10 "Classic" Films Set in New Orleans

10:11 July 10, 2019
By: Burke Bischoff

Many different people have a different answer when asked what they consider to be a classic movie. For me, I've always identified "classic" with the date a film was released: movies that came out before the mid- to late-1960s. The filming techniques, the stars, and the style of acting in those films just scream "classic Hollywood" to me. And while New York City and Los Angeles have a strangle hold in terms of American movie locales, New Orleans has still managed to be featured in plenty of classic cinema, whether the movie is set in or just filmed in the city.

To celebrate the Crescent City in cinema, here is a list of 10 classic movies set in New Orleans.

Naughty Marietta (1935)

Based on a 1910 operetta by composer Victor Herbert, the film stars Jeanette MacDonald as Marie, a French princess who trades places with her maid, named Marietta, and flees on a boat to New Orleans to escape an arranged marriage. Along the way, pirates attack the ship and kidnap all of the women onboard. Marie ends up being saved by Captain Richard (played by Nelson Eddy), who forms a relationship with her while escorting her to New Orleans. Music from the opera is featured in the film and has become famous enough to be referenced in other works, such as Young Frankenstein and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Jezebel (1938)

Starring the legendary Bette Davis in one of her finest roles, Jezebel is about a wealthy Southern belle named Julie Marsden, who lives in New Orleans. Possessing a strong will and a spoiled attitude, Julie displays hotheaded behavior that causes friction between herself and her banker fiancé Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda). After she causes a major scene at a social gathering, Preston breaks off their engagement and leaves her to go away on business. When Julie finds out Preston is coming back to New Orleans after a year, she tries desperately to win him back. Jezebel ended up winning two Oscars at the 11th Academy Awards, one of which was Best Actress for Bette Davis.

Saratoga Trunk (1945)

Based on the 1914 novel by the same name by Edna Ferber, Saratoga Trunk is about a mulatto woman named Clio Dulaine (played by Ingrid Bergman), who's the illegitimate child from an affair between a French-Creole aristocrat and a Creole servant woman. After an accident leaves Clio's father dead, the Dulaine family exiles Clio and her mother to Paris. Upon her return to her home on Rampart Street, Clio looks to get revenge on the Dulaine family for their mistreatment of her mother. All the while, Clio tries to marry a wealthy Texas gambler (played by Gary Cooper). The film helped build up Ingrid Bergman's star power in America after she made a splash with Casablanca in 1942.

New Orleans (1947)

New Orleans is an interesting movie, mainly because of the production story behind it. The movie was initially going to have Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in the starring roles, playing jazz singers who left the South in order to pursue their careers. However, the studio, United Artists, was afraid that most moviegoers wouldn't want to see a movie with black actors as the leads, so Holiday and Armstrong had their parts demoted to secondary roles. The version of New Orleans that was released has an opera singer (played by Dorothy Patrick) forming a romance with a club owner known as "the King of Basin Street" (played by Arturo de Cordova). While it's unfortunate that Holiday and Armstrong didn't get the leading roles, they still gave fantastic musical performances for the film (featuring other local performers Kid Ory, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard, and Bud Scott).

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Set and filmed on location in New Orleans, Panic in the Streets is a film noir that stars Richard Widmark as Dr. Clint Reed, a U.S. Public Health Service officer, who, while doing an autopsy on a John Doe, discovers that a potential pneumonic plague outbreak is threatening the city. Informing the mayor and other city officials, Dr. Reed is told that he has only 42 hours to save New Orleans from the plague. Teaming up with police captain Tom Warren (played by Paul Douglas) and his wife Nancy (played by Barbara Bel Geddes), Dr. Reed has to discover who the John Doe is, where he was sent from, and who's behind this attack. Shot in a semi-documentary style, Panic in the Streets features many New Orleans citizens in speaking and non-speaking roles.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

One of the many works penned by New Orleans's favorite playwright Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire follows Blanche DuBois (played by Vivien Leigh), who leaves her teaching job in Mississippi to live with her sister, Stella Kowalski (played by Kim Hunter), and Stella's husband Stanley (played by Marlon Brando), in their New Orleans apartment. Her arrival causes friction between the husband and wife, culminating in a series of tense, dramatic moments. The film became a major success when it was released: It won four Academy Awards, was fifth in box office sales in 1951, and catapulted Marlon Brando into superstardom.

King Creole (1958)

In 1958, the King graced the Crescent City. In King Creole, Elvis Presley plays Danny Fisher, a 19-year-old who is denied his high school graduation because of a schoolyard fight. Trying to find a means to support himself and his father, Danny gets involved with petty crime before finding a job as a musician in a New Orleans club. However, Danny's former crime boss (played by Walter Matthau) uses his girlfriend (played by Carolyn Jones) to bring Danny back to a life of crime. King Creole was a critical and commercial success when released, with film critics unanimously praising Elvis's performance (and Elvis once stated that King Creole was his favorite film to work on).

The Buccaneer (1958)

A remake of the 1938 original by the same name, The Buccaneer is a heavily fictionalized story about the French pirate Jean Lafitte. Set during the War of 1812, the film features Yul Brynner as Lafitte, who is asked by General Andrew Jackson (played by Charlton Heston) and Governor William C. C. Claiborne (played by E. G. Marshall) to help the Americans fight against the British during the Battle of New Orleans. Despite feeling he should side with the British, Lafitte ends up helping the Americans because of his infatuation with Claiborne's daughter (played by Inger Stevens). While The Buccaneer received criticism for its historical inaccuracies, the acting and action scenes were largely praised.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Another work by Tennessee Williams, Suddenly, Last Summer stars Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly, a young woman who is traumatized and institutionalized after witnessing the death of her cousin while in Spain. Catherine's aunt (played by Katharine Hepburn), not wanting the details of her son's death to be well-known, tries to bribe a bright young doctor, John Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Cliff), into lobotomizing her niece. Resisting the idea, Dr. Cukrowicz instead vows to find out the truth about what happened to Catherine's cousin before sealing her fate. The film received mixed reviews (the screenwriters, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams himself, denounced it after it was released), yet it is still an interesting viewing because of how darkly twisted its plot becomes.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Starring the "King of Cool," Steve McQueen, The Cincinnati Kid is a story about Eric "The Kid" Stoner, a young man who strives to be the best poker player around in Depression-era New Orleans. Eric ends up playing a game against the current poker master, Lancey "The Man" Howard (played by Edward G. Robinson), but realizes a man named Slade (played by Rip Torn) rigged the game in order to get back at Lancey. As a result, Eric strives to prove his skills by beating the men at their own game. Not only was the film shot in New Orleans, but The Cincinnati Kid also features a cameo of local musician Emma Barrett, as well as one of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

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