Sundance 2024: Marking 100 years of Utah film and television history

NOTE: This feature about 100 years of film and television in Utah is linked to the Part I curtain raiser for the Sundance Film Festival. 

When James D’Arc came to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah as a student, he already knew some of Hollywood’s most famous names such as John Ford and John Wayne who had come to Utah to shoot some of the most famous examples of westerns for the silver screen. A Southern California native, D’Arc knew the bedroom community of Glendale, California where many professionals from Hollywood lived. Already a diehard fan of movies, D’Arc said in an interview with The Utah Review,  “I loved all of it.”

Utah became his home. His BYU career stretched more than four decades, as a speech and theater arts professor and as curator in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections department for the BYU Motion Picture Archive, and contributor to the Motion Picture Archives Film Series. In 1976, he made his first connection in what would become a 33-year research project about the history of Utah film, when he met the ex-wife of Whitney Parry, one of the three brothers who established the Parry Lodge in Kanab. The work culminated in the 2010 publication of When Hollywood Came to Utah by Gibbs Smith. An updated fourth edition to coincide with this year’s centennial is expected to be released later this month.

When it comes to Utah’s film history, several familiar examples immediately pop into one’s mind: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,Thelma & Louise, and 127 Hours. Certainly, these are featured in the exhibition but viewers will unquestionably be astounded at the depth and breadth of work that has been filmed in many parts of the state. 

THE BIRTHPLACE OF UTAH FILM HISTORY

The Parry Lodge was the birthplace of a Utah cinema, which started with The Deadwood Coach starring legendary silent film star Tom Mix. In 1923, the silent The Covered Wagon, which was a major box office success, included scenes of a buffalo hunt and stampede, which were filmed on Antelope Island. While The Deadwood Coach has been lost, D’Arc was able to verify its provenance with photos of Tom Mix, which had been taken in the area including spots like Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and areas near Kanab and Cedar City. Kanab literally became “Little Hollywood,” where the lodge would be home to stars and production crews for more than 100 films.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Utah Office of Tourism. Photo Credit: Andrea David.

Long before the vision of Sundance crystallized, Utah understood that its connections to Hollywood would fortify a growing tourist trade in the state. In the early 1920s, Cedar City emerged as an agricultural, mining, and commercial center for southwestern Utah and parts of Nevada and Arizona.  Tourism naturally followed. There were four parks near Cedar City: Bryce and Zion National Parks, Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Cedar Breaks National Monument. 

In fact, the path for Utah’s entry into the film business was already paved nearly a decade before the first feature shot was shot in the area. The Parry Brothers were skilled promoters. In 1915, Gronway Parry, who worked as an agricultural agent and was an expert in animal husbandry, believed that the new national parks were gateways to a booming tourist trade so he convinced his brother Chauncey to join him in establishing an enterprise to handling transportation for park visitors. The business was so successful that the Union Pacific Railroad acquired their company in the mid-1920s and the brothers were hired as superintendents. Meanwhile, the brothers explored and photographed the region, first on horseback and then by plane — becoming the state’s first location scouts for film production teams and studios. Previously, most western scenes were filmed with cardboard backdrops. 

The two older brothers brought on their younger sibling Whitney, when they purchased a restaurant and nearby motel units to convert into the lodge which bears their name to this day. The trio became southern Utah’s most successful promoters, ensuring that the region could survive the worst effects of the Great Depression.

As the Utah Film Commission has noted, the economic impact of tourism connected to Utah’s place in film and television. History has been substantial. A 2023 survey indicated that 37% of visitors cite film and/or television among the primary motivators in selecting Utah as a destination. Over the last 10 years, those visitors have spent an estimated $6 billion in the state.

‘A HORN OF PLENTY’

Beginning in the 1920s, the results meant “a horn of plenty” for southern Utah, D’Arc added. Among the most prominent examples at the time was the 1928 film Ramona, the first to have a synchronized recorded soundtrack. Based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel of the same title, the film starred Dolores del Río and Warner Baxter in a romantic drama with subplot lines dealing with bigotry and racism. The story revolves around a woman, raised in a Mexican American family. who discovers her Native American roots and claims her identity in order to marry a Native American whom she loves.

Moon Boots, Napoleon Dynamite.

During the Great Depression, Utah’s popularity as a prime location for film production was a godsend, especially to the rural and agricultural regions of the state, D’Arc explained. After World War I, when demand gave way to surpluses, prices fell but farmers were squeezed because of the costs of modernization and then persistent droughts and crop blight became prevalent. The tourism and traffic generated by the film production teams allowed these areas to do their best to stay above the waters in their community economies. 

‘WHERE GOD PUT THE WEST’

Long before the Utah Film Commission was established (which is marking its 50th anniversary this year), the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission was organized, making it the world’s longest-running entity of its kind. For Utah, the region was the state’s “movie headquarters in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties,” D’Arc said.

Likewise, the backdrops of Duck Creek Village, Zion National Park and Dixie National Forest became ideal production locations for popular heavyweights in the glory days of Hollywood’s Studio Era, including the films in the My Friend Flicka franchise during the 1940s. A 90-second scene filmed in Monument Valley in Stagecoach, the 1939 classic western directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and other giants of the screen, made the area’s large red sandstone monoliths iconic representations of the western genre. As D’Arc explained, Wayne described the location as “where God put the West.” 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Utah Office of Tourism. Photo Credit: Andrea David.

The valley also was the backdrop for Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), which was part of the director’s Cavalry Trilogy, and at least nine other films during the period. Decades later, the final installment in the Indiana Jones trilogy (1989’s Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade, directed by Steven Spielberg) would have in the opening scenes shots of The Organ and the Double Arch from Utah’s Arches National Park.

D’Arc’s tour de force historical account includes anecdotes from The Greatest Story Ever Told, the 1965 religious epic directed by George Stevens. Several scenes involving Charlton Heston, who played St. John the Baptist, were filmed in the Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point and the then newly formed Lake Powell, which happened after the Glen Canyon Dam was completed. The lake represented the Jordan River, as noted in The New Testament. D’Arc recalled that Heston remembered how cold the waters were, especially as Stevens consistently changed his camera setups and angles to film multiple takes for a specific scene.

THE INDUSTRY EXPANDS NORTHWARD 

The significance of Utah’s contributions to film history is multifaceted. For example,the films immortalized the look and environment of parts of southern Utah that no longer look like they did before the state’s exponential growth in population and development took hold, D’Arc noted. Also, over the decades of his work on the book, he conducted many interviews of individuals who have long since passed away. Their words now have been documented in the published chronicle, as first-hand evidence. 

The industry would steadily migrate to Salt Lake City and the state’s northern regions, notably setting the steady pace, beginning in the 1950s and continuing to this day. As the focus for locations and productions moved northward in Utah, Hollywood realized that other genres including drama, comedy and science fiction were as well suited as classic western stories. Noted examples included Three O’Clock High, a 1987 comedy thriller shot in Ogden and directed by Phil Joanou, and the 1984 box office hit Footloose, the Herbert Ross musical drama which was shot in numerous locations around Utah County. 

But, the Parry Lodge in Kanab, where Utah’s film industry was born, still was esteemed as a location. This included the 1957 American mystery The Girl in Black Stockings, directed by Howard Koch, which D’Arc described as the less expensive B-movie version of a great Hitchcock thriller. Southern Utah also was desirable for its proximity to Las Vegas, the popular spot for Rat Pack stars including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis,Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. The stars were filming Sergeants 3, a 1962 comedy western directed by John Sturges. “Even today, stories about the wild parties and pranks played at the lodge continue to be shared,” D’Arc added. 

Likewise, areas surrounding Moab and the Arches National Park proved once again suited for numerous scenes in the 1991 film Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott. Meanwhile, the 1994 hit comedy Dumb and Dumber, created by the Farrelly brothers, included scenes shot on the streets of Salt Lake City and the nearby airport, as well as in Park City and American Fork Canyon.   

Independence Day. Utah Office of Tourism.
Photo Credit: Andrea David.

THE GROWTH OF TELEVISION

Utah proved versatile and attractive, as attention shifted to growing numbers  of independent film producers as well as television production studios along with the rise of cable television and more recently, streaming platforms including Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu and others. Television has led to some of the largest revenue streams Utah’s film industry has enjoyed, including The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams series in the 1970s which was adapted from an indie film, the mega-hit pop cultural series highlighting High School Musical and what D’Arc considered one of the most profoundly impactful examples — the nine seasons of Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), which employed many Utah production professionals. 

Incidentally, Sharpay’s pink locker at East High School in Salt Lake City, as seen in the High School Musical franchise, is preserved, to the delight of incidental tourists who visit the school to see the gym and commons, as those school,areas were filmed for the pop culture juggernaut. In more recent years, made-for-TV films that have premiered on Hallmark and Lifetime channels have become regular staples in the state’s film industry, especially the consistently popular strings of Christmas-themed productions.

THE CAPITOL EXHIBIT 

D’Arc’s massive and meticulous research included viewing the films and television series featured in the book, an astounding feat considering that more than 1,000 feature films and television series have included Utah production lots (which are listed in the back of the book). Among the most intriguing discoveries D’Arc has encountered is how the physical evidence he has uncovered does not match with the stories he has heard from local residents about various productions. Indeed, the legend often wins over facts, a decent indicator of the deep social imprint that the presence of Hollywood has had on sustaining community pride. 

The exhibition includes several rare examples of memorabilia D’Arc has discovered, including the press books that studios regularly issued to theater operators and distributors to use in promoting a premiere of a film. One prominent example highlighting a unique Utah event comes from the premiere of the 1940 dramatic biographical film of Brigham Young, directed by Henry Hathaway. It was lead actor Dean Jagger, who played the role of Young, who donated items to the library collection.

Indeed, if there was ever any event that signaled how Utah could be front and center for the attention of the film industry, as it has become every January with the Sundance Film Festival, it was the Brigham Young film. D’Arc documented the hoopla that Darryl Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century Fox, had invested in bringing the film to Salt Lake City. Its production, which featured some of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the day including Tyrone Powers and Linda Darnell, had won the blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

SLC’s population at the time was 150,000 but the events, which included a Main Street parade, brought more than 200,000 to the state’s capital. Tickets were sold out at all venues, even with admission prices more than double the usual cost. The premiere merited The Fox Movietone Newsreel of the day, narrated by Lowell Thomas and shown in theaters nationwide. As D’Arc summarized, “All of this occurred over seventy years ago, when Utah was on the verge of becoming a movie production location that would soon rival any filming site other than Hollywood and perhaps New York City. In a culture not usually associated with parties, Salt Lake City put on one of the biggest movie premieres ever.”

Celebrating the centennial of Utah’s entry into the world of the film industry in the same year that Sundance is marking its 40th anniversary could not be more aptly synchronized than in these historical realities. “Film opened up a once insular state and showed Utah to the world,” D’Arc said, adding that to this day, regular streams of buses bring tourists from all over the world to Monument Valley and the heart of southern Utah where the state’s film industry was born. It also was Robert Redford’s intuitive vision and prescience that amplified the historical importance of placing one of the world’s greatest and most influential film festivals in a state that has always appreciated and comprehended the multifaceted benefits and virtues of contemporary creative expression in visual form.

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