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Is Iowa the next Hollywood? According to authors Marty S. Knepper and John Shelton Lawrence, the Hawkeye State has had a relationship with the movie industry for nearly a century.

Knepper, a Morningside College English professor, and Lawrence, a Morningside College professor emeritus of philosophy, have written "The Book of Iowa Films," the only comprehensive history of more than 400 films made between 1918 through 2013.

The pair write about major movies that were made in Iowa, set in Iowa or merely mention Iowa. They also chart the growth of small, independently made films by local moviemakers who view the state in more realistic, contemporary terms.

This is important to Knepper, who said Hollywood often resorted to outdated cliches when it came to depicting the state.

"Iowa became short-hand for virtuous, innocent people living on the farm or life in a small town where patriotism was celebrated every day," she said. "In other words, the movies thought of Iowans as being 'hicks who lived in the sticks.'"

That was true of 1918's "The Strange Woman" (the first known film with a fictional Iowa setting) and 1921's "The Wonderful Thing" (which brought the then-popular Norma Talmadge in scenes filmed at a Centerville, Iowa, pig farm).

The trend toward idealized views of Iowa and Iowans continued in more recent releases like 1989's "Field of Dreams," 1995's "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Sleeping with the Enemy," a 1991 tearjerker starring Julia Roberts in the leading role.

"'Sleeping with the Enemy' was supposed to be set in contemporary Cedar Falls, the home of the University of Northern Iowa," Knepper noted. "But the filmmaker presented Cedar Falls like it may have been in the 1930s or 1950s, not the vibrant college town it is today."

A frequent speaker on popular culture, Knepper is featured in the "Hollywood in the Heartland" exhibit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, in Des Moines, through late 2016.

In addition to speaking about "Field of Dreams" and "The Bridges of Madison County," she also offers critiques of movies like "State Fair"  and 1962's "The Music Man," which Lawrence said at least had a tangible Iowa connection.

"'The Music Man' was written by (Mason City, Iowa, native) Meredith Willson as a tribute to the town where he grew up," Lawrence explained. "Most of the people who wrote movies set in Iowa had never actually set foot in the state. In fact, everything they knew about Iowa had come from what they learned from earlier movies." 

Which is why Lawrence is encouraged by the work of Produce Iowa -- the state office of media production -- as well as the work of Scott R. Thompson, whose My Town Pictures collaborates with civic leaders in creating low-budget movies filmed entirely in small communities.

With new and accessible technology and equipment, he said a new breed of home-grown filmmakers are making movies that present Iowa in a more realistic, less idealized fashion.

Admitting "The Book of Iowa Films" has been in the works for nearly 20 years, Lawrence said the subject matter has been an eye-opener.

"Very few states have 400 movies devoted to them," he said. "They could've easily been set in South Dakota or Nebraska, but Iowa struck a nerve with filmmakers."

Even when the state is portrayed in a less-than-accurate manner, the film industry has left its impact on Iowa and the way it is viewed, Knepper said.

"The history of Iowa movies is a history of Iowa itself -- its landscape, its heroes, its history and its contradictory image in the national imagination," she added.


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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