Silent movies were rarely truly silent when being watched. Live music accompanied the showings of films; some moves had a provided score while others were up to the musician to play what fit. Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon), shot in 1894, is considered the first true motion picture. The height of the silent movie era was between the 1910s and late 1920s. The first “talkie” in 1927, “The Jazz Singer”, ended the era of silent films.
The challenge for many companies was the necessity of a filming location with weather that would allow for filming to occur as often as possible. The early studios were all based out of the east coast and mid-west. However, people had a fascination with the “Wild West” and audiences began to demand more realistic looking sets and locations and real action. Out in Colorado, they found what they needed with the dramatic background of the Rocky Mountains and men and women who knew how to ride and rope.
Near the end of 1911, the Selig Polyscope Company arrived in Cañon City. Originally, they had planned to move across Colorado filming movies but Cañon City provided exactly what they needed; an excellent western backdrop and plenty of locals who could provide horses and act as extras. Adult extras were paid $5 a day and Charles Canterbury Sr. and E.C. (Woody) Higgins provided horses. Shortly after Selig’s arrival, Otis Thayer took over as director and the company settled into their offices at 314 Main Street. Myrtle Stedman, William Duncan, and Tom Mix all played leading roles in the eight movies made between mid-September and mid-November 1911. Movies were shot on location then sent to Chicago for developing and editing. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t allow for shooting the winter and the company left for the winter. When they returned in June 1912, Tom Mix was not with the company and Josephine West had joined the company as a second leading actress. Tom Mix didn’t return until late 1912.
It seemed as if Cañon City was set to become a top film location. Selig kept speaking of the possibility of building a studio in the city. So, it came as a surprise in January 1913 when Selig picked up and left the city for Hollywood. However, it wasn’t the end of the silent movie era in Cañon City just yet. Otis Thayer had left Selig and headed his own company; The Colorado Motion Picture Company. The company began operations in 1913 with a contract to produce one feature film every three weeks. The company officially moved to Cañon City in January 1914. A contest for the official design and trademark of the company was opened up to the public. Two men actually won as their designs were admired by the company. One, designed by A.R. Livingston, the superintendent at Empire Zinc., was to be used as a trademark, while the other, designed by Alva Wood, a manager at Wood Brothers, was to be used for advertising purposes. Their first movie filmed out of its permanent location was “Pirates of the Plains” starring Joe Ryan and Josephine West. The synopsis is as follows:
Joe and Jim Webster, brothers, are as different as day and night. Jim is an honest and respected rancher; Joe is the ringleader of a desperate gang of horse thieves. At the State Fair, Jim wins the championship bronco riding title of the world, for which he receives a handsome silver mounted saddle. He becomes engaged to Nell Owens, the pretty daughter of a prosperous stockman. One of Owens’ post riders discovers a gang of horse thieves on the ranch and gives the alarm. Joe, their leader, breaks his saddle, and anxious to make his escape and join the thieves, takes his brother Jim’s horse and heads for the Mexican border. The ranch hands give chase, hoping: to overtake the rustlers before they can cross the international boundary. In a running fight, Joe kills the sheriff, but has the horse he is riding shot from under him. The posse recovers the saddle and arrests Jim for the sheriff’s murder. Nell prevents his lynching and demands that he be given a trial by law. Later he is convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to be hanged. On the day set for the execution, Nell finds Joe mortally wounded and secures a confession from him that exonerates Jim. By much hard riding she reaches the prison yard in time to prevent Jim’s death.From IMDb (Internet Movie Database)
It is interesting to note, a large majority of these movies had women playing central roles and rescuing the men in many cases. The women are not fainting on couches and waiting to be rescued by their hero. One speculation is that movie theaters were still finding it hard to shake their reputations as shady locales where women were less welcome and by placing women as leads, it encouraged them to attend the theater.
Other movies filmed were “The Range War”, “Under Fire in Mexico”, and many unnamed movies. During this time, Jack Donahoo was part of the crew and played parts such as sheriff. Sadly, few of these movies can be seen today. A survey by the Library of Congress found that “70% of feature-length silent films made in America have been completely lost. During the period the study covers, 10,919 silent feature films of U.S. origin were released and only 14% of those still exist in their original 35mm format. Of those, 5% are incomplete and 11% are only available in foreign versions or lower-quality formats.” Cellulose nitrate-based films were produced in the early 20th century until 1952. According to the American Museum of Natural History, “they were developed to replace glass plate negatives, and used for black and white motion pictures. Nitrate based films are inherently unstable and will deteriorate in temperatures around 70°F and humidity greater than 50%. While deteriorating, the films off-gas potentially flammable fumes. These collections are a particular danger due to their ability to spontaneously combust – chances of which are increased if stored in improper environmental conditions and sealed containers.” In short, its no surprise that some of these films have been lost forever. One of those is “Across the Border,” filmed in 1914 is likely best left lost as it claimed the lives of two people.
Movies were dangerous at this time, as most actors did their own stunts and there was less room for re-shoots. Accidents occurred frequently, even to the stars of these movies. Joe Ryan was trampled by a leading lady’s horse and another time thrown off his horse when it stumbled in a gopher hole, then trampled by the other horses. Myrtle Stedman was thrown off her horse and knocked unconscious when her head hit a tree stump. William Duncan was accidentally shot. Tom Mix also had a list of numerous injuries such as a broken ribs and cuts from spurs. He was an accomplished horseman and rodeo rider but that didn’t mean he didn’t still suffer injuries, especially since he did all his own stunts. The worst accident was, of course, the deaths of Grace McHugh and Owen Carter while crossing the Arkansas River for a re-shoot of a scene from “Across the Border.” McHugh was crossing the river on her horse when it stumbled. She fell into the river and when the leading man attempted to help by grabbing her, she grabbed his hands and he was unable to do anything as she held his hands. She was swept further down and Owen Carter, a cameraman, jumped in to save her. He managed to catch her and they made it to a sandbar. Unfortunately, by the time the others arrived to help, they were gone. Either the sandbar was unstable and they were washed away, or attempted to cross to the bank and never made it. Their bodies weren’t recovered until days later. The movie was still released and dedicated to the young actress. Unfortunately, the accident could have likely been prevented because only three years earlier, four members of the Selig Polyscope Company were almost drowned in nearly the same spot. The director was Otis Thayer. While filming a chase scene across the Arkansas River, some of the horses were unable to swim across the stretch of water to a sandbar where the actors were to go. It was only through quick action the four different men were able to be rescued.
The actors from both companies left an impression on the city. Tom Mix was well remembered, though not always for his acting. His third wife, Olive, was part of the Selig company as well and stories of her chasing him down when she knew he was going to drink and cavort around town were well known. One story tells of him running into the Elks club when she came looking for him and hiding on the awning after going through a window. Olive, knowing he was in the building, was standing guard at the door. Mix was unceremoniously dumped at her feet when an unsuspecting staff member unrolled the awning. Other stories of Mix took place in bars with Mix, other actors, and locals taking turns shooting lemons off shot glasses at the end of the bar and betting to see who would pay for drinks. When the bar was torn down, bullet holes were found in the wall corroborating the story.
Another story came from Frank L. “Peanut” Bunten, Cañon City’s first auto salesman. He used to have a car service where he would drive people around. Basically, a taxi service. One evening, he was hired by Tom Mix. While heading to the bars, Mix noticed a car following them. Realizing it was his wife, he got out of the car and hid in an alley. He had to wait quite a bit for Olive to give up before another car could come get him!
Myrtle Stedman was involved enough in the community that she performed at the prison for the benefit of the inmates. In October 1911, an article was printed in the paper that covered the event where Stedman and Fred Fell sang at the prisoner’s service on a Sunday. She was well-known on the stage and as a singer of note. According to the article, she planned to sing the following Sunday as well.
Jack Donahoo was another actor who was remembered in town. The reason being, he actually stayed after all the movies companies left! He gave up the movie industry when the Colorado Motion Picture Company was closed and decided to stay in Cañon City. He served as an under-sheriff for four years and later served as chief of police for Cañon City for six years. He also worked as a foreman for the Cañon City water department.
Now, my favorite story of the Colorado Motion Picture Company is an event that took place in June 1914. A fire broke out at the Hotel Denton (St. Cloud Hotel) in June 1914 while many of the silent movie stars were staying there. Everyone one made it out safely but while the fire was still blazing away, Thayer realized what an excellent backdrop he had. He had his two leading men “rescue” the leading ladies from the fire by swinging out of the fire escape. As Donahoo came out of the hotel bearing McHugh in his arms, he stumbled as if fatigued by his rescue. Harry Bowen, a local man, had spent time on the other side of the fire helping raise the water pressure so the fire could be fought more effectively. On turning the corner, he saw all the spectators standing round doing nothing while there were two people in danger. He swooped in to rescue McHugh and took her to a safe distance before realizing the whole thing was being filmed. Thayer was trilled by the realism and Bowen apparently took the moment in stride.
The Colorado Motion Picture Company ended filming in Cañon City by 1915 and officially dissolved a s a company in 1918. Reasons for the closing of the company are not entirely known. Some speculate the mother of McHugh sued the company for her death but has never been proven as no documents have been found. The company was noted as being completely free of debt in 1915 yet it never picked up filming again. Regardless, for a brief period, Cañon City was in the spotlight for movies before that little place called Hollywood claimed fame.
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.