Book review: ‘Hollywood of the Rockies,’ by Michael J. Spencer
Hollywood is synonymous with American movies, both past and present. Now a big business that has a global market, the earliest days of moving-making were already thriving far away from the famous hills of Los Angeles. In the early 20th century, there was an immense fascination with the West, as a unique physical backdrop and as a mythos, with its alluring mountains and plains; the novelty of film paired perfectly with that period of expansionist enlightenment.
The striking and pleasing Western light provided a captivating and appealing natural atmosphere for aspiring dabblers in the relatively new realm of photography. Few people know, however, that Colorado played a significant role in those earliest days of cinema. In his recent book “Hollywood of the Rockies,” author Michael J. Spencer delves into this forgotten history, where the fledgling film industry found its foothold in the cliffs and hills of the Centennial State.
Hollywood, of course, ultimately won out as the mecca of American cinema, but it did not start there by any means. For its earliest beginnings, one has to look all the way back to Europe, New York and to the inevitable progress westward, with the natural obstacle of the Rocky Mountains slowing that march temporarily.
As early as 1895, the Lumiere brothers began the legacy of film in Paris, then Thomas Edison added his unique and influential touch to the nascent business with his Vitascope and its minute-long depictions of dancing girls and waves crashing on a beach. Though viewed as nothing more than an engaging oddity, Edison’s appearance on the scene added some clout and gravitas to the emerging techniques. Primarily, the short depictions of everyday life were shown as respites during popular vaudeville acts. Commonplace domestic scenes became thrilling moments replayed to eager and attentive audiences.
The natural evolution of such things soon had footage of locals around the globe, bringing the world to people who traveled very little. Soon staged scenes became the norm, something the author says established the groundwork for the carefully written and closely produced content of modern cinema. As experimentation in content expanded, intrepid and adventurous individuals tried their hands at the new medium, taking the techniques learned primarily in Chicago and spreading them westward, where they found the perfect terrain in which to perfect their craft.
Reading Spencer’s book, it quickly becomes clear that the common thread is the zeal and dedication of those film pioneers, all of whom were adventurous men who envisioned something remarkable in the first attempts at motion picture capture. In spite of lengthy legal efforts mounted by Edison over patent claims, these others, namely William Selig and Harry Buckwalter, continued to pursue their interests in the burgeoning field, with Selig building a successful projector and Buckwalter risking life and limb to capture thrilling moments such as speeding trains — on the Georgetown Loop, for one — and runaway carriages. Soon, elaborate story arcs were being crafted, the first and most famous being Edison’s “Great Train Robbery.”
The success of such early attempts was instantaneous, packing theaters for years running. Though Edison shot his film on a fabricated set in New Jersey, there were others who felt a certain level of authenticity was important, thus the emergence of Colorado as a focal point for many of the stories being crafted at the time. The “Western” became the preeminent genre for early movies, as it best suited the location in which the majority of the filming took place.
Familiar Colorado towns are referenced in Spencer’s account, with names such as Cripple Creek, Colorado Springs, Leadville and Golden prominent in the pages. Colorado quickly realized the revenue generated when a movie was filmed and produced within its borders, and filmmakers enjoyed the incentives the state provided.
The real revolution in film came, though, when the doors opened at the first nickelodeon, which placed movies as the focal point, rather than as interludes between vaudeville acts. Soon, these theaters were opening on every corner, making movie-going fashionable with all classes. As the audiences evolved, so, too, did the stories, though the “Western” continued to dominate, anchoring Colorado’s place more firmly in the spotlight. Soon, movie actors and actresses were gaining fame across the country and the film business showed signs that it was here to stay. Other states wanted in on the lucrative returns and began to offer their own incentives, and production crews, facing rising costs as their movies became more elaborate and involved, determined that it was more cost effective to have a central studio location. This is where Hollywood won out.
Spencer makes it clear, though, that Colorado played a significant role in American cinema’s rise to prominence. Unfortunately, many of the reels from that early era have crumbled or have been lost. Nonetheless, the Hollywood greats of the Golden Age and today stand on the shoulders of those intrepid and daring pioneers who yearned to tell their stories to the masses, one frame at a time.
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