Monday, April 23, 2012

"Lightning" Deal

Smoke Lightning had a two day run at Fredonia, New York’s Winter Garden Theatre in May 1933, but the headline attraction wasn’t all-American George O’Brien. Topping the bill that week was Mussolini Speaks!, A six-reel documentary produced by Columbia Pictures and promoted with ad art showing a crowd of Blackshirts giving “today’s man of the hour” the fascist salute. Cult director Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) reportedly worked on it as a director.

When Hollywood cowboy George O’Brien left Flagstaff for Los Angeles in October 1932, having completed three weeks of filming in and around Sedona for Robbers’ Roost, he had good reason to expect he’d be back. Before Roost’s cast and crew departed, Fox Film representatives told The Coconino Sun that David Howard (who’d directed O’Brien’s Mystery Ranch in Sedona six months earlier) was coming back soon to film the Zane Grey story Canyon Walls. Beyond that, Fox intended to shoot one or two unspecified Zane Grey stories in the area immediately afterward. Local rancher Lee Doyle was already engaged to help select locales and, as usual, handle transportation and supplies. O’Brien, whom Fox was now declaring the “most popular Western actor in pictures” had every reason to expect he’d be back on the train soon to star in one or all of these pictures.

But it didn’t turn out that way. While O’Brien did star in Canyon Walls, it wasn’t in Sedona. When the project was released on February 17, 1933, it was retitled Smoke Lightning, bore little resemblance to Grey’s story and was filmed entirely in California. Fox cameras would return to Red Rock Country, but not until almost a year later, in August 1933. And then it was not for an O’Brien/Grey western, but for Smoky, based on a best seller by cowboy author/illustrator Will James and starring Victor Jory. Given that Fox would chalk up a devastating $19.96 million loss in 1932, and surely had an inkling of that by the time the Roost company left town, it’s not such a leap to imagine that filming a low-return Western in Arizona had become a luxury Fox decided it could no longer afford; the three post-Roost Grey adaptations starring O’Brien (Smoke Lightning, Life in the Raw, and The Last Trail), were filmed entirely in California, a sign of the changes to come that would contribute to O’Brien and Fox parting ways.