Aug 04, 2023

And in the starring role … FLORIDA

By ohtadmin | on August 03, 2023

Films featuring the Sunshine State have been around since silent movies, depicting its greatness and quirkiness

Astronauts and mermaids.

White sandy beaches with turquoise water and crisp, green manicured golf courses.

Hurricanes and shark attacks.

Tourists and snowbirds and spring breakers and meth addicts.

These are just some of the things that come to mind when people think of Florida.

Over the past century, films have affected non-Floridians’ view of the place, says Susan Fernandez, who wrote “Sunshine in the Dark: Florida in the Movies” with Robert Ingalls. The book, originally published in 2006, was released in a paperback version last year.

Fernandez is associate professor emeritus of history at University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and Ingalls is professor emeritus of history at University of South Florida, Tampa. Reflecting their area of expertise, their book is more of an historical view of films shot in Florida than a cultural or critical one.

“I didn’t realize there were so many movies made in Florida until I started on the research,” says Fernandez. And since the publication of the book, even more movies have been released, she says.


“Everybody’s making films,” she says. “The technology has allowed it. People are making films on their phones, and you can get camcorders and other systems cheaper now.”

The book includes a nine-page appendix listing hundreds of films, from “Absence of Malice,” a 1981 crime/newspaper film, to “Zaat,” a 1971 horror movie.

“Sunshine in the Dark” doesn’t discuss documentaries but covers various genres, including comedy, sci-fi, horror, crime, musicals, action and adventure. It also, in some places, contains spoilers, summarizing movie plots as it explains how various movies are alike in theme.


It’s an overview of Florida movies from silent films to current indies.

“I think the most interesting example of the Florida tourist image was the silent film called ‘The Florida Enchantment,’” says Fernandez. “Everybody should see this film. It was made in 1914. It’s about rich people who came to Florida as tourists — mostly North Florida, as the middle and South had not been developed. A rich woman comes to St. Augustine. She’s unhappy, about to be engaged, and goes to a little shop selling this box that has pills or seeds in it. There’s sign on it saying, ‘This will make women happy.’

“She takes them, and she becomes a man.”

Spoiler alert. The silent movie ends with a cliched ending that all writers are warned against: “She wakes up,” Fernandez says. “It was all a dream.”

Within that film, she adds, there were white actors in blackface, “portrayals of racism at the time.”

And that took her and Ingalls in yet another direction in their research, looking at how men, women, gays, transexuals, people of color and class are represented in the films.

Tourism and development

The co-authors also examined the themes of tourism and real estate and development.


“’The Cocoanuts’ by the Marx Brothers is a classic film,” says Fernandez. “It should be watched. It’s the beginning of understanding Florida hucksterism in real estate. They were unskilled men, not really real estate agents, selling never seen property that was underwater. There’s a line in the movie that Groucho Marx says: ‘You can have any kind of home you want. You can even have stucco. Oh, you can get stuck-oh!’”

(Groucho prefaces all this by saying to the actress Margaret Dumont, “Now whether you like it or not, I’m going to tell you about Florida real estate.” He also sings the praises of the non-existent Cocoanut Manor, saying, “Why, it’s the most exclusive district in Florida. Nobody lives there.”)

“It was the real estate boom of the 1920s,” says Fernandez. “As a result, a lot of big hotels were built along the east coast and west coast, there was a railroad to Miami and to Tampa, and I think part of the center of the state. And because of that boom, there were a lot of different kinds of tourists who came.”


Tourists who came in cars were a different class than the rich who took trains from the north. People who arrived in cars were called “tin can tourists,” she says, because they lived in their model Ts, setting up camp sites and eating out of tin cans.

“It’s a kind of pejorative term. They were more middle-class people. That changed the nature of tourism a lot. That gave us a way to look at tourists in films and how they had been portrayed, accurately or inaccurately, and the whole issue of development, and what is a developed Florida? If you think a place is paradise, why do you have to change it? Why do you have to make it ‘better’?”


Fernandez got the idea to write “Sunshine in the Dark” after seeing Allison Anders’s 2001 indie film, “Things Behind the Sun.” The film was inspired by Anders’s rape when she was a young girl and deals with her alcoholism and struggles as an adult.


Anders, who is an award-winning director, and a producer, is a cousin. While Fernandez and her family lived on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Anders and her family moved to the east coast.

Seeing that film and hearing her cousin talk about it at the Orlando Film Festival moved Fernandez.

“She talked about the film and afterwards about how she connected with her grandmother, who was raped as a young girl too,” Fernandez recalls. “It affected me, to hear her talk about it.”

Not long after, Fernandez saw the movie “Follow That Dream,” starring Elvis Presley.

“They set up a fishing camp along a brand-new interstate. They become part of the American Dream, which Florida has always been: Re-create your life and have a new life. Everything turned out great. But in my cousin’s movie, everything wasn’t so great. Our family did very well, her family didn’t, and had crises. We had a different experience.


“I started wondering why the movies were so contradictory if that followed through. I love film. I watch a lot. I did some preliminary research and thought there might be something there.”

She contacted the University Press of Florida, which agreed.

And a colleague, Robert Ingalls, thought it was interesting and became involved in the project with her.

Escaping Fort Myers

Though some films have been shot in Southwest Florida – in Fort Myers, Sanibel, Sarasota – there’s not an abundance of them. Fort Myers gets mentioned a few times in the book. The authors note that in the early 1940s film “Palm Beach Story,” a character suggests driving to Fort Myers, saying, “There’s nothing there, but the ride might be nice.”

But things don’t seem much better in 1998, when the movie “Trans” was released. The authors write, “It focuses on Ryan Kazinski (Ryan Daughterty), a white, sixteen-year-old escapee who makes his way to his hometown of Fort Myers and spends most of the film trying to flee the area.”

George Romero’s zombie movie, “Day of the Dead,” is mentioned a couple of times in the book, but the city of Fort Myers is not mentioned by name in connection.

The authors do write at more length about the movie “A Flash of Green,” based on the John D. MacDonald novel, saying “… the 1984 film is set in the 1950s in a fictional city on Florida’s west coast that resembles Fort Myers, where it was shot.” They also call it “one of the first (and best) films with a plot about the destruction of Florida’s natural environment.”

The book talks about movies starring Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Flipper, as well as Florida movies based on the novels of writers such as Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard and MacDonald.

“If you watch a lot of the films over a period of time, you realize this state is just like every other state. It has experienced highs and lows in social issues, in gender issues, in the economy. We have an extra layer; we are a tourist state, and we depend on tourists economically.

“Being in a touristy environment, we want to entertain, whether it’s South Beach spring break movies or ‘Magic Mike.’ It’s a place where you’re supposed to go to be relaxed or entertained. But what films do, very effectively, is take that warm and fuzzy view of the state and turn it around, turn it on its head every now and then: This isn’t Utopia. It hasn’t been Utopia, ever.

“In the early days, they went along with the environment that was there. Now the criticism is much clearer, the way of portraying the people and the environment is much more critical.

“We are God’s waiting room, but (the movie ‘Cocoon’) takes it one step further. In that story, these people come to Florida to retire. They’re living the good life, but to really live the good life, they have to leave the planet. This isn’t paradise, this isn’t Eden, this isn’t Utopia. It’s on another planet.

“We’re a passage to a better place.”

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