Rhode Island in the Limelight: Film

Rhode Island in the Limelight: Film

Exporting Rhode Island Culcha to the World!

Stacks of film canisters
Image courtesy Sabine Schostag/Wikimedia.

Since the early days of cinema, Rhode Island has been a prime filming location. Things were a little slow around here filmwise during the 1930s and '60s, but the '90s made up for that, earning our state the sobriquet "Hollywood of the East." And ever since the General Assembly passed legislation in 2005 granting tax breaks to productions filming in the Ocean State, the number of local projects has exploded. Listed below are dozens of features, documentaries, and shorts with Rhode Island connections. We've tried our best to list every location, within our borders, that has been immortalized on celluloid. If you know of one we've missed, drop us a line at stuffie@quahog.org.

For further information on film production in Rhode Island, see the Rhode Island Film and Television Office website.

Copies of many of the early, silent films listed below are owned by the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Warning: Here there be spoilers!

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Providence Commandery, Providence, R.I.

(1898) kinetoscope clip

This silent, black-and-white short is perhaps the very earliest filmed record of anything connected with Rhode Island. It was shot by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 11, 1898. The occasion was the triennial conclave of the Knights Templar, a once-in-three-years gathering of members. It's likely that the film clip showcased the Providence Commandery's drilling chops. Other clips from the same event exist, for instance "Knights Templar Parade" "...shows the St. Bernard Commandery in the competition drill at Schenley Park," from which we can infer that the Providence contingent probably showed off their stuff in the same venue.

American Mutoscope was the first production company to visit Rhode Island (that we're aware of), and also happens to be the oldest movie company in the United States, established in 1896.

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"Columbia" Winning the Cup

(1899) kinetoscope clip

This short, silent, black-and-white clip from the Edison Manufacturing Company shows the USA's Columbia beating Ireland's Shamrock during the 1899 America's Cup competition. Columbia was designed and built by Bristol's Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.

From the Edison catalog: "The decisive moment in the great International Yacht Races is shown in this picture. Against a background of well defined clouds, the Light Boat is seen marking the finishing line in this great aquatic struggle. As the Columbia crosses the line, followed closely by the Shamrock, we see the steam from the whistle of the Light Ship announcing the well earned victory of the American yacht."

The races took place October 16 to 20, 1899, not in Rhode Island, but off Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

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Parade in Providence, R.I.

(1899) kinetoscope clip

Parades were apparently very popular subjects in the early days of film, perhaps because they showed lots of movement and pageantry. This is one of at least five silent, black-and-white shorts filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Providence in April 1899.

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Panoramic View of Newport

(1900) kinetoscope clip

This is one of eight or nine short films (from twenty-seven to 121 seconds in length) that were made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1900 for use with Edison Kinetoscopes. Narragansett Bay and the Naval Training Station in Newport were the settings for these clips, which were filmed during two separate visits. The first four or five clips were filmed in late April or early May 1900, and the other four were made in September, October, or early November 1900. The quotes in this and the following eight entries (with one exception so noted) are from Edison's catalog summaries.

The United States Navy used Narragansett Bay as a torpedo testing ground during the early part of the twentieth century. The seventy-three-second Panoramic View of Newport is the first of a series featuring the United States torpedo boat Morris. "Possibly the sensation of the flight of a bird can be nearest realized by being on deck of one of the U.S. Government's fleet torpedo boats racing at its highest speed through the water. This picture was taken under these conditions and shows the beautiful scenery comprising the harbor of Newport, R.I. In the foreground, the spray of the vessel and the foam on the water gives a fair idea of the rapidity at which this boat is moving. In the distance can be seen the wharves and shipping, including the large steamers that ply between New York and Boston. Various other objects can be seen passing the rear, and the busy motion of the men on the deck and the immense volumes of smoke escaping from the funnels all add life and energy to this picture."

Full versions of some of these films are also available for download from the Library of Congress's Digital Collections website.

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Discharging a Whitehead Torpedo

(1900) kinetoscope clip

This seventy-five-second clip shows the crew of the Morris "loading a Whitehead torpedo into the tube and then discharging it. The torpedo can be seen running along the surface of the water for a distance of over half a mile."

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Shore Acres


This five-reel screen version of James A. Herne's popular melodrama of the same name, was filmed in September and October 1914, and released on October 26 of the same year. The story takes place in Maine and involves a farmer/lighthouse keeper whose daughter elopes by sea with a doctor. An October 4, 1914, Providence Journal article reported a production company associated with this film was working on Block Island, and the setting in a production still (below) on IMDB looks suspiciously like Castle Hill Light in Newport.

Farmer with shotgun standing outside door of lighthouse
Left, Charles A. Stevenson plays Nathaniel, the uncle of the girl who elopes. (Image from IMDB). Right, Castle Hill Light, Newport, 2014.

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Alibi Bill

(circa 1915)

In 1914 Joseph Byron Totten, an actor, writer, and director, purchased a large farm in Voluntown, Connecticut, not far from the Rhode Island border. Soon he was churning out silent features and shorts, staging them on his farm and in nearby environs, including downtown Westerly, Rhode Island, which he often used for "big city" scenes. One of the first of these features was Alibi Bill, a western based on a play Totten had written for a 1912-'13 Broadway run.

"I certainly received big thrills," Totten told a Providence Journal reporter in 1938, "because when we took scenes on Westerly streets, people drove in for miles in buggies and autos to watch us. They stopped all traffic to look at the made-up actors and actresses. Little did we realize what a tremendous industry motion pictures would develop into..."

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American Aristocracy


This early Douglas Fairbanks vehicle includes scenes shot at Ocean House in Westerly.

The 136-year-old Ocean House and its property were sold in 2004 to financier Charles Royce, who had planned to restore the hotel for continued operation. But the cost of restoration proved to be prohibitive, so the building was torn down in 2005. The contents of the hotel were not included in the original sale and were auctioned off on November 27, 2004. Included among the items for sale were some of the dozens of chairs that can be seen lining the porch of Ocean House in American Aristocracy.

Between 2005 and 2010, the hotel was rebuilt with modern materials and building methods.

The fifty-one minute film is silent. The opening card reads: "Has America an aristocracy? We say yes! And to prove it we take you to Narraport-by-the-Sea, where we find some of our finest families whose patents of nobility are founded on such deeds of daring as the canning of soup, the floating of soap, and the borating of talcum."

"Narraport" is a portmanteu of two of Rhode Island's most popular resort destinations in the 1910s—Narragansett and Newport.

Watch the full fifty-one-minute movie:

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America Preparing


A ten-reel war propaganda documentary filmed partially in Newport. Silent, black-and-white. This is considered a "lost film"—no known print survives.

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The Americanization of Itri


This thirty-minute documentary about immigrants from the Itri region of Italy was filmed in the Knightsville section of Cranston. Director Salvatore Mancini came to Cranston from Itri when he was three years old.

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At one point Arthur (Dudley Moore) tries to pass off his hooker date (Anne De Salvo) as the princess of a small, unnamed country: "There's a very small country in the West Indies. I mean small. It's terribly small. Tiny little country. Rhode Island could beat the crap out of it in a war. That's how small it is. Eighty-five cents in a cab from one end of the country to the other. I'm talking small. They recently had the whole country carpeted. This is not a big place."

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The Age of Innocence


According to the IMDB, some portion of this film, based on the novel by Edith Wharton, was shot in Portsmouth. It would make sense that the scene in question would be the one where Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) sees Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) on the pier, but doesn't speak to her. Although some of the action of the film takes place in Newport and Middletown, we're not aware that any filming was done in those towns.

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American Buffalo


This adaptation of a David Mamet play was directed by Michael Corrente and stars Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz. The story concerns the conflict that occurs between Don (Franz), owner of the run-down Hagist Appliances, his unstable friend "Teach" (Hoffman), and Don's teenaged protégé Bob (Sean Nelson) as plans are formed to rob a collector of his coins. As in most works by Mamet, there's plenty of tension and repetitive dialogue.

Hand-drawn map of filming locations, circa 1996.
This contemporary handout prepared by the Rhode Island Film and Television Office details all the locations used in the film.

All filming took place around the intersection of Broad, Exchange, and Summer Streets in Pawtucket. Dustin Hoffman arrived in town on May 20, 1995, and May 22 was spent in rehearsals and blocking. The Providence Journal reported that "For one scene, Hoffman yesterday kicked a yield sign, then a garbage can, and then ripped the receiver off a pay phone to try to convey the anger of his character." The Times Square Diner was at the heart of the action, and would later play a part in the film, but remained open during preproduction activities. "Breakfast patrons appeared utterly aghast as Hoffman and company burst in the door and started their rehearsal shtick. Corrente... grabbed a broom from the diner at one point and came barreling out the door, making giant sweeping motions. Hoffman went back in and escorted waitress Sharlene Whitman from behind the counter and out onto the sidewalk where they posed for a photograph, arms around each other's waists."

Riverside Diner, 2000.
The former Times Square Diner was renamed Riverside Diner for the film and given this spiffy new exterior. (August 27, 2000).

An out-of-work construction worker named Dave Pepin, who apparently was just passing by, was hired off the street as an extra because he looked kinda like Hoffman. He had to work for free, however, so his SSI payments wouldn't be in jeopardy. Another local, Barry Coutu of Barrington, was hired as a stand-in for Hoffman.

Filming began on June 1, 1995. The initial scenes were shot inside the diner, which was renamed the Riverside Diner for the movie, and in the American Shoe Shining Parlor around the corner. In addition to the new name, the diner was also given a new silver and black exterior makeover. The pink exterior of another restaurant across the street, Restaurante Lisboa A Noite, was covered up with mustard-colored paint. New names were given to all of the storefronts in the sprawling Fanning Building on Broad Street, including the one where most of the film's action takes place, Hagist Appliances.

American Shoe Shining Parlor, 2001
American Shoe Shining Parlor. The second chair from the right is where Dennis Franz sat to have his shoes shined in the movie. (March 11, 2001).

Teach's hotel room was located in the McDevitt Building on Broad Street, while the hotel stairway was in the Fanning Building. (Here's a little piece of coincidental trivia—the middle name of Libby Langdon, the director's wife, happens to be Fanning.) A parking lot at Broad and Humes Streets was transformed into a flea market. The decrepit 1915 Leroy Theater, which anchored one end of the Fanning Building and had been empty for a number of years, helped lend an air of economic desperation to the film.

Screenshot of Leroy Theatre block.
This screenshot from the film shows most of the block that served as the primary shooting location. The crumbling marquee of the Leroy Theatre is at left, Hagist Appliances at right.

Another view of the Broad Street block, circa 1996.
Another view of the Broad Street block, circa 1996. The building to the left of the theater had already been demolished, and the rest of the block would soon follow. (Pawtucket History Research Center).

Soon after on-site filming ended on July 11, the director and the three actors immortalized their achievement by placing their hands in cement in front of the Riverside Diner. This square of cement is optimistically referred to as the Hollywood Walk of Fame in some of Pawtucket's tourism literature.

Pawtucket's Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Pawtucket's super-glamorous "Hollywood Walk of Fame." (August 27, 2000).

The block that contained the Leroy Theater and the appliance store was demolished in 1999 to make way for a Walgreens. (125 of the Leroy's seats went to outfit the theater at the Blackstone Valley Visitor's Center on Roosevelt Avenue, and the first five three-foot-tall letters from the venue's sign now adorn director Corrente's Providence apartment). As of 2019 The Riverside Diner is a clothing store, while the shoeshine parlor space has been vacant since at least 2011.

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This tale of an 1839 revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad and the subsequent trial made excellent use of several locations in Jamestown, Bristol, Providence, and Newport during March 1997.

Jamestown: In the scene where the Africans row ashore in a lifeboat, they land on Fort Wetherill Beach.

Bristol: The river in the woods where the Africans fill their buckets is located on Mount Hope Farm in Bristol. The house on the same property was used for the scene where the courier arrives at John Adams' (Anthony Hopkins) farm with the letter from Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).

Providence: All exterior scenes of the nation's Capital Building in Washington, D.C., including those with Adams in the garden, are actually the Rhode Island State House. The interior scenes of President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) in his office were shot in Governor Almond's State Room.

Garden, Rhode Island State House, 2001.
This garden on the Rhode Island State House grounds was specifically installed for the film. (February 18, 2001).

Newport: Newport's locations helped recreate nineteenth century New Haven, Connecticut. Washington Square was the setting for a couple of exterior shots, including the scene where the courier leaves New Haven with the letter for Adams. The jail façade was constructed out of painted fiberglass in Queen Ann's Square in front of Trinity Church. The Old Colony House hosted several scenes, most notably those that took place in the courtroom. The Old Colony House Green Room supplied the setting for Baldwin's office, where he composed his letter to Adams, and the attic of the building served as Theodore Joadson's (Morgan Freeman) bedroom. Marble House has the distinction of having doubled as both the Spanish Royal Palace (for the scenes with young Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin)) and Buckingham Palace (for the scene where Queen Victoria seals a letter with wax). The church where Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam) wrestles with his decision is St. Mary's. The mansion where dinner guests are seen alighting from a carriage is Rosecliff.

Handout of filming locations, circa 1997.
This contemporary handout prepared by the Rhode Island Film and Television Office details all the Rhode Island locations used in the film.

Many extras were enlisted from Newport's winter population; local artist John Hagen sat in as the court artist and it's his hand that we see penning the letter requesting John Adams' help with the case.

Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, McConaghey, and Freeman all stayed at the Newport Marriot during filming, while the Hotel Viking hosted the crew and some extras.

During his stay, Spielberg made himself at home. According to the June 1997 issue of Rhode Island Monthly, "...he took in the Jim Carrey flick Liar Liar in Middletown; got a twenty percent discount at Newport's Rockport Company when he went shoe shopping with movie hunk and Amistad star Matthew McConaughey; and celebrated his son's birthday with wife Kate Capshaw at the Brick Alley Pub." And in the November/December 1999 issue of the online magazine MovieMaker, Spielberg was quoted as saying that he would film in Rhode Island again "in a heartbeat."

During the early planning stages of this film, Rick Smith, the head of the Film and Television Office of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, was reprimanded by his superiors for sending joke email—they didn't believe he was really corresponding with Steven Spielberg. That gives some indication of what the environment for film was like in Rhode Island at that time. All that changed when the production of Amistad came to Newport. The film boosted Newport's economy for nearly a year after filming wrapped up, bringing in about $5 million, and the doors were opened for a slew of new film projects.

Photojournalist Vic Farmer documented much of the action in Newport during filming in March 1987. His comments and photographs can be found here.

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Andre the Giant Has a Posse


This seventeen-minute documentary, directed by Helen Strickler, details the origins and meanings (or lack thereof) behind the guerrilla art campaign that put the face of Andre the Giant on stop signs, billboards, and walls all over the world. It all started in a Providence skateboard shop...

Screenshot: Governor's State Room
Andre stickers all over Providence, 2000-2011.

A brief opening scene takes place in the parking lot of Atlantic Mills in Olneyville. The interview scenes with Shepard Fairey take place in his print shop, Alternate Graphics, formerly located at 410 Angel Street. Providence-based puppet troupe Big Nazo also makes an appearance.

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Anima poster

Written and directed by Jamestown resident Craig Richardson, this independent film (original title: Perception) tells what happens when an investigative reporter begins looking into an elderly couple's odd hobby, involving taxidermy, mummification, and puppetry. Although the action supposedly takes place in Wyoming, Rhode Island, most of the story was filmed in Foster, with additional scenes shot in Jamestown, East Greenwich, Exeter, Clayville, North Scituate, Hope, and Providence.

Foster locations include the Moosup Valley Congregational Church and the Moosup Valley Grange on Moosup Valley Road, Helen's Place on Route 6, and the Valley Store. Providence's Bertucci and Pennine funeral homes also shared screen time.

Anima was the first feature film to win an award (Best American Feature) at the Newport International Film Festival.

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Alzira's Story

(2000) documentary

This is a documentary by Christian De Rezendes about his grandmother, Alzira de Jesus Soares, and her experiences immigrating to Rhode Island from Portugal as a sixteen-year-old in 1929. Alzira married a man from Valley Falls and, laboring over four decades, eventually sponsored twenty-four of her relatives—two bothers, two sisters, and their children—in their immigration to the U.S. The story is told through interviews that were recorded in the mid- to late 1990s, old photos, and home videos.

Alzira's Story was shot on location in Portugal; Attleboro, Massachusetts; Slatersville, North Smithfield; Pawtucket; and Woonsocket. It premiered in July 2000 at the Tourism Council Visitor's Center Theatre in Pawtucket, at the start of the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and had its television debut on Rhode Island PBS in 2004.

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Atlantis: The Lost Empire


It's amazing what you can do with animation these days...

Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors): Wow. Look at all those tattoos.
Cookie (Jim Varney): Shoot. That ain't nothin'. Look here what I got. [lifts up shirt] All thirty-eight United States. Watch me make Rhode Island dance. [wiggles his belly] Go on, baby, dance. Dance! There you go!

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Aleister! is a mockumentary horror film based on the life of occult legend Aleister Crowley. It was shot on digital video between July and October 2002 in Newport and Providence. An unnamed Newport mansion was used as a location. (Crowley reportedly spent time in the 1920s conducting seances at Newport's Wrentham House, aka Indian Spring, 325 Ocean Avenue).

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After the Storm: Lessons from the Northern Edge

(2008) documentary

This documentary about the December 2004 loss of the scallop boat Northern Edge includes some footage shot in Portsmouth and the port of Galilee in Narragansett.

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The Purge 3: Election Year


The third entry in this dystopian murder spree franchise was filmed in Rhode Island—mainly Providence and Woonsocket—between September 14 and early November 2015.

In rough chronological order, here are the recognizable locations used:

  • The NFFA meeting takes place in the Governor's State Room at the Rhode Island State House.
  • A town hall meeting scene was filmed in Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College.
  • The Kwik Mart, 118 Main Street, Woonsocket, was transformed into "Joe's Deli."
  • T.F. Green Airport, Warwick.
  • Athenaeum Row, Benefit Street, Providence, provides at least some of the exteriors for Senator Roan's (Elizabeth Mitchell) residence.
  • Woonsocket's Main Street was used to depicts the streets of Washington, D.C.
  • Weybosset Street, Providence, where the triage van drives beneath the "Peace not Purge" banner.
  • Some scenes were shot on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design; specifically the alleyway adjacent to the Design Center's south wall, 30 North Main Street (this may be where the guillotine scene takes place).
  • Prospect Terrace, Providence, is where Barnes (Frank Grillo) and Roan spot the drone.
  • When Barnes and Roan come down a set of concrete stairs and turn right along a blue painted wall, that's the rear of 162 Main Street, Woonsocket. The mural in the background which normally reads "Keep Woonsocket Beautiful" was modified to read "Keep Washington Beautiful" for the film.
  • The spot where the tracer bullet is left is under the iWay Bridge at Bridge Street, just south of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier.
  • The Safe Zone is located in the basement of the Rhode Island State House.
  • St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center at 84 Cumberland Street in Woonsocket stands in as Our Lady of Sorrows, the site of the purge mass.
  • The scene where Barnes parlays with Bishop (Edwin Hodge) takes place in the the RIPTA bus tunnels on South Main Street.

Screenshot: Governor's State Room
The Governor's State Room at the Rhode Island State House. (Screenshot from Dead Meat's Kill Count video on YouTube).

Screenshot: The Kwik Mart, 118 Main Street, Woonsocket
The Kwik Mart, 118 Main Street, Woonsocket. (Screenshot from IMDB).

Screenshot: Reporter at T.F. Green Airport, Warwick
T.F. Green Airport, Warwick. (Screenshot from Dead Meat's Kill Count video on YouTube).

Screenshot: St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center, Woonsocket
St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center, Woonsocket. (Screenshot from Dead Meat's Kill Count video on YouTube).

Some locations that were reportedly used but which were either unrecognizable or deleted from the final cut include Shipyard Street on Johnson & Wales University's Harborside Campus, Indian Point Park Bridge Tunnel, and the Speaker's Office and Capitol Rotunda at the Rhode Island State House.

Screenshot: Federal Courthouse, Providence
This screenshot from the movie trailer shows the exterior of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Providence. We don't recall seeing this exact shot in the film, so it may have been left on the cutting room floor. (Screenshot from The Purge 3: Election Year trailer video on YouTube).

Sometimes productions leave their locations better than they found them. Steven Feinberg of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office told the Boston Globe that "...Blumhouse Productions... left a nice curtain behind in the State House."

The film was released to theaters nationwide on July 1, 2016.

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