Big Bear, California: Hollywood Super Star

I now know why I felt so comfortable in Big Bear the first time I visited it twenty years ago. Although I was an East Coast transplant, it felt like home.  Or to be precise, the locale was something that was familiar; etched in my brain as a child watching countless hours of westerns. Big Bear is what the real Old West was all about, at least as portrayed on the big screen and perceived by an innocent child.

For more than a century, Hollywood has made Big Bear its backdrop for iconic productions. Films that might ring a bell include When a Stranger Calls, Next, Dr. Doolittle II, Gone with the Wind, The Insider, Frankenstein, Magnolia, Beethoven’s 3rd and War Games. According to IMDb, there have been 334 movies filmed thus far with locations in the Big Bear area.

‘The Last of the Mohicans’ silent movie was filmed on location in Big Bear in 1920.

The years 1912 and 1913 were busy years for filmmaking in our local mountains. Most of these films were one or two reels, with each reel being 10 to 15 minutes long.

Birth of a Nation was filmed here in 1915. Big Bear scenes start about 2:09. Uncomfortable subject matter but interesting view of Big Bear and the lake from Castle Rock.

It was also a popular place for shooting on location, as they did for the filming of the 1920 version of Last of the Mohicans and a number of Bonanza episodes in the 1960s at Cedar Lake. Parent Trap with Hayely Mills, Bluff Lake YMCA camp and Old Yeller were filmed in Big Bear too. 

When you watch Island in the Sky – you will recognize Big Bear in some of the wide shots. Gold Mountain is clearly visible. Home for the Holidays was shot in Fawnskin. That’s how the Fawn Lodge got a paint job and windows.

Lucky Baldwin Mine on Gold Mountain was a popular film location. – Rick Keppler collection
What remains of the headframe at Lucky Baldwin Mine, 2017.

Rocky Mountain Mystery (1935) was an early Randolph Scott western based on a novel by Zane Grey. Also known as “The Fighting Westerners” it has some interior shots of the Doble stamp mill and others areas. Once thriving Doble is now a ghost town.

Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hoot Gibson, Hopalong Cassidy, & dozens more actors made hundreds of movies here in the valley. A large percentage of them were shot at Shay Ranch. The movie sets were a permanent fixture right near the old ranch house.

Their location was just a few hundred yards east of the old cattle guard that was located right about where Baranca & Shay Road join at the beginning of the straight away on Shay Rd.

Who can forget this funny little 1949 ditty by the man of a thousand voices, Big Bear Lake resident Mel Blanc? The song, of course, is called Big Bear Lake.

Next time you watch one of those old cowboy movies you will see different parts of Big Bear and the old sets at Cedar Lake. Don’t Fence Me In, with Roy Rogers was filmed at the Peter Pan Club and around Big Bear.

Big Bear Lake played a pivotal role in many films. The cloudy area is not an imperfection with the photo, it is smoke from an actor’s gun. – Rick Keppler collection

Locals recalled Cedar Lake was very cool. You could go in with a small fee. It’s closed except to members now.  If you see North to Alaska that is where they had the loggers picnic. Lots of locals are in those scenes. Good times.

Other movies filmed in Big Bear were To the Last Man (1933) filmed at Shay Meadows in Bear City, and Skull and Crown (1935).  Actor Henry Fonda starred in Trail Of The Lonesome Pine which was shot at Cedar Lake.

In the 1969 movie, Paint Your Wagon, Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and Pardner (Clint Eastwood) go on a gold prospecting mission in a tent city boomtown. The twist to the story is that they both have the same wife, whom they had purchased from a Mormon—Elizabeth (Jean Seberg).

Some exterior scenes were shot in California, specifically in Holcomb Valley, north of Big Bear Lake. This is located in the real gold rush country of San Bernardino National Forest; overland travelers from Salt Lake found gold here in 1849.

The San Bernardino mountains beckoned the early film makers with the promises of tall timber and grassy meadows. Location shooting was easy because hunting and fishing lodges were already available to house the film crews.

Although films were probably already being made in the mountains, the earliest documentation was an item in the Redlands Daily Review, January 19, 1913, indicating that the Selig Bear Valley Co. was in our mountains filming The Cattle Rustlers.

What, Lassie? Timmy fell in the well? Photo courtesy Desilu Productions.

Famous film director/producer Cecil B. DeMille was one of the first Hollywood producers to use Big Bear as a location for a filming.

Just three years after the Bison Motion Picture Company had arrived in Big Bear, DeMille was in Big Bear making a silent film called The Call of the North.

Director Cecil B. DeMille, hand on hip. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

This was only the second film that DeMille had ever made. But it was a critically acclaimed success, and it firmly established him as a major director. One of DeMille’s favorite locations for filming in Big Bear was the famous Fisher family estate located just west of the village. Today the Fisher property is known as Logonita Lodge.

Cecil B. DeMille not only went on to become a giant in the film industry, but in 1919, he was also founder of one of the first aviation companies in this country to carry freight and passengers. It was called Mercury Aviation.

On the same day Fleming was shooting Bonnie’s riding scene, B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, one of Hollywood’s most dependable second-unit directors, began filming the Shanty Town scene for Gone With the Wind at Big Bear Lake in Southern California.

Photo courtesy Metro Goldwyn-Mayer.

Work had begun before dawn, when five large trucks carrying construction equipment, set dressings, props, wardrobe, lights, and generators left the studio for the Big Bear Lake location. The crew included carpenters, set dressers, painters, landscapers, and a first aid technician. A large amount of red brick dust was hauled there to simulate the red dirt of Georgia.

The film’s historical advisor, Wilbur Kurtz, traveled by car to observe the construction of the camp, and production designer William Cameron Menzies arrived later to supervise. A third car arrived at noon with Aline Goodwin, Scarlet”s double, Lydia Schiller, the script supervisor, and other support staff.

The next morning, one of the generators broke down due to the altitude, and Eason was forced to film that day without sound. The generator was repaired overnight so they were able to shoot with sound the next day.

After lunch, they began filming the scene in which Scarlett is attacked. The scene had undergone considerable revision in an effort to avoid trouble with the Hays Office, which had cautioned Selznick to avoid any suggestion of rape in this scene.

Though the novel featured an African American man attacking Scarlett, Selznick cast the attacker as a white man. Upon acquiring the rights to Gone With The Wind, this was one of the first changes Selznick made to the story, mindful of concerns about the depiction of African American characters in the film.

Photo courtesy Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Big Sam’s fight scene with Scarlett’s attacker was shot on Thursday, June 15. Fay Helm took over as Scarlett’s double. Aside from the occasional car horn or spectator wandering into the frame, filming proceeded quickly and efficiently for the next two days, with only two or three takes made for each camera angle.

The scene was substantially finished on June 16, though some of the crew stayed the next day to film “moving process plates” at various speeds (easy trot, gallop, runaway) that would be used as backgrounds for Vivien Leigh’s close-ups.

These close-ups, as well as the close-ups of Yakima Canutt, Blue Washington and Everett Brown as Big Sam, were filmed by Victor Fleming two weeks later.

Photo courtesy NBC.

The Cartwright’s one-thousand square mile Ponderosa Ranch is located near Virginia City, Nevada, site of the Comstock Silver Lode, during and after the Civil War. Each of the sons was born to a different wife of Ben’s; none of the mothers is still alive. 

Adventures are typical western ones, with lots of personal relationships/problems thrown in as well.  Wow, Virginia City looks just like Big Bear Lake!

Kissin Cousins (1964). Photo courtesy Metro Goldwyn-Mayer.

In Kissin Cousins (1964), starring Elvis Presley, an Army officer returns to the Smoky Mountains and tries to convince his kinfolk to allow the Army to build a missile site on their land. Once he gets there, he discovers he has a lookalike cousin.

Notice again the iconic Cedar Lake Mill.

Other Big Bear movies included The Girl in The Empty Grave (1977) starring Andy Griffith with glimpses of the Bank of America, Fire Station, Women’s Club, Library, and Mobil Station, Pine Tree Park, Camp Juniper, Baldwin Lake. Deadly Game (1977) starring Andy Griffith (Part 1 of 7) was also filmed here.

This old log cabin in Shay Meadows isn’t real. It is a movie set from the 1940s. It was the movie set of the Brigham Young movie.  – Rick Keppler collection

Big Bear Lake was one of the filming locations for Daniel Boone, Gone with the Wind, Disney’s Old YellerWar Games (1983), the opening to NBC’s children’s program HR Pufnstuf  (1969) and the ending scene in Better Off Dead.

Other movies include Big Foot-– a Disney movie. It was filmed in the west end of town and The Insider (1999)- was filmed in Fawnskin.
Catalog and commercial productions include J.C. Penny, St. John’s Bay, Orvis, Toyota, Mountain Dew and many others.Television productions include Grey’s Anatomy, The King of Queens, The Average Joe, Next Great Champ, Jimmy Kimmel and Extreme Dating.

What does “Hot Tub Time Machine” have in common with 1939’s Gone With the Wind?  Almost nothing, I assure you, but each crew did go to Big Bear in the mountains east of Los Angeles for some additional location shooting.  Big Bear was not given its due in the credit roll.

Other cinematic classics that did at least some filming in Big Bear were High Sierra (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and – well, you get the idea: Hot Tub Time Machine has nothing else in common with any of those either.

San Bernardino Sun 24 Feb.1987

According to TMZ, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday was shooting at Big Bear Lake, CA — and the scene called for Pee-wee to plunge into the chilly lake while holding an umbrella. Not exactly Paul Reubens’ kinda thing, so enter the stunt man.

Sources on set say strong wind kept messing up the shot, so the poor guy had to make the roughly 40 foot drop in a soggy suit … over, and over, and over again.

The San Bernardino Sun, 6 May 1990
The San Bernardino Sun, 6 May 1990

Many celebrities like Mel Blanc, Britney Spears and Richard Moll have called Big Bear home over the years and in fact many continue to enjoy the special beauty and wholesome ambience of Big Bear in their opulent cabins even in present day. You never know who you might recognize whether shopping in the Village, dining at the many popular Big Bear restaurants, or participating in local parades.

Residents and visitors alike enjoy rubbing elbows with the famous.  If you spot someone, don’t make a spectacle though. Hollywood glitterati are people too. Films and media continue to be shot in the area and the local film office stays busy.

There’s an air in Big Bear that sets it uniquely apart from the bustling cities an hour away.  Maybe it’s the vivid visual imagery at every turn, the crisp weather, nice people, diverse neighborhoods, or amenities. But I think it’s much more. You won’t find a multiplex cinema or a mega mall in Big Bear. At one time, it sported two drive-in’s but they have gone the way of the past. The lake, museums, zoo, The Village, and ski resorts take center stage.

This is the stuff of our childhoods that sparked a thousand day dreams of the Wild West and beyond. It’s quaint but not rustic. Where the good guys fought the bad guys and always won. Where mythical cowboys, intrepid adventurers and fantastical creatures roamed across vast wilderness, sparkling lakes, and mysterious pine forests. Where scenic mountains, like paintings of the masters, were always in the backdrop of unparalleled natural beauty.

Yes, Big Bear has imbued itself in our imaginations, and will continue to weave its theatrical magic for generations to come.


Those Magnificent Mountain Movies: The Golden Years, 1911-1939, Cozad, W. Lee, 2002

More Magnificent Mountain Movies: The Silver Screen Years, 1940-2004, Cozad, W. Lee, 2006

“Hot Tub Time Machine” Locations, Trivia & Secrets

3 thoughts on “Big Bear, California: Hollywood Super Star

  1. Great article Jaylyn. i go to Big Bear all the time and had no idea so many movies were filmed here. Thanks for your informative article.

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