Mardi Gras has been used as a theme or backdrop in more than 200 movies. Hollywood’s fascination with the subject dates to 1898, when both the American Mutoscope Co. and the Thomas Edison Co. documented part of the Rex parade.
Four years later, the Selig Polyscope Co. filmed the arrival of Rex on Lundi Gras. In 1910, Selig produced the first feature film that highlighted Carnival in New Orleans, “Mr. Mix and the Mardi Gras,” featuring rodeo star Tom Mix. In 1912, the Kalem Co., which had just established a studio on the banks of Bayou St. John, released “Mardi Gras Mixup.”
Writing on the subject in the Mardi Gras Guide in 1997, New Orleans author and local film historian Don Lee Keith noted “the celebration has lent its diversity to virtually any thematic format ever employed. It has provided background for the musical form (‘Louisiana Purchase,’ 1941), thriller (‘Two Smart People,’ 1946), suspense (‘Avenging Force,’ 1986), comedy (‘Josette,’ 1938), horror (‘Cry of the Werewolf,’ 1944), romance (‘Bed of Roses,’ 1933), drama (‘Holiday for Sinners,’ 1952), social conflict (‘Tarnished Angels,’ 1957), costume drama (‘The Toy Wife,’ 1938) and, of course, gut-bucket sleaze (‘Mardi Gras Massacre,’ 1978).”
Perhaps the most famous movie with a Mardi Gras connection is the 1969 counter-culture classic “Easy Rider,” starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. The avant-garde movie was a critical success and actually drew many young visitors to New Orleans, to the chagrin of some locals who thought a “hippie invasion” would ruin the celebration.
While few movies that feature Mardi Gras have stood the test of time, several involved big-name producers and stars of their day. In 1914, “Cameo Kirby” featured actor John Gilbert as a riverboat gambler who visits New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
Director D.W. Griffith’s “White Rose,” from 1913, included a lavish Mardi Gras ball scene. Debuting in 1930, “Dixieana” showed Bebe Daniels as a circus dancer who ended up being crowned Queen of Carnival. She ascended a staircase while trailing a 30-foot velvet train. In 1934, Will Rogers stomped into the Comus ball and performed a lariat act in “Handy Andy.”
In 1941, John Wayne appeared in a parade scene in “Lady from Louisiana.” Two years later, Betty Field and Robert Cummings starred in “Flesh and Fantasy,” in which, on Mardi Gras night, a mysterious stranger gives Field a “mask of beauty” that she is required to return at midnight. Lucille Ball starred in “Two Smart People” in 1946, masked as a princess at Mardi Gras.
The only 3-D movie ever done about the subject was 1953’s “Louisiana Territory.” That same year, in “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars,” the boys accidentally launched a rocket whose intended destination was the red planet. It landed instead at Mardi Gras.
The 1958 film “Mardi Gras” saw Pat Boone fall in love with a woman from France who was chosen Queen of Carnival. The film was universally panned, but the premiere in New Orleans made headlines. A mock Mardi Gras parade featured flambeaux and floats from the Krewe of Carrollton. The movie’s stars rode in convertibles, while the floats were filled with movie executives and entertainment writers from around the country.