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The Bright Lights of the Square State – a look at the history of film on the Colorado Set

The wide inviting plains and majestic mountain vistas that abound in the great state of Colorado, have drawn filmmakers like flies since basically the beginning of the art form. The ideal American frontier, embedded in the head of the rest of the world, has its roots planted firmly in the Centennial State’s soil. 

Film history for Colorado began in October of 1897, when scenes from the 3rd annual Festival of Mountain & Plain were shot. The gala event began in Denver in the year 1895 in an attempt to lift the city’s spirits following the Silver Panic, the worst economic depression to hit the United States at the time. William Byers, the founder of Colorado’s first newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, helped to promote and direct the event. Residents from throughout the four corners flocked to the three-day celebration of the early pioneer days of the Southwest. The ornate festivities included an outdoor masquerade ball attended by over five thousand revelers, dancing under a canvas stretched across old Broadway, four separate grand parades and the swirling refrain of 600 instruments from 25 marching bands playing in unison. 

Several similar slices of pioneer life with exciting titles such as “Runaway Stagecoach” and “Arrival on Summit of Pike’s Peak,” were shot in the area and released over the next few early years of cinema. H.H. “Buck” Buckwalter, the first photographer of the Rocky Mountain News is credited as the forefather of film in the state. Buckwalter captured a generous collection of inhabitants, wildlife & late 19th to early 20th century culture with his camera. The Smithsonian Institute helped fund some of Buck’s photographic expositions. For years he served as the vice-president of the Colorado Camera Club along with William Henry Jackson, the first person to photograph Yellowstone National Park, as president. Glass negatives from his beginnings as a photojournalist have been preserved and are on display in the Denver Public Library. Buckwalter was the first to understand that displaying the area’s scenic surroundings is an ideal way to advertise the state. Buckwalter was an innovator and film apparatus inventor, who in 1910 started the Moving Picture Equipment Co. Many of his early inventions would be purchased and utilized by burgeoning film companies that would grow to become giants in their field. The then new Selig-Polyscope Company, the first permanent movie studio in Southern California, to capture the Southwest in all its primitive glory, hired Buckwalter.  Going to the extent of trying to pass Colorado off as a mild climate community, locals were filmed wearing summer attire in the streets in frigid January. Because of snow, of course, filming the fraudulent event was postponed. Buckwalter had gotten his start with future movie mogul William Selig when they met back in 1901, as the two men were filming promotional travel films for railroad companies, which would be the birth of video tourism in our country. Buckwalter and Selig would also collaborate on what would be the genesis of western films.

Another benchmark in local cinema history was the creation by former Selig director Otis Thayer, of the Colorado Motion Picture Company in 1913 which was supported by local businessmen who would appear as extras in the company’s films. The studio took a big hit in 1914, when lead actress Grace McHugh and a cameraman drowned in the Arkansas River while shooting the film “Across the Border”. Only one film is known to still exist from the company. Released in 1914 and filmed in Canon City, “Pirates of the Plains”, is a story about two brothers, one a beloved rodeo rider, the other a horse thief. As the film boom burst onto the scene, opulent movie theaters began to spring up next to equally grand Opera and performing arts houses. People started to refer to Curtis Street in Denver as “Theatre Row,” and “Denver’s Great White Way,” for it was said to be the brightest street in the world due to the number of neon clad edifices that illuminated the block. The Apollo Hall was the first theater to open in 1859, as Curtis Street would go on  to be lined with sixty-six theaters in all before the year 1920.

Getting his start galloping across the plains of Colorado in short silent films was the big screen’s first Western star; Tom Mix. Mix set the standard for every faux cowboy to follow. This frontier fascination would continue through the marriage of sound and film, and over those first few infant decades of the industry, helping to create the Western archetypes that are still prevalent to this day. John Ford, arguably the greatest director of the genre, often used Colorado’s craggy canyons as the backdrop to many of his epic masterpieces. Concepts and misconceptions of the Old West were and still are shaped by what Ford’s films reveal to viewers. The forever skies and lush scenery that framed such celluloid heroes as John Wayne, could have had a starring credit all their own. By the time of the mid century television boom, Colorado could already boast of being host to well over one hundred films and television programs, and could rightfully claim a place in the origins of American cinema. The honoring of the Old West would continue in the 1960’s, when towns like Silverton, Telluride & Durango would be employed to serve as settings for classic staples such as True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Roughly thirty westerns were locally filmed during the 1950’s and 60’s. In 1957, MGM studios would even build a replica old west town in Canon City, dubbed Buckskin Joe’s, later converted to a western themed amusement park, which would act as setting to a good number of movies, making Colorado a popular pick amongst some of the generation’s top directors.

A significant shift in cinema took place during the 1970’s. Dealing in the disillusionment of the post Vietnam and Nixon impeachment era, a fresh crop of filmmakers sprouted onto the scene bringing with them more gritty, realistic portrayals in their works. Satire was taken to another level, as evident in the Woody Allen film,  Sleeper, shot on location at the Sculptured Deaton House atop Genesee Mountain in Jefferson County. The ornate elevator inside the distinctive UFO like house was used as a device called the Orgasmatron. The 70’s also saw the birth of pivotal film festivals in Colorado. The Telluride Film Festival, which started in 1974 continues to be held annually over Labor Day weekend. The festival is notable as being the venue where standout films like Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, Ken Burns Civil War documentary, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had their first American viewings. The Denver Film Fest founded in ‘78, followed by Mountainfilm in Telluride in ‘79, still celebrated over every Memorial Day weekend. Family fluff like Mork & Mindy set in Boulder, accompanied by the obligatory John Denver specials of the day, were also in the mix at the time, as television would focus its programming more on the area. 

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick kicked Colorado into the upper echelon of iconic filmdom, when he transformed Stephen King’s monumental horror novel The Shining, into his own immensely influential vision. King, who began working on the story while staying in room 217 of the stately Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, would use the resort and its haunted history as inspiration and setting for his book. Even to this day, The Stanley Hotel replays the uncensored version of The Shining in all its twisted glory, on a twenty-four hour rotation on channel 42 in the guest rooms. 

The 80’s would spawn a fresh decade of inspired filmmakers who would hatch a myriad of new film fests in the state. The longest running celebration of women’s films in the United States, the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival, was established in Colorado Springs in 1987. The Colorado Production Guide would commence under the direction of The Colorado Film & Video Association, and currently continues to operate as the state’s oldest production directory containing contact information for hundreds in the film field. The area would also be home to a number of the summer and holiday blockbusters the era would drag in its wake. Over the top heroes like Indiana Jones, Action Jackson, and even everyone’s favorite, celluloid family the Griswold’s, would use the scenery of Colorado as a backdrop to their adventures. Hell, even Over The Top with master thespian Sylvester Stallone passed through the area to film. The remote control age of 80’s television would bring Dynasty, which was set in Denver and would become one of the most popular nighttime melodramas of all time. 

Colorado was still fertile filming ground towards the end of the 20th Century, with cartoons even getting in on the act as Trey Parker and Matt Stone would make the town of South Park a household name. The tragic events of yet another local small town would be unfortunately repeated ad nauseam across seemingly every cable news station across the land for the whole world to view. And as the rest of us tried to make sense of the senselessness that was Columbine, filmmaker Michael Moore came onto the scene and tried to put some perspective on the subject with his controversial documentary Bowling for Columbine. As the new millennium began and the digital age dawned, even the oxymoron of reality TV would cast its skewed spotlight on the state. Cinema would continue to be celebrated and grow locally as film festivals would again multiply. Including the foundations of the Boulder International Film Festival in 2004 by sisters Kathy and Robin Beeck, held each year over President’s Day weekend. The Castle Rock Film Fest began in ‘09. Horror fans would start their own celebration in 2010 with the formation of The Mile High Horror Film Festival.

Just last year in April of 2012, the Boulder History Museum held an exhibit entitled “Hollywood, Colorado”, which explored the more than one hundred year old history of cinema in the state. Highlighted by posters, footage and artifacts from locally made movies, the exhibit also featured films from new and upcoming homegrown artists. Also in 2012, Gov. John Hickenlooper requested $3 million to be allocated towards state film incentives. While the revenue generated in the state from filmmaking is substantial, there are still others who believe the cost outweighs the benefit and would like to see the money earmarked for film go towards other useful outlets. While many surrounding states are looking to draw filmmakers to their area by offering sizable loan guarantees and by raising the percentage of cash rebates given for production, Colorado took steps to try and ensure the future of filming in the state, by doubling film rebates from 10% up to 20%. Just looking over the long and varied resume of films and television programs broadcast from Colorado, one can get a sense of the impact the state has had on the industry. And the impact the industry has had on bringing much needed revenue to the state.

I’ve no designs on turning Colorado into the next Tinseltown. In fact, I tend to feel in an admittedly odd elitist way, that when you slap the moniker of “The Hollywood of . . .” onto an idea, you’re stamping on a glaring disclaimer of defeat by basically acknowledging you’re still trying to be something else. Alternately, I feel it’s imperative to continue to concentrate on cultivating a positive, productive environment that encourages local filmmakers and students to think globally but shoot locally. And assure excited filmmakers of all ages that they have options and resources to fulfill their visions. By showcasing the natural beauty that encompasses the area, you let people know that there’s no need to create a CGI version of the Rocky Mountains, because the view of the real thing ain’t too shabby. It’s interesting to draw parallels between our film forefathers and modern day filmmakers. Since they’re the arbiters of a new age themselves, trying to deal with the ever-changing new fangled technology they’re confronted with every time there’s an upgrade which actually seems to take place so very often now.   And as hard as it seems to stay current in such mercurial times, it’s encouraging to see the amount of advancements being made at such an accelerated rate. And when living in such an age of such considerable change and progression, it’s very easy to lose site of the past.

While researching some classic films that were rumored to have been filmed locally, but alas were shot on back lots of Hollywood studios over 1,000 miles away, I was a bit disappointed because these movies would add some bright color to the lore of the state. Then I was struck by a quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film with its story set in Picketwire Canyonlands of southeastern Colorado, during a time when the area was struggling with the idea of statehood. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

by Bryan Morell

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