Exhibit celebrates the movies with heart in San Francisco

06/17/2012 12:00 AM

06/17/2012 2:05 PM

SAN FRANCISCO – Cinematic and California history merge this week at Fifth and Mission streets in an exhibition focusing on Bay Area filmmaking.

A camera used to shoot "Vertigo" and a replica of the .44-caliber Magnum used by Dirty Harry to taunt punks share space at the Old Mint – the historic building that emerges as the biggest star of "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of: San Francisco and the Movies."

Mounted by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and running through next Sunday, "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made of" contains fascinating pieces but offers only a light survey of the area's movie history. The collection becomes a must-see, though, when factoring in setting – the historic Old Mint, most often closed to the public.

The imposing sandstone-and-granite building opened in 1874 to mint coins and store the gold that served as a basis for U.S. currency.

The Mint survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, while surrounding tenements and commercial buildings perished. The Mint ceased operations in 1937, when a new San Francisco Mint opened, and later housed government offices. It closed in 1995 due to seismic and other concerns.

The exhibit was put together on "a shoestring budget," curator Miguel Pendás said. The organization is in the midst of a years-long effort to raise $90 million to transform the Mint into a permanent San Francisco history museum.

The high ceilings, crown molding and red-and-gold latticework inside offer touches of grandeur. But the building is always more solid than fancy.

'Vertigo' obsession

Its red-brick walls set off evocative film-noir posters that are from noir expert Eddie Muller's personal collection. Nearby is the dimly lit "Maltese Falcon" room, with a replica of the bird from the 1941 movie.

And the spirit of "Vertigo" suffuses the exhibit.

Last week, the organization held a fundraising dinner honoring actress Kim Novak, star of the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock thriller forever entwined with San Francisco.

Her artwork is honored, too, shown here for the first time in public. Her slightly fantastical oil paintings of water scenes and animals adorn the hallway leading to individual exhibit rooms. Pendás said Novak gave up an art scholarship for an acting career.

In "Vertigo," Novak's character is obsessed with a painting, "The Portrait of Carlotta." A reproduction of that painting is the showpiece of an exhibit room devoted to the movie.

The room also contains a "Vistavision" camera used for the famous Fort Point and Palace of the Legion of Honor scenes, an original "continuity script" from the shoot and an ashtray from Ernie's, the famed San Francisco restaurant spotlighted in the film.

The "Vertigo" room came together through Pendás' ingenuity. He knew "The Portrait of Carlotta" had been re-created in San Francisco a few years ago but had no way to contact the artist. So he enlisted a private detective friend, film noir style, to track her down.

The ashtray from Ernie's, which closed in 1995, comes from Pendás' personal collection. He searched a decade before finding it, for $5, at an antique shop in Clearlake. (They sell on eBay for $200, Pendás said).

Coppers and the Mint

Detectives – on the city payroll, working as private dicks and/or retired and obsessed with perfect blondes – often are main characters in San Francisco films.

The exhibit commemorates this detail in its "Cars, Cops and Cocktails" section.

"Dirty Harry," "Bullitt" and "Basic Instinct" are included, along with recipes for drinks consumed by famous San Francisco movie characters.

A nearby poster from the 1962 Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick alcoholic cautionary tale "The Days of Wine and Roses" robs some fizz from the cocktail concept.

Muller, who puts on the Noir City Film Festival each winter, said San Francisco was a natural setting for 1940s and '50s noir.

"I think it worked because it is a seaport town," Muller said. He stood in front of a poster for 1947's "Born to Kill," in which a killer and a divorcée of dubious moral fortitude meet on a train from Reno to San Francisco.

"People come here to re- create themselves," Muller said. "A ship comes in and a guy gets off the ship and then he never leaves. And there is the fog. We can't forget the fog."

Some filmmakers sought a lack of cityscapes in the Bay Area. Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson, cowboy star and co-owner of Essanay studios, moved 100 years ago from Chicago to the East Bay town of Niles.

Essanay shot 350 films in scenic Niles Canyon, said David Kiehn, film historian with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Five starred Charlie Chaplin, under contract to Essanay for a year. One was "The Tramp."

The Essanay Silent Film Museum loaned a vintage crank camera and other items to the Old Mint exhibit. The museum shows silent films every Saturday night.

"(The camera) is housed in a 1913 Nickelodeon museum," Kiehn said. "It was built the same year as the (Essanay) studio."

The Old Mint itself mostly has been a stand-in for other buildings in movies, Pendás said. But it reached full glory in the Lon Chaney silent film "The Penalty."

In the film, Chaney sends anarchists to create a diversion in the suburbs. With the police busy there, Chaney plans to "knock over the Mint," Pendás said with a grin.

Pendás said there's a great shot of Chaney on the Mint's front steps. He's directing his criminal cohorts as they carry bags of money out of the building.


What: An exhibition of posters, props and other artifacts from films shot in San Francisco.

Where: The Old Mint, 88 Fifth St. (at Fifth and Mission), San Francisco.

When:11 a.m.-4 p.m., through next Sunday.

Cost: $10, or $5 for S.F. Museum and Historical Society members.

Information: Old Mint exhibit: www.sanfranciscomuseum.org. Essanay Silent Film Museum: (510) 494-1411, www.nilesfilmmuseum.org. Noir City Film Festival and Eddie Muller's film preservation efforts: www.noircity.com, www.filmnoirfoundation.com.


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