In 1918, western author Zane Grey visited the Payson area for the first time. Soon he wrote a number of books about the area.
Meanwhile, silent movies were going strong in Hollywood and it was only natural that some of Grey’s books would be turned into movies. With those initial movies, Grey insisted that they be shot on location where the stories had taken place. So during the early to mid 1920s, the small town of Payson, population 150, had a few extra visitors. Let’s take a look specifically at “To the Last Man” filming.
“To the Last Man” is Grey’s book about the Pleasant Valley War. It was one of the first ones that he wrote that took place in the region, and it seems to have been part of his reason for coming to the area in the first place. He had heard stories about the feud during his numerous trips to the Flagstaff area and wanted to learn more about it firsthand. “To the Last Man” is a fictionalized account of the war that was first published as a serial in “The Country Gentleman” during May, June and July of 1921.
In 1923, filming began on this film, directed by Victor Fleming and with Richard Dix, Lois Wilson and Noah Beery amongst the stars. Fleming would go on to win an Oscar for best director for “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. Dix and Wilson were fairly established by that time and Beery was known to be a good character actor — these were no lightweights who came to the area.
Remember, Payson was quite small and while Hollywood productions of that era were nowhere near as large as they are today, a substantial number of people came into the area for the project. An article in the May 1, 1923 Arizona Republican tells more about it.
“Payson will be converted into a movie land for the next few weeks it may be assumed from the amount of travel in that direction over the past week-end. A party of more than a score of Famous Lasky Players from Los Angeles passed through Mesa Monday morning on the Union Auto Stage line for Payson. Truck loads of supplies, and one with horses, went up Saturday. The Lasky Players will film a picture based on one of Zane Grey’s recent novels which has its setting in the Payson country.
“Mr. Grey is now in the Payson country it is understood and will entertain within the next week or two at a big barbecue, bringing together the movie folks and the cowmen and their families of that section.”
Imagine the buzz that was created. One of the things created for the movie was a faux frontier town south of Payson, possibly in the vicinity of Oxbow Hill. The excitement was short lived though, as filming was completed in a little bit over a month. On their way back to Hollywood, the filming party stopped in Phoenix as this clip from the June 9, 1923 Arizona Republican shows.
“Fifty motion picture actors and actresses, members of the Famous-Players-Lasky corporation, arrived in Phoenix last night, enroute to Hollywood California, after an extended sojourn in the Payson district, where the company filmed the majority of scenes for picturization of the Zane Grey novel ‘To the Last Man.’
“The company passed through Phoenix about six weeks ago on their way to the country surrounding Payson, the locale of the principal scenes in the novelist’s story. A majority of the ‘outside scenes’ were taken close to Payson, including Mogollon Rim and Pleasant Valley. The company will remain in Phoenix until tonight, when they will leave for Hollywood to finish the picture. The remainder of the production, the interior scenes, will be filmed at the Hollywood studios, according to the director.”
The film was released in September of that year and once again created buzz in the area. It had a “sister” movie, “Call of the Canyon” that was released early in 1924. That too created excitement in Payson as this February 15, 1924 Arizona Silver Belt article illustrates.
“Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Alden have just returned from Payson where they went for the purpose of showing Zane Grey’s new picture, ‘Call of the Canyon’ to the people of Payson. The entertainment was given at the Grady Harrison garage which had been converted into a theater for the evening and was attended by perhaps 300 persons. The picture was of especial interest in the Payson district because the cast of characters was the same as “To The Last Man,” produced in the Payson country. ‘Call of the Canyon’ deals with scenes in the Grand Canyon district.”
Sadly, it appears that this movie version of “To the Last Man” has been lost to the ages. Like so many silent films of the era, a copy is not known to exist. Supposedly some footage was recycled into the 1933 version of “To the Last Man,” but that appears to be all that’s left of it.
There is a Web site that deals with historical moviemaking in Arizona, though it focuses more on the Sedona area. The site, http://arizonaslittlehollywood.blogspot.com has lots of details. Also, there was a book by Ed Hulse called “Filming the West of Zane Grey” that is the definitive book on movies made from Zane Grey’s writings.
History and Biscuits
Don’t forget about this event with some fine history presentations on July 28 at 4 p.m. at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building located at 913 S. Ponderosa St.
I’m really looking forward to hearing Errol and Ella Lee Owens talk about sawmills and the lumber industry here, as well as the presentation on Pine, Ariz. history. Those are a couple presentations that you don’t always hear. It should be fun and very worthwhile to attend.