A Brief History of Film in Tuolumne County

Hazards of Helen episode "Nerves of Steel"Tuolumne County’s film history began in 1914, when director J.P. McGowan first discovered Tuolumne County for a serial called The Hazards of Helen. Film legends Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith soon followed.

The 1920s brought dozens more feature films, nearly all featuring the steam engines of the Sierra Railroad and Tuolumne County’s wide variety of terrain – from plains, to rolling hills, to oak savannah, to the desert-like badlands we call the Red Hills, and finally up into the pines—all within 49 miles of track.

This winning combination led to one of the first “talkies”. Eighteen months after The Jazz Singer, acclaimed director Victor Fleming and rising star Gary Cooper came to Tuolumne County to make The Virginian. We like to think the first sound many people heard from a motion picture was the whistle of our very own Sierra #3.

Fleming would return to Tuolumne County in 1935 to direct Henry Fonda’s movie debut in Farmer Takes A Wife. Cooper returned for several films including Fighting Caravans, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and the Western classic High Noon. The latter film included the Gold Rush town of Columbia, first used in the thirties for Hopalong Cassidy films and others featuring Tom Mix, Errol Flynn, and Joel McCrea.

The people of Tuolumne County knew they had a good thing going and did their level best to keep Hollywood coming. In 1937 – many years before the first ‘film commission’ was established – the Sonora Motion Picture Association was doing the very thing good commissions do today: visiting studios and hosting tours of the county. This partnership led to literally hundreds of feature films, and later hundreds of television episodes and other film productions – an industry that has meant millions of dollars to our community over their fifty years in operation.

The Tuolumne County Film Commission has followed in the footsteps of this groundbreaking group, starting in the early 1990s. We market to the industry and then assist productions once they arrive, with the goal of making the process as smooth as possible.

Here are just some of the films and television series filmed in Tuolumne County:

  • 1910s: Scarlet Days, The Half Breed, The Red Glove
  • 1920s: The Traveling Salesman, Covered Wagon, The Virginian
  • 1930s: Charge of the Light Brigade, Dodge City, Go West, Wells Fargo
  • 1940s: For Whom The Bell Tolls, My Little Chickadee, Return of Frank James
  • 1950s: High Noon, Rage at Dawn, The Big Country
  • 1960s: “Petticoat Junction”, The Great Race,“Bonanza”
  • 1970s: “Little House on the Prairie”, Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, Bound For Glory
  • 1980s: Back to the Future III, Pale Rider, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom
  • 1990s: Radio Flyer, Unforgiven, Bad Girls
  • 2000s: “Three Wishes”, Hidalgo, “Monster Garage”

See them all on our filmography page.

Classic Tuolumne Film: The Virginian (1929)

Silent films gave way to the ‘talkies’ in late 1927 with the success of The Jazz Singer, but it wasn’t until a year later that anyone dared take this new-fangled sound-on-film equipment hundreds of miles away from a studio. It was a bold move for Paramount, which obviously had great confidence in experienced director Victor Fleming and up-and-coming star Gary Cooper. For many people the first sound-on-film they heard was the chug and whistle of Sierra #3!