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Living History: Utah's movie career still going strong after 85 years

Published June 3, 2007 12:29 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As fans know, "Pirates of the Caribbean III" was partly shot at the Great Salt Lake. Pirates is just one of a long line of films made in Utah.

The first was "Deadwood Gulch," a silent film starring Tom Mix, which was shot in Kane County in 1922. Whereas now the Utah Film Commission is the most visible promoter of Utah to filmmakers, back in the 1920s, it was the vision of a few that got Utah on Hollywood's map.

Chauncey (Chance) Parry and his brothers Gronway and Whitney had that vision. They spent months taking photos of possible movie locations - canyons, mountains, mesas, rivers - within a 100-mile radius of Kanab. Then Chance and his wife Helen took the photos to Hollywood to court (and charm) movie executives.

Chance then made sure Kanab could meet the needs of cast and crew by buying an old house in Kanab, then remodeling and adding on to create a lodge and restaurant. Parry Lodge became a headquarters for film productions; dozens of stars stayed there, and their signed photos still cover the walls of the lobby.

Kanab - and Utah - got its big break when in 1939 John Ford made "Stagecoach," starring John Wayne, in Monument Valley. After that, he and many other directors returned to Utah many times.

Of course, Kanab's citizens profited. Locals happily jumped for the opportunity to work as extras, contribute livestock, provide meals and transportation, and help build roads. Many Navajos were willing to work as “savage Indians.” The income that acting provided became important to many Navajos. In 1946, when Kanab's movie business was languishing somewhat, 65 tribe members sent a petition, signed with thumb prints, to Hollywood asking for more work.

The interactions and friendships between movie stars and locals have become the stuff of legend. In general, the Hollywood people liked the locals and their friendly, unaffected ways. One production member said, “Out in Utah we can wear old clothes, gossip with the cowboys and people in the general store, act as we please, and be perfectly natural.”

Those who knew him say that Chance Parry never became starstruck or caught up in the glitter of fame, though he was good friends with the likes of John Wayne and Clark Gable. Nor did he kowtow. One story goes that, after one day of filming, Helen Parry was serving the cast and crew as they relaxed on the front porch of the Parry Lodge. One rather obscure actor, a large man who was obviously drunk, began making vulgar remarks. Chance, a short man, calmly said, “Not in front of my wife, you don't!” and belted him on the chin - knocking him onto the grass and into unconsciousness. The news spread around Hollywood, and after that, the movie people tiptoed around Helen Parry.

Chauncey Parry wasn't the only local who treated the stars like ordinary people. Robert Taylor starred in "Westward the Women," playing the only man traveling with a wagon train of 200 women. After one chaotic day of shooting a runaway wagon scene in the blazing sun - with headstrong mules and crew members running everywhere - Taylor asked a local what Kanabites did when there weren't any movies in production. “We just sit around and talk about you durn fools,” was the reply.

Kanab's “fifteen minutes” of fame dwindled in the 1950s and '60s. But filmmakers have come to Utah ever since. Wendover, Alta, Cedar Breaks, Zion, Snow Canyon, the Moab area, the Great Salt Lake (for ocean scenes), and other places have starred in a variety of films and TV shows.

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* KRISTEN ROGERS can be reached at kristenri@rces: Richard Alan Nelson, “The History of Utah Film: An Introductory Essay”; Deseret News, 1/20/1952; John Thomas, Chauncey Parry, Modern Pioneer; Martha Sonata Bradley, A History of Kane County.