Hollywood Captures Sausalito's Beauty


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Just over 66 years ago, on Saturday night November 30, 1946, the waterfront at Whalers' Cove, where Bridgeway turns into Richardson Street, was the scene of tremendous excitement as a Hollywood motion picture company set up shop to film Orson Welles in a scene for the movie The Lady From Shanghai.

Welles was director, producer, screenwriter and star of the film. He had visited Sausalito in the past and was impressed enough that when he needed a scene in the San Francisco Bay area, he penned in our town.

His co-star was his real-life wife, Rita Hayworth. Everett Sloan, who had been in Welles' masterpiece "Citizen Kane" and was a member of Welles' repertory theater company in New York, the Mercury Theatre, was cast in the role of a defense attorney who involves Welles' character in a murder plot. Welles placed the character on a pair of crutches when Sloan was cast in the role because, he said, as a trained radio actor, Sloan never learned how to move well before the cameras. "Besides," Welles added, "all actors love to play cripples."

The events in the scene played out in front of the old Walhalla – now the "Valhalla" – and many of the shots included features that you can recognize today as you stroll along the wharf in front of the building.

That wharf wasn't big enough, nor impressive enough, for Welles' purposes, however, so he had an additional 36-foot temporary wharf built out of used lumber by Sausalito's Madden and Lewis Boat Works along with a gangway and a float. A twelve man crew headed by George Dias worked all week before the shooting was scheduled to begin and had to wrap up their work earlier than expected because Welles wanted to shoot on November 30th rather than waiting for the planned December 1.

Don't look for the additional wharf, float or gangway today. The permit Madden and Lewis obtained was only for a temporary structure, and no permit for permanent use had been requested from the US Corps of Engineers. (This was, of course, long before the establishment of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission in 1965.)

Most local residents had to content themselves with standing behind police and fire lines set up a block from the action and hope for a brief look at the Hollywood stars. Others were lucky enough to land jobs as "extras" in the movie.

This night's scene featured Welles shooting off a gun in what the convoluted story of the movie presented as an effort to fake a murder. On the cue of the sound a gun being fired by Welles, the local extras rushed out of the "Walhalla" and some of the neighboring houses. Among them were Sausalito fireman "Swede" Pedersen and Sausalito News reporter Joanne Nichols who recorded the experience in the December 5, 1946 issue of the paper.

Rain and foggy weather then settled on Sausalito – this was December, after all.   

Filming in Sausalito didn't resume until Friday, December 6 when it was Rita Hayworth's turn to attract the most attention. It took most of the morning to get the few seconds of screen time which showed Hayworth being ferried to shore in a high speed Higgins boat  from a yacht anchored off shore.

The yacht used for this scene was the White Cloud, a Berkeley-based schooner owned  by Weldon C. Nichols. It was standing in for a more famous yacht which had been used in earlier scenes. That was Errol Flynn's personal yacht, the Zaca, which was built in 1929 at the Nunes Bros. Boatyard in Sausalito’s Old Town. 

Before lunch there was time to film Hayworth debarking from the Higgins boat, walking up the temporary gangplank and exchanging a few lines of dialog with Welles.

While there had been many "extras" required for the first evening's filming, few were needed for the daylight scene. This freed up the space inside the Walhalla. The production company found a good use for that space. They invited wounded veterans who were members of the camera club at the Presidio's Letterman Army Hospital to witness the shoot. Joanne Nichols' report in the Sausalito News reveals that many of these veterans were in wheelchairs or on crutches, but that they all had their cameras at the ready. Since the filming took place just a year and half after the end of World War II, the gesture was particularly well timed.

After the union-mandated lunch break, the company filmed Hayworth walking from the Walhalla, getting into a car and being driven off.

You can see the scene in a clip which has been loaded onto the You Tube website by going to The clip only runs one and a half minutes, but it took the production company over a week to get the shots they needed.