Monday, February 28, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 3

Filming To the Last Man at Tonto Basin in 1923 are (standing, from left) unknown, James Wong Howe, Richard Dix, Lois Wilson and Victor Fleming.
By November 1922, Zane Grey had reached his boiling point over the movie industry’s “creative accounting” practices (net profit deals in Hollywood are still a sucker’s bet) and filed suit against his partners in Zane Grey Pictures, charging them with fraud and diversion of funds. He alleged that most of the profits from the seven films made by the company had been pocketed by Hampton and Warner and that he had not received the 25 percent share stipulated in his contract.

Declaring Zane Grey Pictures a bust, he sold the bones of the business a month later to Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the earliest incarnation of Hollywood titan Paramount Pictures. It was a good deal for both sides: Grey would be paid $25,000 upfront for a seven-year option on each title, with a share in the pictures’ profits; in return, the studio could prominently promote Grey’s name on its Westerns, which would help ensure big box-office returns.

Reporting on the Grey/Famous Players–Lasky deal in January 1923, The New York Times correctly noted that Grey would “collaborate actively” on the “picturization” of his stories. Three months later, the Times mistakenly claimed that Grey would direct To the Last Man, the first of his books to be filmed under the arrangement, when in fact, the studio planned to assign the job to contract director Victor Fleming. The idea was to have Fleming shoot Last Man in Tonto Basin, then take the identical cast and crew in quick succession to Oak Creek Canyon to film Grey’s The Call of the Canyon and then to Tuba City for Grey’s The Vanishing American, each location the actual setting of the novel. Fleming was already familiar with the Arizona landscape, having directed parts of The Mollycoddle, a 1920 comedy with Douglas Fairbanks, on the Hopi reservation. As it happened, things didn’t pan out in quite the way the studio had hoped; after two years of production delays, Fleming became involved with other projects and The Vanishing American was directed by serial veteran George B. Seitz. Fleming would later achieve silver screen immortality by directing both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Richard Dix and Lois Wilson pose on the Mogollon Rim.
Studio production chief Jesse L. Lasky himself made the announcement that Lois Wilson and Richard Dix, two of his company’s hottest up-and-coming young stars, would be teamed for the first Zane Grey pictures. At the same time, he loudly tooted his horn about how Last Man would be photographed at the book’s backdrop of Tonto Basin, about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix, which he dramatically described as “one of the most difficult spots of access in the entire United States.” Lasky wasn’t just whistling Dixie about the tough commute facing his film crew; as late as the early 1950s, it was still a 10-hour car trek on mostly unpaved roads from Phoenix to Tonto Basin.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 2

To the Last Man star Richard Dix at Arizona's Mogollon Rim.

It was probably in the late teens that Zane Grey began work on what would become To the Last Man, his fictionalized account of the real-life Graham-Tewksbury feud, aka the Pleasant Valley War, the bloodiest conflict between cattlemen and sheepmen in the history of the West. The violence began in 1886 in central Arizona’s Tonto Basin region (today a district within Gila County) and reached a deadly climax when the last of the Graham family was murdered in Tempe in 1892. Historians estimate that about 20 deaths can be directly linked to the vendetta.

According to an item in the March 18, 1922, issue of the American Library Association Booklist magazine, Grey made three trips to Tonto Basin to dig out “the truth” about the feud. In an October 1930 letter to Flagstaff’s Coconino Sun newspaper, he estimated he’d spent $30,000 – a king’s ransom in those days – just on research.

Dying on his feet, Blue (Frank Campeau) tells Jean Isbel (Richard Dix) that he has killed two enemies in Last Man.
Grey titled his novel Tonto Basin and added a fabricated backstory that revolved around the illegitimate birth of heroine Ellen Jorth. In his reimagined version of history (so much for “the truth”), it is the lustful behavior of her parents, members of opposing clans who live together without ever marrying, that triggers the bad blood between the two families. The Country Gentleman magazine paid Grey $30,000 for serialization rights to the novel, but nervous editors cut out every last trace of hanky-panky and retitled it the ballsier-sounding To the Last Man when they rolled out the story in 10 parts during 1921. Harper and Brothers later published The Country Gentleman version as a book, and it went on to become, according to Publishers Weekly, the ninth biggest selling American novel of 1922. The sexy plot elements homogenized by The Country Gentleman would finally be restored when the novel was reissued in 2004 under Grey’s original title, Tonto Basin.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 1

Arizona’s Little Hollywood, the definitive history of the starring role Sedona played in the movies, focuses on the high desert country that stretches from Oak Creek Canyon to Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon (ground zero for filmmaking in northern Arizona), which effectively put the kibosh on detailed coverage of any films photographed in other parts of the state. So the making of 1923’s To the Last Man – big brother movie to The Call of the Canyon, the first one to have a Sedona pedigree – is given just a quick once-over because it was shot in central Arizona, about 50 miles southeast of Red Rock Country. This long-lost silent film may be a ghost, but it didn’t take all its secrets to the grave. The backstory of To the Last Man, which hit theaters while virtually the identical cast and crew was in Oak Creek Canyon to shoot The Call of the Canyon, deserves to be remembered as the prequel to Sedona’s rise as a popular movie location. Consider it the lost chapter of Arizona’s Little Hollywood; here’s the first of an 11-part series that completes the story.

Last Man, like Call, was based on a novel by Zane Grey, and it kickstarted a long-term deal with Paramount Pictures that would, in the minds of some critics, result in the best films ever made from his writings. But for Grey, a former dentist who became one of the most popular authors of the 20th century, success in the movies didn’t come painlessly. In 1916, after two years of trying to rustle up interest for his books in Hollywood, he sold all rights forever – including for television, which may have seemed about as likely to ever happen as landing a man on the moon – to Riders of the Purple Sage, The Rainbow Trail, The Last of  the Duanes and The Lone Star Ranger to Fox Film Corporation. But it wasn’t long before he was kicking himself for having let them go for a measly $2,500 apiece. It was crystal clear that there was a lot of money to be made adapting his work to the movies, so in 1918 he decided to cut out the middleman and make the films himself, forming Zane Grey Pictures Inc. in partnership with producers Benjamin B. Hampton and Eltinge F. Warner. It must have struck Grey as a no-lose proposition; he would retain ownership of his stories, oversee the content of the films and share in their profits, but not have to actively participate in making them.

Audiences lined up to see Zane Grey Pictures’ first release, Desert Gold (1919), based on his 1915 novel; Motion Picture News reported it did such boffo business that a few sly exhibitors took advantage of public demand to see it as a sneaky way to permanently raise ticket prices. Mysteriously, even though Grey was now calling the shots, his longstanding wish to have his novels filmed at the exact locations he wrote about (a request that consistently fell on deaf ears at Fox Film) was ignored for this one, too; most of Desert Gold was photographed in Palm Springs, Calif., even though his original story was set on the Arizona-Mexico border. Still, Grey seemed to be satisfied with the way his initial dabbling into the movie business had turned out. Advertising included his portrait and signed testimony that “The producer has put the spirit, the action and the truth of Desert Gold on the screen. My ideas, my wishes – even my hopes – have been fulfilled.”–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Shirley, You’re Mistaken...

Heroic George O'Brien protects Shirley Nail in Riders of the Purple Sage.

Over the years, a number of reports in the Arizona press have repeated a fanciful tale of curly-haired moppet Shirley Temple going to Sedona in 1931 for a role in Fox Film’s second remake of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Cute, but not true. Temple, the most famous child star in movie history, never made a film in Sedona; the little girl who played in Riders was a 3-year-old named Shirley Nail.

Riders was filmed in 1931; Temple did not make her screen debut until the following year, an uncredited appearance in The Runt Page, a 1932 Educational Pictures “Baby Burlesks” short directed by Ray Nazarro, who also helmed the Sedona-made 1952 Indian Uprising starring George Montgomery. In 1933, Temple had an uncredited bit in a Randolph Scott western based on Zane Grey’s To The Last Man, filmed at Big Bear Lake, Calif. Her one pertinent link to Riders of the Purple Sage: Its director, Hamilton MacFadden, directed Temple’s star-making turn in Fox’s 1934 musical comedy Stand Up and Cheer. Temple appeared in only one Western after To The Last Man, John Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache, when she was 19.

Not much is known about Shirley Nail, who seems never to have been in another film. Critics of the day took note of the little platinum blonde haired girl, although even then there was some confusion about her name. Nelson B. Bell wrote in The Washington Post that Riders’ supporting cast “...all contribute effective support, but none with quite the charm of little Shirley Nails, a precocious and precious baby.” Variety’s “Sid” noted the film is “...entirely void of comedy other than for the antics of the diminutive Miss Niles.”––Joe McNeill