That photo of Carole Lombard and husband Clark Gable was taken 71 years ago in Washington, D.C., not long after the couple had arrived from Chicago. Several passenger rail routes link the two cities, and it's possible Clark and Carole rode through a town I used to live in -- Rockville, Md.
Today's entry deals with a well-known (and fairly well-regarded) film, a good deal of which was shot in Rockville; it occasionally has run on Turner Classic Movies. Its two stars were a young man who went on to become one of the industry's biggest stars (and, for a time, one of its biggest Lotharios) and a woman, unlikely thrust into stardom, who ran afoul of controversy and left us much too soon.
The film was "Lilith," made in 1964; its stars were Warren Beatty (from nearby Arlington, Va.) and Jean Seberg, with Peter Fonda and Kim Hunter heading the supporting cast (which also includes Gene Hackman and Jessica Walter).
"Lilith," adapted from J.R. Salamanca's 1961 novel, is, to borrow the storyline from IMDb, "about a mysterious young woman in an elite sanitarium in New England, who seems to weave a magical spell all around her. A restless, but sincere young man with an equally obscure past is seemingly drawn into her web. As time passes, their relationship deepens and intensifies, and the differences between them begin to blur, leading to a shocking, but oddly logical conclusion."
While the film was set in New England, part of the filming was done in Rockville, largely because it was home to a real-life sanitarium with a certain cinematic aura.
Chestnut Lodge, a structure initially built as a summer resort for nearby Washingtonians, was noted for its controversial approach to psychiatric care, using long-term psychotherapy and electroshock therapies. (One of its many patients was Zelda Fitzgerald, who with husband F. Scott Fitzgerald is now buried in nearby St. Mary's Cemetery.) Officials allowed "Lilith" filmmakers use of the outside grounds, but not interior shots. I occasionally walked past Chestnut Lodge, located in a leafy neighborhood full of beautiful Victorian houses. And here are two shots of the neighborhood, as seen from the film:
You can also see much of downtown Rockville, a few blocks to the east, standing in for the New England town. Here are some photos from the production showing Beatty's character:
That building behind the bus is the Montgomery County Courthouse, built in 1931, and the statue was built to honor the Civil War dead...of the Confederate army!
Here's a nighttime view of the Villa Theater, a moviehouse built in 1935 and originally called the Milo:
All very nice to have some of your favorite haunts captured on film, you say. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. My family moved to Rockville in October 1970, and by that time, the Villa was gone -- in fact, so was much of downtown:
Yes, Rockville fell victim to the urban renewal bug, and you can get a feel for what was happening in this 1971 shot:
That large thing under construction in the background, roughly where the movie house had stood? Something called the Rockville Mall, the centerpiece of this urban renewal program. How'd it fare? Within a few years of its opening in 1972, its anchor department store chain, Lansburgh's, went out of business...and so did Lit's, the Philadelphia-based chain that replaced it. (My mother was an employee of both stores, and we jokingly told her never to get a job at General Motors. However, GM proved it could fall on hard times without my mother's help.) By the late seventies, the mall was a white elephant, and what passed for downtown Rockville was a disjointed mess.
There is a happy ending, however: Rockville got a second chance at urban renewal, and this time got it right. The complex called the Rockville Town Center houses apartments, restaurants, retail and the county's main library. It's compact, walkable, close to the Metrorail station, and has made downtown its liveliest in decades.
By the time the mixed-use complex opened in July 2007, Chestnut Lodge had been closed for six years, and plans were underway to convert the venerable building into condominiums. However, that all disappeared in June 2009, as it was destroyed by fire:
Another piece of Rockville history that had, to borrow the title of another book-turned-film, gone with the wind: