Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Champion of the West

Marge Champion is on the fence with Bob Baker in Honor of the West.
91 year-old dance legend Marge Champion will join Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne in Sedona to present George Sidney’s Show Boat on September 7 as part of the Sedona International Film Festival’s Living Legends series. Ms. Champion, an acclaimed choreographer, director, teacher and actress, is perhaps best known for working as a dancing team with her former husband, Gower Champion, and the duo will be seen tripping the light fantastic in the 1951 MGM adaption of Jerome Kern’s classic musical play showing in Sedona. My colleague, Erika Ayn Finch, had the chance to interview Ms. Champion before her visit and they discussed, among other things, her early film work for Walt Disney Studios as live action model for the title character in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940) and the ballet dancing hippopotamus in Fantasia (1942). You can read the interview in the September issue of Sedona Monthly, on sale at Barnes and Noble, Borders Books, and independent booksellers across the country.

I couldn’t resist asking Erika to include a few questions for Ms. Champion about the most obscure job of her distinguished career, playing the heroine in Honor of the West, a 1939 B-Western starring forgotten singing cowboy Bob Baker. Billed as Marjorie Bell (she was born Marjorie Celeste Belcher), the seventeen year-old Champion had her first credited movie role in the picture, which was filmed on location in Kernville, California, about three hours north of Los Angeles.

Bob Baker (left) and Forrest Taylor
defend the Honor of the West.
Her ridin’, ropin’, vocalizin’ leading man, Bob Baker, had been a singer on WLS’ Chicago-based National Barn Dance radio show in 1935 (billed as “Tumble” Weed; his real name was Stanley Leland Weed) and was a longtime resident of northern Arizona. He’d been employed in the license division of the Arizona State Highway Department and worked for “Shirley’s Cowboy Guides and Entertainers” at the Grand Canyon prior to going to Hollywood in 1937.

Baker starred in twelve B Westerns for Universal Pictures (and was demoted to Johnny Mack Brown’s second banana for a final six); after playing a few small roles for Monogram and United Artists he quit the movies in 1944 and returned to Flagstaff to work as a police officer. Baker died in 1975 and is buried in Clear Creek Cemetery in Camp Verde, Arizona, about 40 miles from Sedona.––Joe McNeill

ERIKA AYN FINCH: How were you cast in Honor of the West?

I had just graduated from Hollywood High School and had a great friend, one of [character actor] Fred Stone’s daughters, and they had a friend named Henry Willson, who was an agent. He took me on because he said I was right for certain kinds of movies. He sent me out to Universal to audition for Honor of the West. And I was terrible. I was 17 and had no acting experience except through pantomime and dancing. Its a hilarious movie but not because it’s any good (laughing).

You’ve seen the movie?

Oh, yes! They’ve shown it at Film Forum [a repertory movie house in New York City] and a few other places and I’m always embarrassed. They invite me to come and talk about it.

Why didn’t you make another Western?

Because I was not exactly trained in horsemanship (laughing). I went over to Griffith Park and took six horseback riding lessons when I knew I had the part.

In the movie I had to lead the posse to rescue the hero, which was kind of a twist, but I was nearly brushed off the horse on the very first day of shooting. They gave me the fastest horse and it was sheer terror. If not for one of the extremely talented cowboys who saw what was going to happen I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. That was the only time a second shot was taken by the director [George Waggner] because they never took more than one.

In the film Bob Baker never takes his hat off, the reason being that he didn’t have any hair. I had only seen him on the set with his hat on and when I met him in the evening (everybody had supper together) he had his hat off and I didn’t know who he was!

Do you have any other memories of Bob Baker?

No, I never saw him again. He did quite a few of those one week [Westerns] and he would have a different leading lady every week.

He made three pictures in three weeks and it took seven days to make that picture. The scripts were done just about as fast as they do a television show now. They were filmed on location with not one indoor shot. And you had to supply your own jeans or whatever costume you had to wear. In those days they didn’t make girls’ jeans so I had to buy boys’ jeans, the kind with the buttons on the wrong side––I still have them, as a matter of fact. You learn some things along the way and one thing I learned is that if you’re not right for Western movies you’d better stick to what you know how to do. Copyright © by Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, August 23, 2010

That’s My Pup!

Behind the Scenes Photo Number One: Bright-eyed and bushy-haired Marion Morrison––who was just starting to answer to the name “John Wayne”––gladhands a pooch he and Marguerite Churchill (his first-ever screen leading lady) chanced to encounter while strolling the Fox Movietone lot with a publicity cameraman in 1930. Wayne and Churchill, reportedly an item at the time, were toplining Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which did some location filming at the Grand Canyon. Three years later Churchill married actor George O’Brien, who starred in four Westerns filmed in Sedona.––Joe McNeill

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sedona Movie Alert!

Catch a film ­featuring our red rock scenery on TV: The Strawberry Roan (1948, filmed in Sedona) starring Gene Autry, Gloria Henry and Jack Holt; directed by John English. Airing on Encore Westerns August 22 and August 25 at 12 p.m. Eastern time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Republic Pictures Birthday Bash

The Republic lot in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives

Don’t miss this one! The Cultural Affairs Committee of the Studio City Neighborhood Council and the Museum of the San Fernando Valley will salute the 75th Anniversary of Republic Pictures with a free event on Saturday, September 25, 2010. The celebration will take place at the former Republic studio lot, now CBS Studio Center (4204 Radford Ave., Studio City, California) from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and stars like Joan Leslie, Adrian Booth, Hugh O’Brien, Anne Jeffreys, Peggy Stewart, and Jane Withers are slated to attend.

The big blowout will feature screenings of Republic films, serials and trailers; memorabilia exhibitions; live performances of swing and western music, and entertainment by gun spinners, rope twirlers, trick horses and cowboy poets. There will be panels of industry experts and celebrities talking about everything from the early days of movie special effects to what it was like to work at the studio; film historian/critic Leonard Maltin will moderate one of the star panels. A special Republic Pictures commemorative cancellation for the U.S. Postal Service’s "Cowboys of the Silver Screen” stamps will be available onsite, and I’ll be there signing copies of my book Arizona’s Little Hollywood, too.

There will also be a pair of warm-up acts commemorating Republic Pictures prior to the main event in Studio City. On Sept. 15, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (6712 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-466-3456) will screen a double feature of Republic films, and on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., film historian Marc Wanamaker will give a free talk about the history of Studio City and Republic Pictures at the Studio City Library (12511 Moorpark St.; 818-755-7873).

Republic’s backlot western street. Photograph courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives

Founded in 1935, Republic Pictures specialized in B-movies heavy on action and adventure, the twin staples of Saturday afternoon matinees. The studio launched the careers of American icons John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, and rocketed cliffhangers like 1941's The Adventures of Captain Marvel into the pop culture stratosphere during its 24 years of active production. Other classic Republic films include Under Western Stars (1938), Macbeth (1948), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and the Sedona-filmed Johnny Guitar (1954).––Joe McNeill

Visit for more information.

FACEBOOK: Republic Pictures 75th Anniversary Event

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sedona Movie Alert!

Catch a film ­featuring our red rock scenery on TV: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, filmed in Sedona, Flagstaff and Prescott) starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain; directed by John M. Stahl. Airing on Turner Classic Movies August 14 at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Republic Tries to Draw Kids to the Matinee

To promote 1950’s Singing Guns, Republic Pictures had crooning star Vaughn “Old Leather Tonsils” Monroe pitch cereal in an ad that ran in Sunday Comics sections and urged theater managers to hold coloring contests for kids with art that prominently featured Sedona’s red rocks. Prior to taming the celluloid West, Monroe scored Hit Parade smashes with “Mule Train,” “Riders in the Sky,” and the traditional campfire ditty “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”––Joe McNeill

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sedona Movie Alert!

Catch a film ­featuring our red rock scenery on TV: Virginia City (1940, filmed in Sedona and northern Arizona) starring Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins and Humphrey Bogart; directed by Michael Curtiz. Airing on Turner Classic Movies August 7 at 6 a.m. Eastern time.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Drum Beating

Toys For Tots started in 1947 when Marine reservists collected 5,000 toys for local children from collection bins placed outside of Warner Bros. theaters in Los Angeles. The charity was launched nationwide the following year and founder William L. Hendricks, a Marine Corps Reserve officer, used his position as PR director of Warner to enlist celebrity endorsements. And what better way was there for Hendricks to publicize a WB movie than to combo it with the tug at the heartstrings charity nearest and dearest to his heart? So Alan Ladd, producer/star of Drum Beat (filmed in Sedona in 1954) lent his name––and the title of his new film–– to the joint cause of happy kids and healthy box office.

Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops to promote Drum Beat, even beating the drums for a tie-in Dell comic book featuring Ladd and co-star Charles Bronson on the cover. Warner promo materials promised “Books nationally distributed simultaneously with film’s release” for a “[t]ie-in with newsstands, drug and stationery stores, railroad and air terminals, wherever books are sold.” The comic book may not have had the most accurate drawings of Sedona’s landscape, but it was a rare chance to see them in full-color benday glory.

The Hoopla flew thick and fast for Drum Beat. Warner Bros. even drafted into service one of its biggest stars, Doris Day, fresh from starring in Lucky Me (the first musical released in the CinemaScope format and a film she reportedly cared little for), and soon to co-star with Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart (which after completing she chose not to renew her WB contract), who is pictured visiting the studio art department. Good soldier Day is being shown a painting of the White House as it would look in Drum Beat, a film she had absolutely nothing to do with. Que será, será to ballyhoo a picture!––Joe McNeill

Drum Beat airs twice this month on Encore Westerns; August 5 at 5:05 p.m. and August 19 at 1:40 p.m. Both scheduled screenings are Eastern Time.