannah including Cape Fear in 1962 and the remake in 1991. It was in Savannah where Robert Mitchum saw the inside of the courthouse both as an actor and before a judge for a scandalous arrest for marijuana possession. Here too the innocent “everyman” Forest Gump sat on a bench talking about his mother and chocolates. Matthew Broderick marched into one of its many squares in the inspiring Civil War epic Glory. The Legend of Bagger Vance directed by Robert Redford with Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron, like Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil includes Savannah as part of its story and intrigue.
Although historic landmarks drip from this city like its memorable Spanish moss, it’s like a chameleon adaptable to many settings. Its downtown City Market area, a film set in New York about the famed CBGB’s rock club was used to depict the Big Apple circa 1968. Its downtown Main Street (Broughton) could be Main Street anywhere. (The art department of CBGB added graffiti, litter and other touches to transform Savannah into New York’s Bowery District of the 1970’s. The results were convincing for this film about the iconic music club.)
Savannah aggressively markets itself to take advantage of its attributes. The Savannah Film Office notes that there were 715 shoot days in 2012 including all media with an economic impact to the city of about $26 million.
The surprise of our visit, as we were guests of the riverside Westin was its vibrant port proudly acknowledged to be the No. 2 port in the United States, second only to Long Beach. We were enthralled by the goings and comings of container laden freighters passing by the city although we could not see the port itself just out of view in the bend of the river. At the end of our visit, I realized that staying on the river provided a more modern rather than historic perspective of the Savannah known for the mansions that surround its beautiful squares.
One can only be thankful to General Sherman for sparing Savannah as he burned everything in his path during the Civil War or as it’s known here “The War of Northern Aggression.” Entering Savannah on December 23rd, it’s said he recognized its beauty and “presented” it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. It’s also said that it was the Southern hospitality that greeted him and others claim that when he saw the slaves of Savannah willing to protect the city without the master’s orders, he recognized it as an emblem of potential Southern virtue. Whatever the reason, it remains one of the few cities in the region that remains an intact history lesson. The union army would occupy Savannah until the war’s end.
Another notable occupation is that of the famed Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) founded in 1978. The college’s original 71 students have grown to a student body exceeding 10,000. The college is engaged with the city of Savannah collaborating on several annual events including the Savannah Film Festival and the preservation of its architectural heritage. By restoring buildings for use as college facilities, beginning at a time its central city was in decline, the college has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The college campus now consists of 67 buildings throughout the grid-and-park system of downtown Savannah many located on the famous 21 squares of the old town, which are laden with monuments, live oaks and undeniable Southern-Gothic feel that is sought by the many movies filmed there.
The city is also renowned for its unworldly occupants and is considered the most haunted city in the United States. Whether it’s true or part of a local effort to capitalize on these unseen inhabitants, a house on one of the city’s charming squares is reportedly so haunted that it has remained vacant and uninhabitable for decades.
Although there’s certainly enough speculation on this subject, one unalterable fact does remain that links much of this remarkable city’s past and present together. The Mercer House, now the Mercer-Williams House Museum, at the southwest end of the beautiful Monterey Square was seen in the movie Glory. The house was the real and movie scene of the shooting death of Jim Williams' assistant, Danny Hansford, the story retold in the 1994 John Berendt novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Designed for General Hugh Weedon Mercer (great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer) construction of the house began in 1860. Interrupted by the American Civil War, it was completed around 1868. For a period in the twentieth century, the building lay vacant for a decade until in 1969 when Jim Williams, one of Savannah’s earliest and most dedicated private restorationists, bought the house and restored it.
Before Hansford's death, the house had already been the scene of two deaths. In 1913 a previous owner tripped over the second floor banister, fractured his hip, and suffered a concussion, dying three days later. In 1969, a boy chasing pigeons on the roof fell over the edge and impaled himself on the iron fence below. Today the house is occupied by Williams’ sister, is reportedly haunted and is open for tours.
On the other side of town in the City Market area you’ll come across a statue of Johnny Mercer and here is where Hollywood and Savannah truly merge.
Capitol Records was founded by songwriter Johnny Mercer in 1942. Its earliest recording artists included co-owner Mercer, Whiteman, Tilton, Morse, Margaret Whiting, Jo Stafford, the Pied Pipers, and Paul Weston and His Orchestra. Capitol's first gold single was Morse's "Cow Cow Boogie" in 1942. Capitol's first record album was Capitol Presents Songs By Johnny Mercer, a three 78-rpm record set with recordings by Mercer, Stafford, and the Pied Pipers, all with Paul Weston's Orchestra.
Beautifully preserved emblem of the true South, location of some of our favorite films, so beloved many refuse to leave, it was through one of its favorite sons, Johnny Mercer, that Savannah made its real and lasting mark in Hollywood. DH