CLEVELAND ON FILM. Films have been set and shot in Cleveland since the beginning of the early 20th century. The rise of Cleveland's status as a major American city coincided with the rise of motion pictures as a major entertainment medium in American life. Significantly, films made and/or set in Cleveland tend to focus on key themes reflective of the city’s history and identity, such as aviation (Ceiling Zero (1936)), LABOR (Native Land (1942) and F.I.S.T. (1978)), ethnicity and IMMIGRATION (The Deer Hunter (1978)), race (Uptight (1968)), SPORTS (The Fortune Cookie (1966) and Major League (1989)), and ROCK MUSIC (Almost Famous (2000)).
The earliest known film made in Cleveland was the short actuality film, Giant Coal Dumper (1897), produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in New York. This early Kinetoscope short was followed by others, including Public Square, Cleveland (1900) and Cleveland Fire Department (1902). The first feature made in the city was an educational version of Snow White (1916). Other silent features filmed in Cleveland include The Perils of Society (1916) and The House Without Children (1919). Cleveland-based filmmaker Samuel R. Bradley directed and produced a number of films in the early 1920s at his studio on E. 30 and EUCLID AVE. Bradley was later joined in his endeavors by S. Barret McCormick. Bradley productions included The Supreme Passion (1921), Dangerous Toys (1921), Women Men Love (1921), and False Fronts (1922). The director also produced a weekly Plain Dealer Screen Magazine that was shown in Cleveland theaters in the 1920s. The earliest film set in Cleveland in the “talkie” era, although not filmed in the city, was Michael Curtiz’s Goodbye Again (1933), a pre-Code romantic comedy with Warren William and Joan Blondell. A precursor to the screwball comedy genre, that film was based on the then-popular Broadway production of the same name by George Haight and Allan Scott. The city was also featured in the plots of other major studio films in the 1930s, such as The Big Pond (1930) starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert. The latter introduced audiences to the JAZZ standard “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”, which was also employed by the Marx Brothers in their attempt to impersonate Chevalier in Monkey Business (1933). References to Cleveland in early Paramount films produced at its Astoria Studios in New York were common; the city felt “closer” given the Astoria's East Coast location.
The first sound film made locally in Cleveland was It Happened in Cleveland (1936), financed and cast from students at John Marshall High School. The city’s position as a national center for aviation and the NATIONAL AIR RACES made it the subject of several aviation-related films produced by major Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s. Prominent among these was the suspenseful Howard Hawks drama Ceiling Zero (1936) starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Notably, visits to Cleveland by Cagney, O’Brien, and several other major Hollywood performers, such as Cary Grant, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Hayes, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ethel, John, and Lionel Barrymore, and hometown native BOB HOPE, were common during this era. In addition to promoting their films, the visiting stars often frequented restaurants such as OTTO MOSER’S and Alpine Village, which became local hangouts for celebrities at a time when Cleveland was the nation’s sixth largest city. Based on the La Follette Committee Report of 1938, the 1942 docudrama Native Land depicted American labor struggles in the 1930s and featured a scene set in Cleveland and references to rubber-manufacturing Akron. The film brought together original footage and dramatized re-enactments, with New York serving as a stand-in for Cleveland in reverse of what would later become a prevalent trend in the 2010s. Its filmmakers, Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, as well as its narrator, Paul Robeson, were later blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In 1948, decades before the TV series “Hot in Cleveland,” a young Marilyn Monroe burned up the screen in her first major film role in Ladies of the Chorus, a B picture from Columbia set in Cleveland at its burlesque capital, THE ROXY THEATER. The Kid from Cleveland (1949) was filmed in the city using the members of the 1948 World Series-winning INDIANS in scenes in and outside the MUNICIPAL STADIUM and in other downtown locations.
In 1953, photographer Jasper Wood completed the poetic short independent film, Streetcar, in Cleveland. After realistic location shooting become more prevalent, moviemaking started to move out of Hollywood more often. The first effect was felt in Cleveland with Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966), the first screen pairing of comedians Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Staged scenes were shot in Municipal Stadium, where more than 10,000 Clevelanders gathered as extras to play the roles of football fans. Jules Dassin’s Uptight (1968) was a loose remake of the famous John Ford film The Informer (1935) about Irish revolutionaries, which used the AFRICAN AMERICAN ghettos of Cleveland’s East Side to tell the story of militants betrayed by one of their own members. That same year, independent producers Roger and Gerald Sindell pooled their resources to make Double-Step (1968), a domestic tragedy involving the family of a cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra. Featured were scenes filmed in SHAKER HEIGHTS and in the Fine Arts Garden (where a murder takes place). Hoping to capitalize on the success of the Broadway play Hair, producer John Pappas brought a crew to Cleveland to make cinema history's first full-length tribal rock musical movie, Aquarius (1970). Open auditions for singing and dancing parts for hippie and non-hippie types were held in facilities of PLAYHOUSE SQUARE. Shaker Hts. native and local filmmaker Harold Cornsweet came home to make a comedy called Return to Campus (1973), using locales familiar to him in Shaker Heights, in addition to scenes on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Moviemaking in Ohio truly began to boom with the establishment of the Ohio Film Bureau in 1976. One of the first films to be made in Cleveland as a result of its efforts was The Deer Hunter (1977), which was named Best Picture of the Year. ST. THEODOSIUS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL and nearby LEMKO HALL in Cleveland’s TREMONT neighborhood provided the setting for a fictional wedding and reception. The Gathering (1977) was a made-for-TV movie filmed on location in CHAGRIN FALLS, Hudson, and Cleveland, which were translated in the movie into a generic New England city. Norman Jewison’s film F.I.S.T. (1978) featuring Sylvester Stallone his first post-Rocky role as a labor leader in 1930s Cleveland was set, but not filmed, in the city. Actress Natalie Wood strolled in front of the downtown MAY COMPANY department store and other storefronts along Euclid Ave. near PUBLIC SQUARE for the made-for-TV movie The Cracker Factory (1979). Cleveland in the 1950s was portrayed in the real Cleveland of the 1970s for the film Those Lips, Those Eyes (1979). Cleveland Heights’ open-air CAIN PARK THEATER was the setting for this screenplay by Clevelander and CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY graduate David Shabar. Singer Paul Simon came to Cleveland to make One Trick Pony (1979), because he felt Cleveland was the rock 'n' roll capital of the world. The Escape Artist (1980) was a Francis Ford Coppola production filmed downtown near CITY HALL and the CUYAHOGA COUNTY COURTHOUSE and in the FLATS, OHIO CITY, and the Cedar Rd. and Fairmount Blvd. area.
The main floor of the HIGBEE COMPANY department store, as well as all of Public Square, was transported back in time for the offbeat Jean Sheppard comedy A Christmas Story (1983), a tale told in flashback of a man remembering Christmas as a boy. In 1985 the CLEVELAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL featured Stranger Than Paradise (1984), directed by Clevelander Jim Jarmusch. The highly lauded film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France and included scenes shot on the 9th St. pier behind the former Captain Frank’s landmark restaurant, others on both the West Side and along I-71. In May 1986 Michael J. Fox spent a few days in the Cleveland area shooting the film Light of Day, directed by Paul Schrader. Locations included the Euclid Tavern on Euclid Ave. near E. 116th St. and Marshallan Prods., Inc., on W. 85th St. The sports comedy hit Major League (1989) and its less successful sequel Major League II (1994) featured a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians and depicted the team’s very real struggles during its 1960-1993 slump. Cleveland was also used as a stand-in location for other locales in films of the 1990s. Among them were Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker (1997), partially filmed at KEY TOWER, and Air Force One (1997) with Harrison Ford, partially filmed at SEVERANCE HALL and the County Courthouse. Conversely, the 1990s also saw the release of films that were set, but not filmed in, Cleveland. They included Telling Lies in America (1997), the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film written by hometown native Joe Eszterhas, and Detroit Rock City (1999) about a group of rebellious youth who attempt to scam their way into a concert by the band Kiss in the 1970s. Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) was also partially set in Cleveland.
The Greater Cleveland Film Commission (GCFC) was founded in 1998 and has served to increase opportunities for film production in Cleveland and its surrounding metropolitan area. In the 2000s, the city succeeded in attracting many independent filmmakers as well as a few big studio films to Lake Erie shores. Among them were Antwone Fisher (2002), The Soloist (2009), and American Splendor (2003), all of which were based on the lives of native Clevelanders, with the latter based on the life of underground comic book writer HARVEY PEKAR. The heist comedy, Welcome to Collinwood (2002), directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, was filmed and set in the city, especially in the COLLINWOOD neighborhood. However, the GCFC's longtime director Ivan Schwartz realized that Cleveland could only become a major destination for film production if Ohio granted a tax break to filmmakers. This problem became especially apparent with the filming of the commercially successful crime drama Kill the Irishman (2011), a biopic of Cleveland mobster DANNY GREENE. Although the film was set in Cleveland, it was filmed in Detroit, primarily because Ohio could not match the tax credits offered to the filmmakers by Michigan.
This situation changed in 2009 when the Ohio General Assembly passed the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit and the number of movies filmed in Cleveland and the metropolitan area surged. Following a precedent set by Spider-Man 3 (2007), the city’s downtown began to serve as a stand-in for New York on several big budget action films, including The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and The Fate of the Furious (2017). The period since 2009 has also seen films both set and shot in Cleveland. These included the teen comedy Fun Size (2012), Ivan Reitman’s sports comedy Draft Day (2014) with Kevin Costner, and Nancy Cartwright’s In Search of Fellini (2017), which was partially shot and set in Cleveland. The city has also increasingly become the subject of documentary films, such as Breaking Balls (2017) about bocce and ITALIAN-AMERICAN identity in Greater Cleveland, and Joe Siebert’s The Sax Man (2014) about Cleveland street saxophonist Maurice Reedus, Jr. Some observers have argued that Cleveland needs to be used more as setting, and less as a stand-in location on future films. However, despite such concerns, it is undeniable that increased film production has brought numerous job opportunities to Northeast Ohio and has injected much-needed investment into the local economy of Cleveland and the metropolitan area. The Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit was extended in July 2019 by the Ohio General Assembly, promising more film productions in Cleveland in the coming years.
Updated and expanded by Pietro A. Shakarian
The Ohio State University
Dutka, Alan F. Historic Movie Theaters of Downtown Cleveland (Charleston: History Press Library, 2016).