Gravett, Amron. “Hollywood Highlights of Southwestern Colorado,” History La Plata, Durango Herald, May 2014, 8.
Hollywood, California in the early 1900s was described by William Selig as “just a crossroads out in the country.” Selig, known as the guy who invented Hollywood, had been filming in Colorado since 1898. Over the first 15 years of its existence, the Selig Polyscope Company created more than 50 short documentaries about the “wild west,” at its height shooting five films in Colorado per week. In 1906, nickelodeons began playing Selig’s films allowing viewers to “buy a ticket to Colorado for only 10 cents.” By 1913, the Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed.
Over the last one hundred years, the motion picture industry has visited southwestern Colorado — Durango included —more than 30 times. The earliest film known to have been made in Durango was “Small Town Vamp,” a 1917 silent short film shot along Durango’s Main Avenue for $200. The movie took a day and a half to make. It was written, directed, produced, and shot by James W. Jarvis starring alongside a “wild Irish rose with flaming red hair” named Cathereen McCoy from Telluride. One month later Jarvis founded the Durango Film Producing Company with Billie Black and set up shop at 933 Second Avenue. The following year, they made two shorts, “Snow Wonderland” and “Scarlet West,” followed by an educational short from 1919 titled “Mesa Verde,” and a 1920 short titled “Burlesque Bull Fight,” all of which were silent movies. Also in 1920, Jarvis made his only feature-length film titled “Love of a Navajo” which premiered on April 27, 1922, at the Gem Theatre located at 1001 Main Avenue in Durango. He dictated the script to Jesse Nussbaum’s wife during a snowed-in evening at Mesa Verde National Park earlier that winter. The film went on to nationwide showings.
The heyday of southwestern Colorado’s cinema career ran from 1949 to 1957 with scenes for 17 Hollywood productions filmed here. The films were “Sand” (1949), “Colorado Territory” (1949), “Ticket to Tomahawk” (1950), “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951), “Denver and Rio Grande” (1952), “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1952), “Viva Zapata!” (1952), “Naked Spur” (1953), “Lone Hand” (1953), “Three Young Texans” (1954), “Gatling Gun/Siege at Red River” (1954), “Run for Cover” (1955), “Great Day in the Morning” (1956), “Maverick Queen” (1956), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), “Night Passage” (1957), and “These Thousand Hills” (1959). And while only seven Hollywood films were shot here in the 1960s, many of them are still considered classics: “How the West Was Won” starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne (1962), “Diamond Jim Brady” starring Howard Keel (1963), “The Sons of Katie Elder” with John Wayne and Dean Martin (1965), “The Downhill Racer” with a young Robert Redford and Gene Hackman (1969), “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys” with Robert Mitchum (1969), “True Grit” the movie for which John Wayne won his only Oscar (1969), and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starring Redford and Paul Newman (1969).
Since then, numerous film, television, and commercial productions have used the region as a backdrop to their features, most notably “When the Legends Die” (1972), “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), “City Slickers” (1991), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “The Prestige” (2006) and Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” (2013). [Note: Dates reflect release dates not filming dates.]
Since 1914, various Colorado businessmen and state officials have supported initiatives to get more movies made in Colorado. In the 2014-2015 state budget, Governor John Hickenlooper allocated $5 million for the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media. Although it will be a long time before we return to the heydays of the 1950s, southwestern Colorado will surely see more and more of itself on screen.
For more information, visit the Colorado Film Commission at coloradofilm.org and Four Corners Film Office at 4cornersfilmoffice.org. Also see Cinema Southwest by John A. Murray, Hollywood of the Rockies (film and book) by Michael J. Spencer and Hollywood of the Rockies: The Spirit of the New Rochester Hotel by Frederic B. Wildfang.