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Four Classic Movies Set in Iowa

Updated on September 5, 2017
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Kathryn Lamoreux is an English teacher who loves stories of all kinds, including those shown on film and TV.

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1) The Music Man (1962)

Starring: Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, and Buddy Hackett

Based on the Broadway musical created by Mason City native Meredith Willson, The Music Man won the Academy Award for Best Musical Score and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Costume Design, and three other awards. Although the musical features the not-so-flattering song "Iowa Stubborn" as a quintessential ode to... well, Iowa stubbornness, Willson (then living in California) referred to it as "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." The Music Man is loaded with classic show tunes including "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little / "Goodnight Ladies," and "Marian the Librarian."

Hollywood legends Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant were both asked to star as the traveling salesman and wily swindler "Professor" Harold Hill. However, both turned down the role, with Grant insisting that "nobody could do that role as well as Bob Preston," who had originated the part on Broadway. The studio gave in and hired Robert Preston, and the role immediately established him as an A-list star.To this day, my Iowan grandmother insists that no one else can do justice to the character of Harold Hill. It seems that Cary Grant was right on the money!

Although the movie was remade for TV by Disney in 2003 with Matthew Broderick in the lead role, the new version received dismal reviews, with the reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle writing that it "never matches the 1962 film with its classic performance by the late Robert Preston. It was Preston . . . who galvanized The Music Man with his vibrant, masculine authority . . . Broderick, by comparison, is cute, wide-eyed, a bit squishy and about as dynamic and intimidating as Winnie the Pooh." Ouch. For the best take on this classic musical, definitely opt for the original 1962 version.

76 Trombones Finale

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2) Field of Dreams (1989)

Starring: Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, and Burt Lancaster

Producing such oft-repeated and now cliched quotations as "If you build it, he will come" and "'Is this heaven?' 'No, it's Iowa,'" The Field of Dreams was shot largely at a private residence and adjoining field in Dubuque County, near Dyersville, Iowa. The site is maintained by owner Don Lansing, who charges no admission, generating proceeds solely from the gift shop. Today, more than twenty years after the release of the film, which was nominated for three Academy Awards and dubbed the sixth best American fantasy movie by the American film institute in June 2008, the Field of Dreams still receives around 65,000 visitors annually. In 2009, the Lansings put the land up for sale for an asking price of $5.4 million, but no one has yet taken them up on that price. Visits to the field continue at no charge to the fans, who frequently play catch, run the bases, or take photographs walking into or emerging from the corn.

However, even without making the journey to Dyersville, you can enjoy (or re-experience) some of the magic of Field of Dreams simply by watching the DVD in the comfort of your own home. The film’s story revolves around people reconnecting and reconciling with the lost dreams and opportunities of the past, with an embittered writer rediscovering his love for baseball and a son making amends for a damaged relationship with his deceased father. If you find that these themes resonate with you, you may even enjoy picking up a copy of the book upon which the movie is based, Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Instead of the fictional writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), the novel features a fictionalized portrayal of the real-life author of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. Salinger was furious at his unauthorized portrayal in the novel, and therefore, his name was changed in the movie adaptation.

As a last piece of trivia notable to those seeking out Iowa movies and stories, W.P. Kinsella was attending the University of Iowa writer’s workshop at the time that the novel was written. So, although the author is a native Canadian, his book and the movie it inspired definitely have some genuine Iowa roots.

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3) What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, John C. Reilly

Although set in the fictional small town of Endora, Iowa, What's Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed mostly in the cities of Manor, Elgin, and Lockhart, Texas. The movie follows the struggle of young Gilbert Grape to care for his family in the wake of tragedy. Following his father's suicide, his mother falls into a depression, becoming morbidly obese, and is therefore been unable to care for her children alone. Because of this, Gilbert must care for his mentally handicapped brother Arnie, who has a peculiar habit of attempting to climb the town water tower if left alone for too long. It's all a bit too much for a teenager to handle, especially when Gilbert begins to fall in love.

The film received positive reviews, particularly for Leonardo DiCaprio's role as Arnie, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Even at 19, DiCaprio was a hard worker who went through thorough preparation for the role. According to an interview that he gave, DiCaprio, "had to really research and get into the mind of somebody with a disability like that. So I spent a few days at a home for mentally [disabled] teens. We just talked and I watched their mannerisms. People have these expectations that mentally [disabled] children are really crazy, but it's not so. It's refreshing to see them because everything's so new to them."

Like the previous two films mentioned in this article, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is based on the work of an Iowa writer. Peter Hedges, the author of the novels What's Eating Gilbert Grape and An Ocean in Iowa, which also takes place in Endora, was born and raised in West Des Moines, Iowa,. His other sreenplays include About a Boy, Dan in Real Life, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

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4) The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood

Based on Robert James Waller's bestselling 1992 novel of the same name, The Bridges of Madison County is set in Madison County, Iowa, with much of the filming taking place in the towns of Winterset and Adel. The film tells the story of an Italian housewife who falls in love with a photographer passing through town to shoot the area's covered bridges for The National Geographic. Deeply affected by the four days they spend together, she chronicles the story in her diary, which is read by her shocked children after her death. Although no sequel to the movie has been produced, Waller released an epilogue to the book, titled A Thousand Country Roads, in 2002.

The film was critically acclaimed, and Meryl Streep received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress in her role as housewife Francesca Johnson. There are six real bridges of Madison County, all of which were built in the 1870s and 80s and may still be visited today. They are Roseman Bridge (the most prominently featured in the film), Cedar Bridge, Cutler-Donahoe Bridge, Hogback Bridge, Holliwell Bridge, and Imes Bridge. With the exception of Imes Bridge, built by Eli Cox, all of the bridges were built by Benton Jones.

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