125 Years of Utah and the Movies — Part Two: The First Utah Filmmakers
The second installment of a year-long series celebrating and rediscovering 125 years of Utah onscreen.
You can read about the beginnings of Utah film history and early depictions of Mormons on film in part one of the series here.
An advertisement for One Hundred Years of Mormonism, one of the most successful films produced in Utah in the first half of the 20th century.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Utah filmmakers constantly struggled to overcome a myriad of obstacles to establish stable, successful film production companies. The lack of reliable funding, experienced film talent, and distribution avenues continually plagued Utah film production and made it difficult for the state to compete with established international and American film production centers in New York, Hollywood, and Europe. Despite these sometimes insurmountable barriers, pioneering Utahns produced some fascinating work that would lay the groundwork for subsequent generations of Utah filmmakers.
The First Independent Utah Film Companies
The American film industry in the first two decades of the 20th century was the wild west. Theater exhibitioners were constantly scrambling to obtain as many films as possible to change out their programs a couple times a week, if not daily, for maximum profits. Foreign-made films from France, Denmark, and Britain dominated the market. Thomas Edison sought to control the entirety of American film production, suing any film company that didn’t pay him royalties for using his patented camera technology. Far from Edison lawyers on the East Coast, the first Utah-based film production companies sought to provide local, regional, and national theaters with short films for their screens. In an era without a centralized production, distribution, and exhibition system and a high demand for film, the first Utah film production companies were cautiously optimistic that their films could fill the small, storefront theaters of the day.
Although it is impossible to determine the very first Utah-based film production company, the Salt Lake City Rocky Mountain Picture Company was certainly among the earliest. Founded in 1908, the company shot travelogue films in Utah and other western states. The trade paper Moving Picture World announced the new Utah company and predicted that the “benefits that will accrue to Utah and the West, in advertisement through the medium of these pictures… will be far reaching” (August, 29, 1908). Despite this bold claim, Salt Lake City Rocky Mountain Picture Company closed its doors after releasing only a handful of short films, a fate that many subsequent Utah film production companies would face.
Several other small, independent Utah production companies attempted to create films for both local and national audiences. These early Utah filmmakers sought to show audiences the state’s unique landscapes and people. For instance, the short-lived Revier Motion Picture Company leveraged its independent status and access to the Mormon State’s wide array of scenic sites to advertise its small bundle of 1910 films to distributors. Because the output of these short-lived companies is lost, it is impossible to know how many of their films reached audiences in other states and if their films had any impact on its audiences or other contemporary filmmakers.
The Revier Motion Picture Company used the well-known Salt Lake Temple and Utah’s natural beauty to advertise its films to distributors and theater owners nationwide (Moving Picture World, October 8, 1910, p. 794)
The state and Church’s failed fight against Mormon exploitation films in 1911 and 1912 (covered in Part One) incentivized more Utah filmmakers to tell their own stories on screen. In June 1912, when A Victim of the Mormons and other similar Mormon exploitation films were sweeping the United States, the Church signed a deal with a small, independent company to produce a film documenting Mormon history. The California-based Utah Moving Picture Company produced the ambitious One Hundred Years of Mormonism with the Church’s financial backing. The production enlisted over a thousand extras, shot on location in Immigration Canyon, built a mile-long recreation of Nauvoo and Independence outside of Los Angeles, and employed the help of several still-living pioneers as consultants on the film.
The Church and the film’s producers were equally ambitious in distributing the film as they were in producing it. After a profitable and warmly-received premiere in Salt Lake City on February 3, 1913, copies of the film were distributed to various American cities, oftentimes accompanied by a lecturer that provided commentary and explanation throughout the screening. Copies of the film traveled through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, and parts of Idaho, northern Arizona, and Western Canada. Representatives were even sent to New York and London with prints to sell the film’s distribution rights for the Eastern United States and England (Moving Picture World, March 1, 1913, p. 875).
Despite its eccentric subject matter, One Hundred Years of Mormonism’s spectacle would have been attractive even to secular audiences of the era. Clocking in at over ninety minutes, the film was one of the first feature-length films in American cinema history, following in the footsteps of the nationwide success of the feature-length retelling of Christ’s life From the Manger to the Cross the previous year. At least one print of the film used an early and expensive hand-stenciled color technique that was capable of adding up to four colors to a single frame. According to the New York Clipper, the Chicago premiere of One Hundred Years of Mormonism in June 1913 played to a packed theater and reported that several audience members “stayed over to witness the second presentation” (June 14, 1913).
While the film played to some audiences outside of the Mormon corridor, it had little staying power and failed to change the negative portrayal of Utahns and Mormons in silent cinema entertainment. The film did prove, however, that given the right circumstances, a Utah-produced film could successfully reach audiences outside of the state.
A depiction of Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon in the lost film One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913). Only small snippets of the film have survived and can be viewed on the Church Newsroom YouTube channel.
The Search for a Utah Film Industry
Utahns over the next several decades attempted with little success to build upon the promising nationwide screenings of One Hundred Years of Mormonism. Several Utah filmmakers hoped to generate positive exposure for their state while several Mormon filmmakers in the state drew upon Mormon history or folklore to improve the religion’s standing in film and American society.
Throughout the 1910s, short-lived production companies continued popping up and showing promise only to fade away after one or two pictures. For instance, the Satchwa General Amusement and Entertainment Company produced a feature film titled Big Heart centering on a Native American love story in 1914 that received rave reviews in Salt Lake. Hoping to produce a follow-up to their first film, the company solicited $10 shares of stocks to the public in the Salt Lake Tribune only to go out of business in 1915. In 1917, the Ogden Picture Corporation, the first notable production company outside of Salt Lake City in the state, produced two films and announced plans to develop a form of early 3-D technology before folding in 1919.
The most prolific Utah filmmakers of the era, active from the mid-1910s to the late 1920s, were brothers Chet and Shirl Clawson. Grandsons of Brigham Young and well-connected with church leadership, the brothers sought to produce several films retelling stories from the Book of Mormon in the mid-1910s. Two years after One Hundred Years of Mormonism, they released the now-lost The Life of Nephi in 1915. Few prints of the film were originally made, with none of them surviving, and there is no evidence that the film was screened outside of its limited run in Utah.
A colorized still frame from Shirl and Chet Clawson’s 1915 The Life of Nephi. Several photographs from the original production of the lost film have survived on glass plates. (For more stills of the film, visit Randy Astle’s overview of the film’s production here.)
Once it became apparent that a full series of Book of Mormon stories would be impossible with their limited resources, the Clawsons successfully transitioned to shooting documentary footage of Utah and Mormon life. Regularly filming Latter-day Saint General Authorities, local athletic events, advertisements, scenes for newsreels, and commemorative parades and ceremonies, the Clawson brothers ran the Deseret Film Company from 1916 to the late 1920s. Tragically, most of their films documenting life in Utah in the 1910s and 1920s were destroyed in a 1929 nitrate fire in their home studio, ultimately killing Shirl and severely burning Chet who subsequently retired from filmmaking.
In the same spirit of the Clawson brothers’ failed attempt to produce a Book of Mormon film series, the Pioneer Film Company over a decade later adapted Orestes Utah Bean’s popular play Corianton into a 1931 sound film. Originally adapted from B.H. Roberts' 1889 melodramatic novel Corianton: A Nephite Story, Bean’s 1902 play dramatized the Book of Mormon figure Corianton’s mission to the Zoramites. The play had successful runs throughout Utah and even was produced for a short-lived six-show run on Broadway in 1912. After several years of setbacks, the film version, titled Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love, would meet an all too familiar disappointing fate. After premiering in 1931 in Salt Lake City, the filmmakers’ legal and financial troubles prevented film distribution outside of Utah. Fortunately for us and unlike the majority of Utah-produced films of the period, Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love is extant and currently resides preserved in BYU’s Special Collections.
The same obstacles that prevented the long-term success of Utah independent film production even doomed the Church’s efforts to recreate their successful investment in One Hundred Years of Mormonism. Haven flirted with the idea of producing another feature film of Mormon history in 1923, the Church agreed to a deal with the Pioneer Picture Company in 1928 to produce an epic film detailing the Mormon pioneers’ trek west. Titled All Faces West, the film featured bonafide Hollywood stars of the day Marie Prevost and Ben Lyon with an eye for nationwide distribution. Due to Hollywood’s transition to sound in 1929 and the Pioneer Picture Company’s lack of capital, the silent film was relegated to the list of largely forgotten and uninfluential Utah-made films that failed to reach any meaningful distribution outside of the state.
Despite the efforts of several ambitious Utahn filmmakers throughout the silent era and into the early 1930s, the high cost of film production, exhibition, and distribution proved too much for small Utah independent companies. The obstacles for successful Utah film productions became even more insurmountable in the 1930s as the Great Depression ravished Utah’s available capital, the arrival of sound dramatically increased the cost and skills needed to produce films, and Hollywood consolidated their stranglehold on the international film industry. By the end of the 1930s, independent filmmaking in Utah was almost non-existent and would not make a substantial comeback until the late 1950s. While local film production had become stagnant, several Utahn filmmakers would move westward to work in Hollywood and leave their own mark on classic American film.
Part Three of the series will examine the work of famous Utahn filmmakers who worked in classic-era Hollywood.