Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Arizona's Little Hollywood Honored by Western Writers of America

Exciting news! I just learned that my book Arizona's Little Hollywood is a finalist in the Contemporary Nonfiction category for the 2011 Western Writers of America Spur Award, among the oldest and most prestigious in American literature. Congratulations to all finalists and winners!––Joe McNeill

Check out the full list here:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 7

To the Last Man began approximately four weeks of location filming in spring 1923. The company of 49 film workers and 53 pack animals arrived at the Tonto Basin location after traveling 60 miles by car from Phoenix, where the nearest railroad station was, and then riding more than 30 miles of steep rock-strewn trails on horseback into the rugged Mogollon Rim country. Luggage, props, costumes, living necessities and filming equipment were carried to the location by mules; it took five of them just to tote the more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition said to be used in making the picture.

Filming began in the canyon east of Zane Grey’s lodge, and for two weeks the company climbed each morning to locations as high as 2,500 feet above base camp. A number of other important scenes were photographed at Sheep Basin Mountain, a deeply isolated spot in the wilderness about 60 miles east of Payson near the town of Young; previously known as Pleasant Valley, Young had been the actual site of the Graham-Tewksbury feud. Lois Wilson may have received a firsthand sense of the area’s isolation when she was reported by the Seattle Times to be the first woman Mrs. James Benson, a local rancher’s wife, had seen in two years. When introduced, Wilson was wearing her costume of rough homespun, and the rancher’s wife assumed these were her everyday clothes.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 6

In 1921, Zane Grey bought three acres of land on Anderson Lee “Babe” Haught’s homestead in Arizona’s Tonto Basin to build a hunting cabin. “This is where I want my lodge so I can see as far as the eye can see,” Grey wrote. “Beautiful country! And this is where I am going to write a lot of my books.” Haught, who’d worked as Grey’s wilderness guide on the Mogollon Rim since 1918, built the lodge on the designated spot, which lies today within the gated Zane Grey Ranch subdivision in Payson; Grey’s cabin burned to the ground in 1990, but a replica was reconstructed in Payson’s Green Valley Park 15 years later.

The Los Angeles Times reported on April 16, 1923, that Victor Fleming and Famous Players-Lasky production executive Lucien Hubbard (who would oversee most of the company’s silent Zane Grey productions and be credited for writing the scenarios of seven of them) left Hollywood for Tonto Basin to scout filming locations for To the Last Man. At the same time, Grey wrote to Babe Haught, telling him he’d leased his cabin to the film company and requesting that he give the crew a hand with the production. Haught would service Last Man filmmakers by supplying local laborers, extras, horses and location expertise in the same way that Flagstaff rancher Lee Doyle, Grey’s trusted wilderness guide in northern Arizona, would for The Call of the Canyon, The Vanishing American and the dozens of films made in Sedona into the late 1950s.

Haught and his men went to work right away, building a camp of tent houses to lodge the film company and a log cabin that would be used for a few scenes in the picture. An exact reproduction of a pioneer settlement was also built “down below Payson” by Famous Players-Lasky carpenters assisted by a group of local axmen who hewed logs. The lower stories of the 12 buildings were built of stone; logs and rough hewn boards and shingles were used to complete the structures.

Last Man would be hyped by the studio with claims that some of the Tonto Basin residents hired as extras were descendants of the Pleasant Valley War’s “real last man” and that these mountaineers actually looked their parts before cameras started cranking. Arriving on location with period clothing to dress up the locals as 1880s pioneers, studio costumers were dismayed to discover that the everyday clothes worn by some of the extras looked more authentic than the actors’ costumes, claiming “from high-heeled riding boots, to sombreros, each man looked as if he might have stepped off a Broadway stage where some play of frontier days was being produced.”–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 5

Lois Wilson and Richard Dix on location at Tonto Basin.
Surviving Famous Players-Lasky press materials have left us with a pretty good idea of what Roaring Twenties audiences saw in To the Last Man. As the picture opens, Gaston Isbel (Robert Edeson) accuses Lee Jorth (Fred Huntley) of cattle rustling and threatens the latter with punishment when his son, Jean (Richard Dix), arrives from Oregon. Jean, he says, has no equal when it comes to tracking down cattle thieves.

On the way to his father’s ranch, Jean meets Jorth’s daughter, Ellen (Lois Wilson), and smitten in a flash, impulsively kisses her. When Ellen learns the stranger is Jean Isbel, forgiveness becomes an impossibility – a Jorth can’t cozy up to an Isbel. Nevertheless, Ellen soon realizes she loves Jean, despite the conflict between their families.

Meanwhile, back at the Jorth ranch, Lee Jorth and his men, Diggs (Edward Brady), Colter (Noah Beery), Queen (player unknown) and others, discuss Jean’s coming and see trouble brewing. Simms Bruce (gravelly voiced character actor Eugene Palette, billed here as “Jean Palette”) starts the feud anew by shooting at Gaston Isbel. Some of Isbel’s cattle are stolen, among them Jean’s horse, Whiteface. It is upon meeting Jean, who recognizes his mount, which has been given to the girl by her father, that Ellen realizes that Jorth is in reality a horse thief. She returns to the ranch denouncing her father and his men. They learn of Jean’s tracking them and immediately set out to raid the Isbels.

Guy Isbel (Leonard Clapham, later known as Tom London) is shot down and a siege follows. At last, Gaston Isbel realizes the awful consequences of his selfish hate. As the Jorths start to leave, Gaston tells of his decision to follow Jorth, kill him and put an end to the feud, fighting to the last man.

Isbel is tricked and shot down by one of the Jorth men. Blue (Frank Campeau), a confederate, takes command, killing Jorth. A chase ensues, ending in the huge explosion of a planted mine at the foot of the painted cliffs. After this calamity, the only Isbel remaining alive is Jean, who, badly injured, makes his way to a cabin, where he hides in the loft.

Meanwhile, news of her father’s death at the hands of the Isbels has reached Ellen. She goes with Colter to find her father’s body, but Colter, who has less than honorable intentions, leads her to a lonely cabin where, unknown to him, Jean has found shelter. Ellen sees blood on the rung of the ladder leading up to the loft, and becomes aware of Jean’s presence. She tries to conceal this from Colter, and when he discovers her trick she offers herself in exchange for Jean’s life. She confesses her love for Jean.

Jean’s presence is discovered by Colter and as he is about to climb the ladder Ellen shoots and kills Colter. Jean’s pursuers arrive and for a time Jean and Ellen are at their mercy. But at the critical moment, a posse arrives and the gang is forced to surrender. Jean tells Ellen that the feud is over. True love prevails and they embrace at fade-out.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 4

Lois Wilson in costume for To the Last Man.

To the Last Man’s top-billed Lois Wilson would also play the lead female roles in The Call of the Canyon and The Vanishing American. She became a major star in the late silent period; some of her other significant roles were in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) opposite Rudolph Valentino, and as Daisy Buchanan in the first film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926). Besides starring in To the Last Man and The Call of the Canyon, Richard Dix had major roles in six other films released during 1923 and would star in The Vanishing American two years later. Before filming began on Last Man, Zane Grey took his children to see a film in which Dix appeared and he later wrote to his wife, “we went to the movies last night, and took the kids. Luckily the show was decent. We saw Richard Dix (the man who’s playing Jean Isbel in my forest story) and I must say that I like him very much.”

During Last Man filming, gossip columnists began to link Dix and Wilson romantically and for a few months they apparently did have an off-screen relationship. “Why didn’t I marry him in real life?” a pensive Lois Wilson reflected to author John Tuska for his 1976 book The Filming of the West. “Maybe, ultimately, because I was so very close to my family. But I didn’t think so at the time. I remember while we were shooting To the Last Man, Vic Fleming wanted to go to the Grand Canyon for some scenic locations. We were camped on the floor and had to ride these small but wiry little mountain ponies up a steep path carved out of the side of the canyon wall. There was scarcely enough room for one horse; one slip, and rider and horse would plunge over the side.

“Well, I was a good rider. I went up that narrow trail with the others and enjoyed it. After a couple of days, I figured, I could do it without holding my breath. Dick didn’t want me to make the ride. But I went anyway. Then, when we got to the top, he came over to where I was sitting on my horse and he asked me if I had been afraid.

“‘Not at all,’ I told him bravely.

“‘I don’t think I could love a woman who wasn’t afraid of a thing like that ride,’ he said.

“‘You can’t love me,’ I returned, ‘because I wasn’t afraid.’

“By the time we made our next picture, he was right; the romance had cooled.” 

Half a century later, catty silent movie queen Leatrice Joy bared her claws when she suggested a less sentimental reason for the demise of her old friend’s affair with Dix. “I think it was the drinking that ruined them,” she gossiped to Talking to the Piano Player author Stuart Oderman in 1970. “They were never drunk at the same time. In Hollywood, everything is timing.”

Supporting actors Noah Beery, Fred Huntley and Leonard Clapham would appear in To the Last Man and The Call of the Canyon, and both films would have at least two crew members in common. Cameraman James Wong Howe, billed as James Howe, was a pioneer, a Chinese-American working on major Hollywood productions. He would go on to earn 10 career Oscar nominations, winning twice. Although some modern sources name Bert Baldridge as Last Man’s co-cameraman, contemporary crew lists don’t mention him, so it’s more likely that he worked as Howe’s assistant.

Scenario writer Doris Schroeder was assigned to adapt Last Man for the screen, and curiously, a studio-generated news item seems to badmouth Grey’s writing ability to build up hers, insisting that not only did she incorporate the major elements of his story “but also, where good judgement decreed, inserted certain scenes or revised others as her experience as an adaptor dictated.” Schroeder would be credited (with Edfrid A. Bingham) as co-writer of the movie version of The Call of the Canyon.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.