Indy boasts a decades-old flirtation with Hollywood

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

As we approach the Academy Awards again, did you ever wonder if any movies filmed in Indianapolis have won an Oscar? Well, if you have, the answer to that question, probably not surprisingly, is no.

It’s not that Indianapolis is an unattractive city to Hollywood exactly; several films, ranging from a Humphrey Bogart vehicle in 1955, The Desperate Hours, to the Stephen Spielberg hit from 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were set in Indianapolis. But they were not filmed here.

Award-winning actress Barbara Stanwyck visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1950 to promote her new movie, To Please a Lady. The film’s climactic scene was shot at the Speedway. The race car bears the name of her co-star, Clark Gable. indiana historical society p0569

Unlike some other cities, Indianapolis did not offer sweet enough deals to lure big film productions. For instance, The Fault in Our Stars, the movie version of local author John Green’s Indianapolis-located, best-selling young adult novel, was filmed in a recreated version of Indianapolis – in Pittsburgh. Last year though, according to the website for Film Indiana, Senate Enrolled Act 361 created an income tax credit of up to 30 percent to help offset some production expenses for filmmaking in the state and offered a few other perks. Perhaps this will spur more interest in the city as a film location. Time will tell.

Still, while Indianapolis has not, up to now, been heralded as a movie-making city in the annals of Hollywood, we have made a tiny contribution as a film location, starting at least as early as the 1940s.

In 1949, Johnny Holiday, about “a young street tough sent to a reform farm” according to the International Movie Database website, was filmed in Indianapolis and at the Indiana Boys School in nearby Plainfield. Along with the then-16 year-old Allen Martin Jr. as the main character, and character actor William Bendix (whom you’ll recognize when you Google him), the film also had appearances from Indiana’s Hoagy Carmichael and the staff and boys of the Boys School—probably a violation of the underage boys’ privacy that would not be allowed today.

Although the film production did not generate much local interest, the Indianapolis Press Club knew about it and hosted Bendix, his wife, and daughter at a dinner in his honor while he was in the city. According to The Indianapolis News, which reported on the dinner on July 2, 1949, Bendix was “working on a film about Hoosierdom to be released in the near future.”

The following year, two much bigger stars – previous Oscar winner Clark Gable and future Oscar winner Barbara Stanwyck – were in Indianapolis filming To Please a Lady. The movie, described by IMBd as “former war hero and midget car racer meets his match in a feisty reporter,” was filmed at the Speedway. To Please a Lady had its “world premiere” at Loew’s Theatre in Downtown Indianapolis.

The final scene was shot on race day, May 30, 1950. In it, Gable and Stanwyck made up from an argument just before he hopped into his car and promptly wrecked it (in the film). The wreck scene had been filmed earlier, but the making-up scene, which took only about four minutes to shoot, was filmed in front of the Race Day crowd. The Indianapolis News published the script for the scene, which ended with this enlightened dialogue. Stanwyck: “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s terrific … It’s like a heavyweight fight and the Fourth of July rolled into one. Now I can see it takes a certain kind of guy.” Gable: “And that guy needs a certain type of dame.”

Almost 20 years later, Joanne Woodward was the certain type of dame and Paul Newman was a certain kind of guy in another film set at the Speedway, Winning. In it, according to IMDb, Newman played “a rising star on the race circuit who dreams of winning the big one – the Indianapolis 500. But to get there he runs the risk of losing his wife Elora [Woodward] to his rival, Luther Erding.” A Pure Oil Co. advertisement in The Indianapolis Star in June 1968 offered up free tickets at any local Pure Oil station to watch the production in action at the Speedway.

Second only to motor car racing, (or perhaps before it) Indiana and Indianapolis’s favorite sport is basketball. Many Indianapolis residents remember the filming of the game scenes in Hoosiers at Hinkle Fieldhouse in 1986, starring Gene Hackman. Decades later the Indiana Pacers used the movie’s pivotal locker room scene to stir up crowds at home games and even wore uniforms modeled after the film’s “Hickory” team at what is now called Gainbridge Fieldhouse, itself a brick-and-mortar homage to Hinkle.

Eight Men Out featured yet another sport, this time baseball, when the movie about the cheating Chicago “Black Sox” was filmed in the city in 1988. The movie starred John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and Christopher Lloyd. An Indianapolis temporary seating company located wooden seats for the several thousand extras to sit on during the filming at Old Bush Stadium, now Stadium Lofts. The Indianapolis Star staff reporter Morris D. Wildey was one of those extras, who wrote about his mostly boring non-adventure in a two-page spread titled “Not Much Action, but that’s Show Biz!”

Native son Dan Wakefield’s novel, Going All the Way, was turned into a movie filmed in part on Massachusetts Avenue in 1996 for a September 1997 release. I sold the set decorator a 1950s bar from my vintage store to use in the interior shots of Leslie Ann Warren’s home in the movie. Perhaps more important, to some anyway, is that young Ben Affleck came to the attention of Hollywood from his role in the film. The main character was played by Jeremy Davies, who never made it quite as big as Affleck, but did have an on-going role as the hapless criminal, Dickie Bennett, in FX’s 2010-2015 series Justified

There have been other movies filmed here, including a Peter Falk, Julianne Moore sleeper, Roommates, in 1995 and there was Caged Women II, but if you didn’t see Caged Women I, you might not want to bother with that one.

Can we say that Indianapolis has a storied history in movie-making? Not exactly. A short story maybe. Or if that 2022 incentive legislation works, maybe it is a chapter in a book still to be written. 

Connie Zeigler has a Masters Degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing her pirate’s booty with Urban Times readers.