May 14, 2015

Prescott was Hollywood for Silent Westerns

(Tom Mix with an unknown starlet in an unknown film.)

What do these movies : "Creepshow 2;" "Universal Soldier;" "Arizona Summer;" "Transamerica;" "Jolene;" "How the West Was Won;" and "Billy Jack;" have in common?

They are part of 16 modern movies that were all filmed, at least in part, in Prescott, Arizona. (*1)

But when it came to silent western movies, Prescott was a real "Hollywood."  Incredibly, in the three years of 1913-15, over a hundred silent westerns were filmed in Prescott and the surrounding area.

The first movie ever made in Prescott was The Cringer.

"Romaine Fielding was the cringer, a not-too-bright sheepherder who was goaded by his friends into proving he was no coward by stealing a horse and robbing a bank. To divert attention from the bank robbery he set fire to a barn. The scenes included some wild horseback riding at Granite Dells and at a goat ranch filmed at Three Mile House, a bank robbery filmed on the stage behind the hospital, and the burning of a barn on east Gurley."(*2)

"When The Cringer was shown in drew big crowds. (However,) they were more interested in looking for themselves than in the story." (*2)

One cannot fully understand the early film history of Prescott without knowing Tom Mix.  Although largely forgotten today, Mix was a superstar in his own time.  It could well be said that Mix was a combination of John Wayne and Buster Keaton.  One of the reasons he became popular was because he would do his own hair-raising stunts saving producers the expense of a stuntman.  Soon he became widely popular with movie-goers as well.

Even with movies in their extreme infancy, Mix knew how to cross-market.  He had comic books; western novels; a traveling circus; a line of clothing and a brand of cigars.  Later in his life, there was even "The Radio Adventures of Tom Mix."  He was called "The Idol of Every Boy in the World."  Before Roy Rogers had Trigger, Tom Mix had his stunt-horse, Tony.  Mix's annual salary grew to 900 times greater than the average middle class household of that day.  Indeed, Tom Mix earned more money than many small towns!

Tom Mix was no fake cowboy.  In 1913, he won the bull-riding contest at the Prescott Frontier Days rodeo against the best "working" cowboys Yavapai county had to offer.

With so much money, Mix started his own movie production company in 1915 and located its headquarters in Prescott.

"Granite Dells became a favorite location of the early film makers. In addition to the huge granite boulders there was also Granite Creek with its magnificent stand of cottonwood trees and a very picturesque lake." (*3)

How prairie dogs were made extinct throughout Yavapai County in the first third of the 20th century and the consequences.

One of the more colorful incidents of film making in Prescott occurred May 27th, 1913 at Joe Robert's slaughter house.  Tom Mix was to wrangle a bull to the ground with his bare hands. The camera was set in the corral and Tom literally grabbed the bull by the horns.  The bull, unaware of the movie script, instead lifted Tom up at the waist and charged for the camera, totally wrecking the $1000 instrument, (that would be $40,000 today.)  Throughout the mishap, Tom held on to the beast "so purposely as to tear one of his horns off." (*4)

Then, just to prove he was a cowboy's cowboy, Mix chased the steer into the corner of the corral, removed the rope from it and "held him three minutes by the remaining horn while hushed onlookers held their breath." (*4)

There was a soft spot in Tom's heart for Prescott.  Always the showman, whenever he was in town, he performed live at the Elk's Theater.  When in 1915, Mix suffered an accident that crushed his jaw and broke ribs at a Los Angeles rodeo, Prescottonians feared that his wounds might be mortal and that they might have seen the last of him.  However, Tom wrote a letter to the Journal Miner via telegraph later stating: "Hope to be my old self in a short time.  Will see you on the fourth of July (for the rodeo).  Regards to all inquiring friends. --Tom Mix" (*5)

ALSO ENJOY:  Man Kills Two Over a $2 Bet

True crime story about Fred Marshall, who murdered two men after losing a $2 bet in Humboldt, AZ.

Mix returned to Prescott several times, "notably in 1922 for his film Romance Land.  Unfortunately, most of Tom’s Fox films are now 'lost' due to nitrate decomposition, and a disastrous 1937 Fox vault fire.  But, almost miraculously, The Texan, with its images of Prescott’s Frontier Days, survives at the Danish Film Institute—and Tom Mix, the “action picture man” is still at home in Prescott—at least as long as The Texan continues to exist."  (*6)

(NOTE: Movie memorabilia of these early Prescott films as well as photographs of Tom Mix in Prescott are rare.  Should you happen to have ANY memorabilia of Tom Mix in Prescott, please contact the Sharlot Hall Museum.)

UPDATE: June 17, 2015:  Yet another movie has been filmed, in part, in Prescott: "Ride the Thunder."  Click Here for the News Story

Tourist Tips:

The Granite Dells are still picturesque enough for a movie.

They are located just north of Prescott on State Route 89 beginning at Watson Lake...
First, there's plenty of recreation at Watson Lake itself:
CLICK HERE for "The Birth of Watson Lake" and Its Tourist Tips

Then, there are several hiking trails within the Granite Dells that are maintained by the City of Prescott:
CLICK HERE for info and map on ALL Prescott Hiking Trails (There are many!)
Always be sure to bring plenty of water!

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(*4) Prescott Journal Miner, 5/28/1913, Page 3, col. 1
(*5) Ibid. 5/30/1915 Page 5, col. 5


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