Monday, February 28, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 3

Filming To the Last Man at Tonto Basin in 1923 are (standing, from left) unknown, James Wong Howe, Richard Dix, Lois Wilson and Victor Fleming.
By November 1922, Zane Grey had reached his boiling point over the movie industry’s “creative accounting” practices (net profit deals in Hollywood are still a sucker’s bet) and filed suit against his partners in Zane Grey Pictures, charging them with fraud and diversion of funds. He alleged that most of the profits from the seven films made by the company had been pocketed by Hampton and Warner and that he had not received the 25 percent share stipulated in his contract.

Declaring Zane Grey Pictures a bust, he sold the bones of the business a month later to Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the earliest incarnation of Hollywood titan Paramount Pictures. It was a good deal for both sides: Grey would be paid $25,000 upfront for a seven-year option on each title, with a share in the pictures’ profits; in return, the studio could prominently promote Grey’s name on its Westerns, which would help ensure big box-office returns.

Reporting on the Grey/Famous Players–Lasky deal in January 1923, The New York Times correctly noted that Grey would “collaborate actively” on the “picturization” of his stories. Three months later, the Times mistakenly claimed that Grey would direct To the Last Man, the first of his books to be filmed under the arrangement, when in fact, the studio planned to assign the job to contract director Victor Fleming. The idea was to have Fleming shoot Last Man in Tonto Basin, then take the identical cast and crew in quick succession to Oak Creek Canyon to film Grey’s The Call of the Canyon and then to Tuba City for Grey’s The Vanishing American, each location the actual setting of the novel. Fleming was already familiar with the Arizona landscape, having directed parts of The Mollycoddle, a 1920 comedy with Douglas Fairbanks, on the Hopi reservation. As it happened, things didn’t pan out in quite the way the studio had hoped; after two years of production delays, Fleming became involved with other projects and The Vanishing American was directed by serial veteran George B. Seitz. Fleming would later achieve silver screen immortality by directing both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Richard Dix and Lois Wilson pose on the Mogollon Rim.
Studio production chief Jesse L. Lasky himself made the announcement that Lois Wilson and Richard Dix, two of his company’s hottest up-and-coming young stars, would be teamed for the first Zane Grey pictures. At the same time, he loudly tooted his horn about how Last Man would be photographed at the book’s backdrop of Tonto Basin, about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix, which he dramatically described as “one of the most difficult spots of access in the entire United States.” Lasky wasn’t just whistling Dixie about the tough commute facing his film crew; as late as the early 1950s, it was still a 10-hour car trek on mostly unpaved roads from Phoenix to Tonto Basin.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

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