Monday, August 29, 2011

'The Call of the Canyon' is Still Lost

Bad news, Sedona movie fans. The Russian film archive Gosfilmofond’s much-heralded gift to the U.S. of a digital copy of The Call of the Canyon has proven a bust. The long-lost silent film, shot in Oak Creek Canyon in 1923, had its first viewing on June 24 at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va.; unfortunately, the copy yielded just four minutes and 10 seconds of footage. Image quality is reportedly good, but scenes are so brief, and interspersed with Russian intertitles, that archivists found it difficult to even tell how they fit into the story.

Quite a disappointment. The Russian archive always promised the best chance that a copy of The Call of the Canyon still existed somewhere. But at least we can see a few short fragments of it now.––Joe McNeill

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monumental Pictures, Part 2

Even though Monument Valley has less than four minutes of screen time in Stagecoach, it made an indelible impression on Moviegoers in 1939. But it wasn’t the first time they’d seen it in a film. In late August 1938, six weeks before he brought John Ford to Monument Valley to scout locations for Stagecoach, Flagstaff rancher/movie coordinator Lee Doyle arranged for an MGM crew to film exteriors there (and in Sedona) for George B. Seitz’s Out West With the Hardys; inexplicably, the Mickey Rooney-starring sitcom would pull into theaters (more than three months before Stagecoach) with no easy-to-ID Monument Valley real estate in sight. In 1940, Seitz returned to Monument Valley for the third time to direct indie producer Edward Small’s Kit Carson with Jon Hall.

After Stagecoach delivered boffo box office, moviemakers rolled into Monument Valley. Before he was replaced by producer Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks planned to direct a scene or two there for Jane Russell’s controversial “sex Western” The Outlaw at the exact same time in 1940 that MGM had a unit among the buttes shooting action sequences for its competing Billy the Kid. MGM would send a cameraman back in 1945 to film rock eye-candy backdrops for George Sidney’s Judy Garland songfest, The Harvey Girls.

Following the lifting of World War II travel restrictions, a Republic Pictures second unit shot a chase sequence in Monument Valley for its 1946 William Elliott Western, Plainsman and the Lady (aka Drumbeats Over Wyoming). Oh, by the way, Wild Bill’s people beat John Ford to the valley by a few days when he went back (his first visit since Stagecoach) to make My Darling Clementine for Twentieth Century-Fox. Concurrently, Yakima Canutt, Stagecoach’s stunt coordinator, was there too, directing the main title action of John Wayne’s Sedona-based Angel and the Badman for Republic.

Curiously, not every Monument Valley movie was actually filmed in Monument Valley. Then as now, Hollywood producers were quick to pounce on trends, so to cash in on the valley’s post-Stagecoach mythic status, Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures released King of the Stallions (aka Code of the Red Man) a 1942 obscurity that on-screen credits ballyhooed as being “filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona.” In fact, the “Monument Valley” turf seen in the flick is mostly Sedona’s Red Rock Country, courtesy of extensive footage lifted from Grand National Films’ 1938 King of the Sierras, a slapdash B picture that quickly put fading Rex the Wonder Horse out to permanent show-biz pasture.–– Joe McNeill. Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Sedona Monthly

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monumental Pictures, Part 1

Forget the legend. Monument Valley wasn’t unknown to Hollywood before 1939’s Stagecoach, and director John Ford only “discovered” it in the daydreams of a studio flack. The place was pitched for movie business as early as 1917, when Kayenta, Ariz., trading post owners John and Louisa Wetherill, in cooperation with the Santa Fe Railroad, hyped an “elaborate moving picture advertising scheme of the Monument Valley and Rainbow Natural Bridge country.” Not only that, there’s proof that a Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures) camera crew visited the area in 1920, although it’s not known what, if anything, they may have photographed. But it is the same studio’s The Vanishing American, a 1925 silent film based on the novel by Zane Grey and directed by serial auteur George B. Seitz, that holds the honor of being the first to include sequences shot on location in Monument Valley. It was a low-key screen debut: A couple of quickie bits were staged in front of the valley’s distinctive rock skyline, but the bulk of production took place near Tuba City, 90 miles to the southwest. Paramount returned to Monument Valley in June 1928 to take a few shots for The Water Hole, a long-lost silent movie also based on a Zane Grey story.

In September 1929, a company from Fox Film Corp. traveled to Monument Valley to shoot parts of The Lone Star Ranger, the first talkie Zane Grey Western, and the first sound film of any genre made in northern Arizona. Ten years before he blazed into the national consciousness in Stagecoach, John Wayne, still answering to the moniker Duke Morrison, worked in Monument Valley as The Lone Star Ranger‘s prop man. Eleven months later, Fox Film announced it would trot him in front of cameras there as leading man of King of Wild Horses (aka Alcatraz and Wyoming Wonder), a never-completed remake of Tom Mix's silent Just Tony in which the newly anointed actor was set to play opposite the more prominently billed (and much bigger movie star) Rex the Wonder Horse.

When buzz reached Zane Grey in 1931 that Fox Film was prepping a third movie based on his venerable Riders of the Purple Sage, he compiled a list of preferred locations in Utah and Arizona for studio executives to consider. Among his suggestions was Monument Valley, conveniently located, he noted, “one day from Kayenta.” Fox took the hint and declared its intention to stage a cattle stampede in the valley for Riders. But for reasons unknown, the rampage was photographed at the far more easily accessible and equally butte-iful Sedona. Fox Film would likewise announce, but not shoot, a Monument Valley segment for Riders’ 1932 sequel, The Rainbow Trail. The valley did show up briefly on-screen in 1931 in Howard Higgin’s The Painted Desert, made by Pathé Exchange with future Hopalong Cassidy star William Boyd and pre-crowned Hollywood king Clark Gable.

In 1932, Universal Pictures beat the drum for its plan to photograph scenic backgrounds in Monument Valley for William Wyler’s production of Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Native American life. Universal abandoned Laughing Boy after just a few days of filming on the Navajo reservation, but MGM scooped up rights to the book and two years later released an adaptation with slumping Latin lover Ramon Novarro in the title role. Monument Valley vistas are briefly spotted in the finished picture (which did its location work near Safford in southeastern Arizona), but facts remain murky about when (or by whom) the footage was photographed.–– Joe McNeill. Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Sedona Monthly

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ford's Theatre

Monument Valley and Sedona share a unique distinction – thanks to the movies, both symbolize “the West” in the American subconscious and to the world at large. But unlike Sedona, Monu­ment Valley was never anonymous. Thanks to its link with director John Ford from 1938 on, there was always a name attached to its iconic buttes. Another difference: If Ford were here today, he’d have no problem recognizing “his” Monu­ment Valley. 

Every time the door swings open at Goulding’s Trading Post – man’s tiny contribution to the topography of Monument Valley near the Arizona-Utah border – a cowbell clangs loud enough to make any moo-ver shaky. But, the arrival of any person around here, historically, probably would be an event requiring fanfare – Goulding’s is in what most people would consider the middle of nowhere, except for one thing: Its front step looks out on a view anyone who’s ever seen a Western movie would recognize in a heartbeat.

Such was the power of Monument Valley as defined through the lens of John Ford and his team that for decades, reviewers who saw an unidentified Sedona on screen reflexively assumed our red rocks must be Monument Valley. But one look around at the actual location is all you’d need to see to never make that mistake again. Perhaps the most famous of the buttes – the East and West Mittens, and the Sisters – are set in relief against a vast backdrop of...nothing. Their power, inseparable from the way Ford showed them in the many movies he made here, starting with Stagecoach in 1938 and ending with Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, is timeless.

Monument Valley today is a Navajo Tribal Park. Guided tours are available, which allow access to areas and views closed off to drivers in their own vehicles who choose the self-guided tour along a 17-mile unpaved loop road. Horseback rides are available to fulfill any John Wayne fantasies.

Apart from the Navajo-owned View Hotel, which opened in December 2008 adjacent to the Tribal Visitors Center, there is Goulding’s. Opened as a trading post by Harry Goulding and his wife, known by her nickname “Mike,” in 1928, it is now a museum. Behind it stands a tiny cabin seen as John Wayne’s cavalry headquarters in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – “Mike” Goulding used it to store her potatoes – and next door is Goulding’s Lodge, for those who plan to stay.

Ford and his crews were frequent guests, and letters of Thanks from the director, John Wayne (“Harry, you and I both owe these monuments a lot, Duke”), Henry Fonda, and others are framed in the front room of the trading post/museum. You’ll pass through the Ware Room (used to store dry goods, now filled with vintage blankets, riding boots, rugs, and photos), the “Movie Days Film Gallery” (film memorabilia), and the upstairs living quarters, preserved as it was in the Goulding’s day – save for the air conditioner now in the window that frames the classic cinematic view. We trust Harry and “Mike” would concede this one nod to “progress” – at least in the summer. –– Steven Korn. Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Sedona Monthly

Monday, August 1, 2011

Good Mourning!

In Bernard Eisenschitz’s 1993 biography Nich­olas Ray: An American Journey, Johnny Guitar’s credited screenwriter Philip Yor­dan (who may or may not have actually written the 1954 Sedona-filmed classic) recalled a chat with the director, who was at wit’s end dealing with combative Joan Craw­ford. “Well, why don’t you do this, Nick?” Yordan suggested. “It’ll only be another six weeks. Get up every morning, look in the mirror, and when you shave, say, ‘Look, I’ve only got five more weeks and I’ll never have to see Joan Craw­ford again.’ ... He looked at me a long time – I’ll never forget this – and he said, ‘You know, never is a long time.’ ”