Film Plays A Starring Role In Smithcliffs’ History
By Jane Janz, Special to the Independent
Barbara Isch, an 18-year old native daughter of Laguna wrote in a 1926 letter to a friend, describing to him a situation that made her unhappy. “Saturday night we went to the local hop and the movies were there. First National Company is shooting night scenes and we will probably have to put up with them for another two weeks.” “The movies” was the name locals attached to the cameramen, stars, directors and crews involved in filming. Laguna saw a lot of the movies.
In April of 1944 the movies were in town and filming at one of the most beautiful oceanfront estates in Laguna, what was then known as Howardcliff, which is today called Smithcliffs. The crew set up housekeeping temporarily at the Coast Inn, Hotel Del Camino, and Sea Cliff apartments, and enjoyed meals provided by Hotel Laguna. The Columbia Pictures crew of 50 were at work shooting “Shadows In The Night,” starring Warner Baxter and Nina Foch. This was the third in a series of ten Crime Doctor films. Basically, it is about a criminal psychologist who tries to help a beautiful heiress who is going mad in a haunted mansion. Yes, it is a B movie. According to one Los Angeles critic, “characters were added to thicken the plot. It gets thick to the point of becoming all but ludicrous at times.”
Although it is unclear if the interiors were made at the studio, all of the exterior shots were made in Laguna on location. There are scenes of Seal Rocks, the two large rocks in the ocean off of Crescent Bay Park, and a few shots to the north that show a hugely empty Emerald Bay. The movie portrays the magnificent grounds, the paths down to the sea, the rocks below, and a sense of the scale of the large house. And this is a house with history.
In 1915 wealthy Pasadena resident Caroline Dobbins fell in love with Laguna and bought 20 acres of land just south of Emerald Bay. In 1917 the local newspaper reported that “ plastering of the Dobbins house will begin next week.” She named her estate Dos Rocas for the Seal Rocks, just south of her house. She then built a house behind hers for her daughter Wilhelmina Lowe. When Wilhelmina died, her daughter Florence, better known as Pancho Barnes, a famous aviatrix, inherited the second house. The noise of Pancho’s wild parties was intolerable to Caroline Dobbins so she had the Lowe house moved to the point of what is now McKnight Drive.
The Howards Of Howardcliff
In 1929 the local newspaper carried a story about the sale of the Dos Rocas by Caroline Dobbins to wealthy Oklahoma oilman Oscar Howard. He bought the 10 acre ocean-front property, and she built a house for herself above the highway on another part of her 20 acres. Oscar Howard renamed the property “Howardcliff,” and he and his wife Inez would use this as their summer home for the next 22 years. Inez in 1925 published a book she wrote called “Chrysalis of Romance.” Oscar had made a fortune in the oil business. He started in Tulsa by investing his savings of $100, and then participated in the rapidly expanding oil business in California. The Los Angeles Times of the 20s, 30s and 40s have numerous articles reporting on the progress of his wells. They moved to California around 1919 and in 1922 bought in Los Angeles as their permanent residence an estate in Fremont Place, an exclusive enclave whose residents included over the years many famous names. Their home, 56 Fremont Place, had in the past been rented by both Mary Pickford and Mary Miles Minter, two names who have connections to Laguna also.
After purchasing Howardcliff, they re-landscaped and built a fence on the property. They furnished the house and cut 100 steps into the cliff for access to the cove below. I don’t know if a planned swimming pool in the rocks below was ever built. Oscar Howard died in 1950, and by 1952 Howard’s widow Inez had sold the property to Lon Smith, who renamed the property “Smithcliffs.” After Lon Smith’s widow died in 1989, plans were filed for a 26-home gated community, which retained the Smithcliffs name, and the old Dobbins house was subsequently torn down.
In the movie the house is called yet another name, “Rocky Point,” and in a scene where a car pulled up to the front of the property a sign on the gate said “Ravencliff.” Perhaps the director was trying to set the mood for a Poe-like story? The original house is long gone, but at least we can glimpse what was originally on the property because the images were captured on film.
Barbara Isch may have been unhappy, but I am glad the movies were in town.