Thursday, May 21, 2009

CULTURAMA: Filmed in Colorado

If you're from Denver, and you're willing to take a chance on the soon-to-be-released Eddie Murphy comedy, "Imagine That," you'll see a lot of familiar territory. If you were at the premiere of "Catch and Release," the 2006 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner, you'll remember Boulder residents cheering themselves as they appeared on the screen as extras, drowning out the principals' dialouge.

Jog your memory of recent films you’ve seen, either in the theater or on the tube. “About Schmidt”? “Nurse Betty”? “The Laramie Project”? “Bowling for Columbine”? If you’ve seen them, you’ve seen Colorado.

From the medium’s beginnings to the present day, Colorado can be seen in the cinema’s parade of images again and again. As backdrop, production base, and breeding ground, it has figured more prominently in film history than a casual observer might suspect. Since silent days, Colorado-based films and filmmakers have covered territory from classic Westerns to cutting-edge documentaries. They include work honored with Oscars and with places in the National Film Registry. These films are as varied as a musical about cannibal Alferd Packer and the seminal work of pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

It all began with the frenzy of film production that followed the first public projection of inventor Thomas Edison’s movies in New York City on April 3, 1896. Edison sent out photographers across the country from his plant in West Orange, New Jersey to record snippets of reality in fifty-foot, thirty-second snatches of film. These “actuality” films recorded persons, places, and events of interest to audiences of the day. Viewers were entranced early viewers with titles such as “Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower,” “Annie Oakley,” and even the vaudeville oddity “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.”

In this pursuit, in 1897 the head of the Edison Company’s Kinetograph Department, James H. White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden shot the first extant footage of Colorado, in sequences such as “Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys,” and the kinetic “Denver Fire Brigade,” in which horse-drawn engines, careening and chuffing smoke, dart obliquely toward and past the camera as an excited throng crowds both sides of a downtown Denver street.

Meanwhile, one of Edison’s rivals, a former stage magician and theatrical impresario from Chicago named William Selig, chose Colorado as a film site because of its mild climate and many days of sunshine, and the excellent quality of the light (essential in the age of primitive equipment and film stock). In addition, Selig’s film company, Selig-Polyscope, was among a host of competitors who pirated the Edison patents that were vital to filmmaking. In an effort to maintain his monopoly, Edison sued his rivals and enjoined them from making movies.

All this did was force them west, away from the powers of the court. Selig recruited pioneer Denver still photographer H. H. “Buck” Buckwalter as his cameraman. By 1902, Buckwalter had begun his work for Selig on dozens of short films. He took footage of local sights -- “Arrival on Summit of Pike’s Peak,” “Runaway Stage Coach,” and “Panorama of Denver from Balloon at Elitch’s.” In a promotional stunt, Buckwalter advertised the mild climate by filming Denverites strolling 17th Street in their shirtsleeves one January day in 1905 (after unexpected snow canceled a couple of earlier tries). “Denver in Winter” may rank as one of history’s first filmed commercials.

Hot on the heels of the smash success of the first Western, pioneering Edison director Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 “The Great Train Robbery,” Buckwalter photographed Colorado’s first narrative film, a tale of violence and mob retribution -- “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek”. The true Western hadn’t arrived out West yet, however. A man would shortly be arriving from Chicago who would change all that -- the creator of the cowboy hero, “Bronco Billy” Anderson.

Actor/writer/director/producer George M. Anderson was born with the decidedly un-Western moniker of Max Aronson in 1883. Changing his name early in his acting career to avoid anti-Semitic hindrances, he eventually joined Edison’s film company, playing three different roles in Porter’s “Robbery” (he’s the one falling off his horse in the chase scene). He continued to learn all he could about the film business, acting and directing for the Edison Company and the Vitagraph Company.

In 1907, the ambitious Anderson went to Selig and convinced him to lend him funds and Selig’s Denver filming crew in order to make authentic Westerns on location, working in the Golden/Morrison area. Displeased with the results, he split with Selig and formed Essanay Studios with George K. Spoor, proprietor of the National Film Renting Company in Chicago. Anderson returned to Denver in the fall of 1909 with money, equipment, and a small company of actors. Here the inventive, resourceful Anderson began rehearsing the ideas and techniques that would culminate in the wildly popular adventures of Bronco Billy.

For the first time, a moviemaker was telling stories of the West in the real West, a place still largely untouched by civilization. There was no need to costume the cowhands who rode and playacted for the camera -- the stories were silly, but the details were documentary. Anderson worked hurriedly, cranking out five films a week (in the next seven years, he would complete nearly 400).

The character he was developing in films shot in the Golden/Morrison area, like “Ranchman’s Rival” and “On the Warpath,” and was to christen “Bronco Billy” a year later, is that of a lively, violent, bluff and hearty good/bad cowpoke. Anderson discovered that establishing a central character with whom the audience could identify in film after film was vital to success, and these recurring appearances became a huge box office draw. Anderson’s persistence and entrepreneurial savvy paid off. With the aid of authentic experience in Colorado, the first Western star was born.

Anderson recruited extras and bit players from the cowboys whose ranches he filmed at, and in doing so sparked the career of Colorado’s only movie cowboy hero -- Pete Morrison.

Pete and his brothers Chick, Carl, and Bob were grandsons of the town of Morrison’s eponymous founder, George. They were called on to wrangle the Anderson’s rented stock, and were all eventually pressed into service in front of the camera. The Denver Post described the outfit’s activities during the making of “The Heart of a Cowboy” in 1909: “G.M. Anderson ... has been in Denver for six weeks, ‘making pictures’ ... ’Colorado is the finest place in the country for Wild West stuff’ (stated Anderson) ... the company reached Mt. Morrison at 9, where the train was met by a bunch of trained cow ponies and riders under the command of the Morrison brothers themselves.” Pete, Chick, and Carl took to the lucrative pay and the excitement of slapping pictures together.

Anderson ultimately moved his base out to Southern California, where the preponderance of film production was taking place. A few years later, the Morrison boys migrated to Los Angeles together to make careers of movie work. Chick would eventually move behind the camera to become one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded horse trainers, until he was tragically killed by an Arabian stallion he was taming in 1924. Pete caught on as a leading man and appeared in 204 silent Westerns for Universal between 1918 and 1926, only 3 of which survive today. Although his star had faded to the extent that he was reduced to driving mule trains in another film hero’s first Western and first starring role, “The Big Trail” (1930), he was to a have a lasting impact on that young actor’s career. Marion Morrison, concerned that people would confuse him with the popular Pete, changed his name -- to John Wayne.

Another great Western star served his apprenticeship in Colorado. Tom Mix, silent film’s “King of the Cowboys,” was a drifter who had turned his hand to just about every kind of job the West offered when he hooked up with Selig-Polyscope in 1910. A year later, he was part of a band of filmmakers that set up camp August 3, 1911, above Central City. Two weeks later, the Gilpin County Observer reported, “Central City was treated to a sensation today. A group of masked outlaws held up a bank on Main Street in broad day light and carried away with them a sackful of money. But not in dead earnest. The bank was a fake and the bold, bad men were actors of the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, who have made our city their temporary headquarters.” After churning out five films in three weeks, the company moved to Canon City. The locals were ecstatic to find glamorous movie folk in their midst, and welcomed the earnings from stock rental and pay as extras (children, $1.00 per day, adults $5.00). The Canon City Record proudly exclaimed, “There is some thought that Canon City may become the movie capital of the country.”

The Selig-Polyscope Company, with Mix, spent two summers in Canon City, renting out headquarters there in a two-story office building at 314 Main Street. The cast and crew made films like “Told in Colorado” and “Why the Sheriff Is a Bachelor,” and joined in the life of the town, attending church and putting on free shows for the inmates at the State Prison. The men whooped it up in the local saloons at night, one anecdote recalling Mix’s penchant for shooting lemons perched in empty shot glasses off the bar in nearby Hell’s Half Acre.

Here Mix began to form his flashy, stunt-oriented, broadly humorous style. Colorado became one of Mix’s favorite places, and he returned often after achieving stardom a few years later in California. In 1926, he filmed “The Great K & A Robbery” in Glenwood Springs, a film memorable for a stunt in which Mix slides down a cable from the top of Glenwood Canyon straight to the bottom, into the saddle of his wonder horse, Tony.

The Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed in 1913 by investors in Denver and Canon City. Production began in 1914, the company taking over Selig-Polyscope’s vacated headquarters in Canon City. The venture was doomed to be cut short by tragedy. On July 1, 1914, the last day of principal photography for “Across the Border,” leading lady Grace McHugh was crossing the Arkansas River when her horse shied and threw her, and she was swept away by the strong current. Cameraman Owen Carter leapt into the river and, grabbing her, struggled to the river’s bank. They almost made it. Both were caught again in the swift current, carried downstream, and drowned. Carter’s body was found a week later; McHugh’s, a week after that. Her family sued, and the judgment bankrupted the fledging company. With rare exceptions, it would be over 30 years before Hollywood visited Colorado again.

Historian Larry Jensen states that “Hollywood didn’t venture into the mountains of Colorado until after highways were improved in the late 1940’s.” These postwar improvements aided companies looking for Technicolor scenery and sweeping stories that would lure viewers away from their televisions. The jailbreak thriller “Canon City” broke the ice with location filming at the State Penitentiary in 1948. It inspired a young local photographer named Karol Smith to promote Colorado in Hollywood, and to eventually form what was to become the first state-legislated film commission in 1969.

In 1949, director Raoul Walsh filmed “Colorado Territory” in the San Juan Mountains, utilizing the old Silverton-to-Durango narrow gauge railroad for some scenes. In the next 15 years, over two dozen movies used the line and the surrounding area as a backdrop for Westerns, epics, and adventure tales such as “How the West Was Won,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Legendary American director John Ford added Colorado to his palette of Western locales for “The Searchers” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” The San Juans stood in for Leadville in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” -- Debbie Reynolds was so enchanted by the location that she settled her mother there shortly afterwards.

Gradually, filming spread across the state. In 1957, a standing Western set near Canon City named Buckskin Joe was constructed, and is still in use today. Much of “True Grit” was filmed in Ridgway in the southwest corner of the state, and some of the film’s additions to the town’s architecture still stand in place. John Wayne spent some time in local saloons; his Stetson hung for years in a hallowed place behind the bar of the Outlaw Restaurant on Ouray’s Main Street. Meanwhile, Colorado began to be seen as a setting for more than just Westerns. All kinds of movies shot some or all footage here, from the heavy drama of films such as “Scarecrow” and “Badlands” to the buffooneries of “Every Which Way But Loose” (those nostalgic for Sid King’s East Colfax strip club are advised to take a peek) and the National Lampoon “Vacation” series.

At the same time, Colorado blossomed as both a setting and home for documentaries and documentarists. David and Albert Maysles tracked the creation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental but short-lived environmental art piece that filled Rifle Gap in August, 1973, in their “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” Master documentarist Frederick Wiseman filmed “Meat,” his examination of the processing of animals into food products, in the stockyards and processing plants of Greeley. (Wiseman returned to Colorado in 1991 to film a portrait of “Aspen.”) Chris Beaver’s 1983 “Dark Circle” ruthlessly exposed the traumas inflicted on employees and neighbors of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. And in 1998, Coloradans Donna Dewey and Carol Pasternak took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for their portrait of a deformed Vietnamese boy and his life-changing surgery in “A Story of Healing.”

Boulder served as home, workplace, and inspiration for experimental (“...called ‘experiment’ by those who don’t understand it”) filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who traveled the world as an honored theorist, lecturer and artist. After years of travel, contact with the avant-garde, a stint of commercial film work, and even a brief episode running a theater in Central City, he came to reject commercial cinema.
“There is virtually no art of the film to be found in any formalized motion picture producing system I know of and probably never will be, “ he stated in his document “Metaphors on Vision.” His 1964 epic vision “Dog Star Man,” made in and around Boulder on a shoestring budget, has been placed in the National Film Registry. In it and other early works, Brakhage postulates the camera/eye as first-person protagonist in a “lyrical cinema” that reflects his unique sensibilities. He returned to Boulder in the late ‘80s, where he served as Distinguished Professor at CU’s Department of Film Studies. (Two of Brakhage’s erstwhile students were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who set their hit series in the mythical Colorado mountain town of “South Park.”)

The past twenty years featured sporadic bursts of industry growth in the state. Viacom’s choice of Denver for the production of its series of Perry Mason TV films (1985-1993) pumped millions into the local economy and involved a number of local talents, and has subsequently attracted similar outside film and television projects. Warren Miller Films, pioneer makers of snowsport films since 1947, relocated to Boulder from California in 1993 and, under the ownership of Miller’s son Kurt and Peter Speek, has stepped up and diversified its cinematic efforts.
Recent films that use the mountains and plains have ranged from determined independents such as documentarians the Beeck sisters (“Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed,” “Free Boulder”) and CU’s Jerry Aronson (“The Life and Times of Allan Ginsberg”) through the bizarre and seedy noir of “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) to unabashed schlock such as “The Dragon and the Hawk,” “Destroyer,” “Brain Creature,” “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” “Atomic Train,” “Visions,” and the twin JonBenet Ramsey murder TV treatments -- “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town” and “Getting Away with Murder.”

The state will continue to host filmmakers and those who love them. Who knows? You might find me handling a clapboard slate up in the mountains this summer myself.

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