We can be cold as our falling thermometers in December
If you ask about our weather in July
And we're so by-God stubborn
We could stand touchin' noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye
But what the heck, you're welcome
Join us at the picnic
You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself
You really ought to give Iowa a try
― “Iowa Stubborn” from The Music Man
Though it may not have sired as many movie stars as, say, its neighboring state of Nebraska, Iowa has certainly been fertile ground for movies set and filmed within its borders. Here are ten contributions―stars and films―that Iowa has made to motion picture history.
Marion Morrison was born in Winterset in 1907 to Claude and Mary Morrison, who moved to the warmer climes of Southern California to ease Claude’s discomfort over a lung infection. After the failure of their Mojave Desert ranch, the family moved to Glendale, where the strapping young lad found success in sport and study. A football scholarship to USC followed and, in exchange for football tickets, actor Tom Mix got Morrison a job as a movie prop man. On the set, he met John Ford, changed his name to John Wayne and got dozens of bit parts under his belt before becoming a star in Stagecoach (1939). “When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing,” the Duke said. “It was as deliberate a projection as you'll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn't looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not. I practiced in front of a mirror.”
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Robert James Waller’s romantic novel was a hot topic in 1992 not simply because of its effect on its (largely female) readers, but as a source of speculation as to who would play the main characters should a movie version be made. Robert Redford and Isabella Rossellini were names that frequently cropped up. In the end, the role of an aging photographer and an Italian-Iowa farmwife went to Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, respectively, with Eastwood directing. Shooting took place near Winterset and Adel, Iowa. Years after the film’s release, bad luck visited a couple of structures that appeared in the movie—the bridge where the characters first meet burned down in September 2003, and arson destroyed the farmhouse where Streep's character lived in October 2003.
Born in Des Moines, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress graduated from Des Moines’s Roosevelt High School and went on to major in drama—first at Illinois State and then at Northwestern University, where her classmates included Paul Lynde, Charlotte Rae and Patricia Neal. An ambition to become Miss America in 1946 got her as far as the Miss Illinois pageant, where she competed as Miss Chicago. After that, she moved to New York to continue her acting career and made her debut on television in The Ford Theater Hour, the first of a long line of television appearances. Her film debut came in 1955 with Kiss Me Deadly.
State Fair (1945)
The cast and crew of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical got only as close to Iowa as Century City and Thousand Oaks, California, but the picture was steeped in a romanticized version of rural Iowa life that saw boy get girl, another boy get another girl, a farmwife intoxicate a series of judges with spiked mincemeat and a farmer win a prize ribbon for his beloved sow—all at the annual event of the title. When one compares it to other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, State Fair is a bit skimpy on music—only six numbers rounded out the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the composers included a rousing salute to the fair state, “All I Owe Ioway,” performed by Vivian Blaine, Fay Bainter, Charles Winninger and cast.
The Straight Story (1999)
Director David Lynch took a break from his usual offbeat, sinister fare with the true story of an elderly man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who rides a lawn mower from his home in Laurens, Iowa, to Wisconsin in order to repair a strained relationship with his dying older brother Lyle. Filming took place in Wisconsin and in the Iowa towns of Clermont, West Bend, Lansing, Laurens, New Hampton, Pocohontas and West Union. Farnsworth received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for what would be his last film; the actor, diagnosed with terminal cancer, took his life on October 6, 2000, in Lincoln, New Mexico.
Cold Turkey (1971)
The real town of Greenfield, Iowa, becomes the fictional town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, which is offered $25 million by a tobacco company if the townspeople can abstain from smoking for 30 days. Reverend Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) frantically tries to keep Eagle Rock smoke free while tobacco company executives scheme to get citizens to light up. The comedy was written and directed by Norman Lear and also stars Pippa Scott, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia, Tom Poston, Barnard Hughes and a handful of Greenfield residents as extras.
Her tale is a famous example of a film director plucking a girl from obscurity and making her a star. In this case, Otto Preminger was the director, Jean Seberg was, of course, the girl and the role of obscurity was played by the lovely municipality of Marshalltown, Iowa. She was a month shy of her 18th birthday when she was selected among 18,000 aspiring actresses for the role of Joan of Arc in Preminger’s drama Saint Joan (1957). Seberg, the daughter of a substitute teacher and a pharmacist, attended the University of Iowa and acted in just a single season of summer stock before stepping in front of the movie cameras. Neither the film nor its new star was warmly received. "I have two memories of Saint Joan,” the actress said. “The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics.”
Field of Dreams (1989)
“Is this heaven?” John Kinsella (Dweir Brown) asks Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner). “It’s Iowa,” comes the response. The story of a farmer who hears voices instructing him to create a baseball field on his farm was shot in Dubuque, Farley, and—for the farm and baseball scenes—outside of Dyersville, Iowa. The grass of the playing field appears green only because the crew painted it that way after the hastily planted sod died and turned brown. The field became a big tourist destination when the film took off at the box office.
A denizen from Denison, Donna Reed was a farm kid and local beauty contest winner who left the state after high school to go to Hollywood and break into the movies. It was while she was performing onstage at Los Angeles City College that an MGM talent scout spotted her, leading to small roles in Babes on Broadway (1941) and The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942) before hitting it big with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). “Forty pictures I was in,” the actress recalled, “and all I remember is 'What kind of bra will you be wearing today, honey?' That was always the area of big decision―from the neck to the navel.”
The Music Man (1962)
Though filmed in Burbank, California, the Meredith Willson musical was set in the fictional town of River City, Iowa, based on Willson’s hometown of Mason City. A hit on Broadway in 1957, the show told the story of Harold Hill, a con man selling instruments to musically challenged youth while falling in love with the town’s librarian. A star-making performance by Robert Preston was at the show’s core, and when Warner Bros. set about acquiring the film rights from Willson, they had Frank Sinatra in mind for Hill. Willson laid down the law: “No Robert Preston, no movie.”