This is the second post in an occasional series by John Seal on movies made in Berkeley. Read the first, on Hall Bartlett’s Changes, here.
I’ve read for years that Harold and Maude was partly shot in Our Town. It’s demonstrably true that director Hal Ashby’s 1971 black comedy was filmed throughout the Bay Area, and it would be surprising if a little bit of Berkeley didn’t creep in somewhere — but even after repeated viewings I remain unable to pinpoint specific scenes shot within the city limits.
So perhaps the Berkeley footage is apocryphal, but there’s at least one scene in the film which features not only one of the East Bay’s most famous public art galleries, but also a visual reference to the city’s two major thoroughfares. As a result, I’m going to extend Harold and Maude honorary membership in the locally grown produce club.
I first saw Harold and Maude at the UC Theatre in the early 1980s. The film’s reputation preceded it: it was already a counterculture classic about a (very) young man and his non-platonic relationship with a (much) older woman. Everyone else in the UC that night enjoyed it tremendously, but I hated it.
Surely it wasn’t right for a mature woman to corrupt a baby-faced man-child by plying him with ginger cake, marijuana, and (shudder) inter-generational sex. The giant wood carving of a vagina didn’t help matters, and a soundtrack full of seriously un-hip, diametrically opposed to punk-rock Cat Stevens songs was the last straw. I was an extremely prudish young adult and couldn’t approve of such outrages.
I didn’t see Harold and Maude again until a television airing in 2004, and the scales immediately fell from my eyes. This wasn’t a film about pedophilia and death worship after all! It was a film about true love and the meaning of life and all those good things! By golly, I loved this movie!
Was the aging process responsible for my new-found appreciation for Harold and Maude? Whether or not I’m more mature in my forties than I was in my twenties remains an open question: I’m still the prude I always was, but I’m a little more accepting of the foibles of others. I’ll no longer strike you off the list if you’ve drunk, smoked, or engaged in (shudder) inter-generational sex. I’ve even since warmed up a bit to Cat Stevens — and I’ve actually always liked ginger cake.
Shot during what looks like a very cold and wet Bay Area winter, Harold and Maude’s first exterior sequences feature the death-obsessed Harold (Bud Cort, 23 years old at the time, but looking ten years younger beneath heavy makeup emphasizing his bug-eyed pallor) purchasing a beat-up hearse from a San Carlos wrecking yard, espying the equally mordant Maude (74-year-old Ruth Gordon) at a burial in Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery, and driving home to a Hillsborough mansion. So far, so South Bay.
Harold doesn’t actually exchange words with Maude until they meet again at a Palo Alto funeral ceremony. Recognizing a fellow spirit, Maude invites Harold back to her home (an abandoned rail-car in South San Francisco), liberates a tree from downtown Redwood City, and transports it to freedom across the Dumbarton Bridge. Naturally, the film imagines the East Bay as the terminus point for the arboreal underground railway.
The West Bay gets a little love, too, in scenes shot amidst the remains of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths. The Baths, which also featured in Don Siegel’s 1958 crime drama The Lineup, had been destroyed in a 1966 fire, and here assume the grandeur of abandoned Roman ruins.
And then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: as the screen shot below demonstrates, the legendary Emeryville mudflat sculptures — an iconic roadside attraction that entertained I-80 drivers from the early 1960s (when renegade artists first began exhibiting there) until the late ‘80s (when the sculptures were removed in the name of wetlands regeneration) — serves as a contemplative meeting point for Harold and Maude. And there it is in the background: the road sign alerting drivers to the impending Ashby Avenue and University Avenue exits. Berkeley!
In addition to all this wonderful local footage, the film is filled with memorable performances. In addition to Cort and Gordon — both brilliant — there’s Tom Skerritt (credited for some reason as ‘M. Borman’) as a frustrated motorcycle cop, Charles Tyner as Harold’s one-armed uncle and Vivian Pickles as his impossibly snooty mother, and, in the film’s only acknowledgment of the North Bay, a delightful actress named Shari Summers as a young lady who supplies the entire Southwest with eggs and chicken feed from Petaluma.
For more information about Harold and Maude, please visit this website.
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.