When you think of movies filmed in Nevada, your mind probably goes straight to Vegas and the many, many Hollywood productions that have been filmed there, which is fair. Sin City is a natural attraction for Tinsel Town product; in fact, we bet you can name three movies that have the word “Vegas” in the title.

But Reno has seen its fair share of Hollywood films, and in some cases this includes movies made before Las Vegas even became a gambling town. Bugsy Siegel is typically given credit for turning Sin City into what it is today, but his renovated Flamingo Hotel didn’t open until 1946, and even then it took awhile before Vegas became, well, Vegas.

In fact, it is fair to say that Reno was the Las Vegas of the first half of the 20th century, having already built a reputation as a tourist/gambling destination where wealthier Americans came to get a “quick” divorce, or spend the day playing up at Tahoe and the nights playing in Reno.

We can name six films, ranging from terrible to great, that were set partially or completely in Reno, all made before 1950, with the Biggest Little City as the subject matter.

In chronological order:

  • NIGHT LIFE IN RENO (1931). After catching her husband with another woman, June heads for Reno to get a “quick” divorce, but gets caught up in a murder mystery when John (her husband) follows her out to the Biggest Little City in order to make amends. This is all we know about the movie. We can’t tell you if it’s good, bad, or even if it has actual scenes of Reno in it, but it is remarkable due to the fact that sound films were still a new thing in ’31. If anyone knows where we can watch a copy, please inform us in the comments below.
  • CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1938). This movie is not without its charm, but it does feature the kind of stereotypical portrayal of non-Caucasian ethnicities that some call “racist” while others more kindly describe it as “a product of the times”. In the Depression era 1930’s, low budget detective films were the bread and butter of a Hollywood movie machine that was just as effected by the harsh economic times as the rest of the country. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie movies were popular, and sparked a sub-genre of detective films that included the now infamous Charlie Chan. While the entirety of the main film was shot in a studio in California, there is plenty of “B roll” (film shot for the purposes of background or filler) which was actually recorded here in Reno. If such ethnic stereotypes don’t bother you, the entire movie can be viewed on YouTube.
  • THE WOMEN (1939). George Cukor’s dramatic comedy about the lives of Manhattan Socialites takes place on a train to Reno, as well as in the Biggest Little City itself. A group of women on their way to get divorced share their stories with each other resulting in unexpected outcomes for some of them. There isn’t a lot of scenery on display here, but a few of the scenes take place in Reno’s historic train depot as well as downtown.
  • NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK (1941). A comedy which isn’t all that funny, this classic era film is about a couple honeymooning in Reno who get caught up in a bank robbery and the ensuing aftermath. What’s odd about the title is that the wife in the story sees an advertisement across the street from their Reno hotel that shows a clock with no hands on it. This has absolutely nothing to do with the entirety of the rest of the film and seems only to have served as the inspiration for the movie’s title.
  • MAISE GOES TO RENO (1944). Maise is a war-era riveter, overworked and underpaid; she helps build the American Victory Machine to help the Allied cause. But she’s developed a problem; poor Maise has an eye twitch and everyone thinks she’s winking at them. The solution? Two weeks vacation in Reno. A film that surprisingly isn’t about divorce, this movie starring Anne Southern showcases some pretty decent color footage of mid-century Reno.
  • BORN TO KILL (1947). Gritty crime noire thriller murder mystery set in Reno with minimal actual Reno footage, mostly because it takes place at night and indoors. Helen just got a divorce and wants to leave town on the next train, but one of her neighbors (and that neighbor’s gentleman caller) was found murdered and she’s a person of interest. It’s not bad as crime dramas go, and is most notable for being one of Robert Wise’s early works. Wise was Orson Welles’ editor for ‘Citizen Kane’ and went on to direct a host of well-known Hollywood films including ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, ‘The Andromeda Strain’ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’.

Honorable Mention: THE GOLD RUSH (1925). Charlie Chaplin’s classic and heartfelt comedy was neither set, nor filmed in Reno, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention it here. Using Donner Pass as a stand in for Chilcoot Pass in Alaska, Chaplin is responsible for making the Reno/Tahoe area an attractive place for feature films. You are strongly urged to see this terrific movie – Chaplin’s best in your author’s humble opinion – because it is first and foremost one of the earliest films to use comedy to tug at the emotions; a scene where Chaplin’s character wakes up from a from a vivid dream will put a lump in your throat. But you should also see it because it segues nicely into next week’s column where we will be discussing the most famous movies filmed in the Reno/Tahoe area. Some of them you probably know, but we’re willing to bet you’ll find a surprise or two. Stay tuned.

Garrett is a graduate of the University of Nevada who’s lived in the Reno area since 1988. He has a passion for writing, history, useless trivia, video gaming, pop culture, and bad puns. He also believes every life has a story to tell, and that sometimes the most seemingly mundane lives have the most profound impact on the course of human events. Garrett enjoys rainy evenings, long sits on the couch, good books, good movies and good food. He lives just east of Sparks with his two dogs, River and Washburn.