On December 28, 1895, the inventors and photographers Louis and Auguste Lumiere ushered in the now ubiquitous art of projected film to a small, paying audience in the basement of the Grand Café in Lyons, France. One week later and an ocean away, President Grover Cleveland officially welcomed Utah as the 45th state of the United States of America on January 4, 1896. At the time, these events seemed to be completely unrelated; yet, in the past 125 years, Utah and film’s paths have become increasingly intertwined.
Utah first entered the orbit of the motion pictures in the early 1910s as American filmmakers left the crowded streets of New York for Southern California’s sunny weather and diverse landscapes. Before hoards of established and aspiring filmmakers and actors passed through the state on the continental railroad to reach Hollywood, Utah had typically been portrayed onscreen alongside sensationalized tales of Mormons. As Hollywood grew to become the international center of filmmaking in the silent era, several Utahns made the trek west to become huge stars and respected filmmakers from Chaplin frequent collaborator Mack “Moroni” Swain, to matinee idol John Gilbert, to director Frank Borzage.
Silent Hollywood filmmakers from James Cruze to Tom Mix returned the favor, increasingly using Utah’s scenic backdrops in the 1920s to shoot their westerns on location. Throughout the classic Hollywood studio era, Utah’s rich landscape was repeatedly showcased in some of the world’s most iconic films, from The Searchers to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Today, Utah continues to capture the imagination of Hollywood filmmakers while providing a home for a sizeable independent filmmaking industry and burgeoning film culture.
To celebrate Utah’s role in film history over the past 125 years, this year I will be examing the state’s relationship to film by writing brief histories of the era and reviewing several films depicting Utahns, set or filmed in Utah, or featuring Utahn actors and filmmakers. Not only will these articles and reviews explore Utah history but they will provide a unique lens to examine classic filmmaking in Hollywood. Check back here throughout the year for reviews and articles:
Part One: The Mormon Exploitation Film (Beginnings-1922)
Part Two: Early Utah Film Producers (1908-1940)
Part Three: Famous Classic Utah Filmmakers
Part Four: Hollywood Comes to Utah (1920s-1960s)
Part Five Depictions of Mormons in Classic Hollywood (1940-1969)