Utah’s romance with the movie industry began in the 1920s silent film era and hasn’t diminished since. Nearly a thousand motion pictures and television series have filmed in Utah, bringing millions each year to the state. Learn how Hollywood first put Utah to work.
From the 1920s through the 1960s, Utah played home to dozens of large-scale movie productions, which meant big business for the small towns that hosted them. When Hollywood came to town, it stimulated local economies and employed local people to tell stories set against Utah’s stark western landscapes.
Utah owes much of its cinematic popularity to the enterprising Parry brothers. Gronway, Chauncey, and Whitney Parry hailed from Cedar City and were successful businessmen whose companies brought tourists to Utah. Through their relationship with Tom Mix – the most famous Western movie star of the 1920s – the Parry brothers wooed executives from major Hollywood studios out to locations all over southern Utah. Aspiring filmmakers took note and considered Utah for films set in the American West. Utahns welcomed the outsiders because, as one Moab rancher put it, “they don’t take anything but pictures and don’t leave anything except money.”
Indeed, for many communities, this money kept the economy strong and put people to work both inside and outside the film industry. In Washington County, for example, two of the biggest films shot there were Ramrod – a Western starring Veronica Lake – and The Conqueror – a Genghis Khan biopic starring John Wayne. Both films injected an estimated $750,000 into the local economy and helped grow the hospitality industry, putting people to work in the hotels and restaurants that served the directors, actors, and studio crews. Townspeople found jobs on the productions as well, working behind-the-scenes building sets, wrangling animals, or plowing roads so crews could access pristine locations. Some worked in front of the camera, too, as extras and stand-ins. Local trick-rider and stuntwoman Jackie Hamblin Rife, for example, worked with every movie crew – and met every movie star – that filmed in Kanab.
Over the years, Utah built its reputation as a prime shooting location with skilled workers and communities willing to cater to the film industry. That reputation has only grown and the hard work of many Utahns continues to live on in the immortal images of the cinema.
John Christensen for Utah Humanities © 2017
Image: The Searchers Movie Set. Shot in Monument Valley, Utah, 1956. Courtesy of John Ford Archives.
See James V. D’Arc, When Hollywood Came to Town, Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010; Jacklyn Rife Obituary, The Spectrum, October 29, 2013; Utah State Film Commission at film.utah.gov, accessed July 8, 2017.