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Texas Makes Movies

Filed Under: 
Culture and the Arts
Filed Under: 
Texas History Features

The production crew works on the set of the 2005 movie The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in Shafter. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

 

Texas has been calling itself the Third Coast of filmmaking – third after the West Coast and the East Coast – since about 1978. That boast, which is challenged by Illinois and Florida, was given credibility at the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony, where films made wholly or partially in Texas captured seven of the top eight Oscars. Movie-making is clearly coming of age as an industry in Texas.

The Lone Star State has long been a Hollywood favorite as a film subject and a film setting: California-based companies have been filming in Texas since the 1920s.

The Earliest Made-in-Texas Films

But even before that, there were movie makers in the state. French film producer Gaston Mélies moved his studio from Brooklyn to San Antonio in 1910 and established the Star Film Ranch. After producing several Westerns, Mélies made The Immortal Alamo, featuring John Ford's older brother, Francis Ford, as a villain named Navarre. Mélies himself played a padre, and students from Peacock Military Academy took the roles of Santa Anna's soldiers.

Another early film was produced in Texas by famed cattleman Charles Goodnight at his JA Ranch in the Panhandle in 1916. Goodnight staged an old-style buffalo hunt, using Indians, led by a 70-hear-old Kiowa named Horse, from the reservation at Fort Sill, Okla. The Wiswall brothers from Denver spent nearly a month shooting the hunt and other footage at the ranch. The resulting film, Old Texas, was shown at a cattlemen's association meeting in Denver. It can be viewed at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image: http://www.texasarchive.org/library/index.php?title=Old_Texas.

Hollywood Comes to Texas

Hollywood came to Texas in 1923, when Fox Film Company shot exterior scenes in San Antonio for its seven-reel feature, The Warrens of Virginia. The film is memorable mostly because of the tragic death of its star, Martha Mansfield. Near the end of location shooting, her billowy skirt was ignited by a carelessly tossed match, and she died the next day in a San Antonio hospital.

Paramount followed Fox to Texas in 1924, filming North of the 36th near Houston.

The year 1925 saw the start of a rash of movies being made near San Antonio, many of them utilizing the military posts of the Alamo City. The classic silent film, The Big Parade, starring John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, was produced in San Antonio by legendary director King Vidor in 1925. Battle scenes were shot at Fort Sam Houston.

Texas-Made Film Wins First Best-Picture Oscar

The first Oscar for best picture was awarded to Wings, directed by William Wellman for Paramount in 1927 and filmed at Camp Stanley and Kelly Air Force Base, then called Kelly Field. The cast included Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow.

I Wanted Wings, a flag-waving movie starring William Holden, Veronica Lake, Ray Milland and Constance Moore, was filmed at Randolph Field, now known as Randolph Air Force Base, in 1940.

Kyle Field at Texas A&M University was the setting for a 1943 epic entitled, We've Never Been Licked, starring Robert Mitchum and Noah Beery Jr. All but forgotten by everyone else, the movie is shown annually at A&M. In his book, Cowboys and Cadillacs, author Don Graham quotes an unnamed A&M professor as saying that the title should have been "We've Never Been Liked."


Alamo Replica A Well-Used Movie Set

Another flurry of movie-making in Texas came in the 1950s near Brackettville, 120 miles west of San Antonio. A severe drought and the closing of nearby Fort Clark in 1950 spelled, not disaster, but challenge to Brackettville mayor James T. "Happy" Shahan. Inspired by report of the movie village of Old Tucson in Arizona, Shahan lured at least four Hollywood films to Brackettville during the 1950s. The best-known was John Wayne's The Alamo, for which an Alamo replica was built. Numerous other features have used the Alamo set since then, among them Columbia Pictures' Two Rode Together (1961), starring James Stewart, Richard Widmark and Shirley Jones, and 20th Century Fox's Bandolero" (1968), with Dean Martin, James Stewart and Raquel Welch. And, as Shahan had dreamed, the Alamo set itself became a tourist attraction.

Several other movies were made along Texas' border with Mexico during the 1950s. The Eagle Lion film, The Sundowners, featuring Robert Preston, Robert Sterling and John Barrymore Jr., was shot in the Davis Mountains in 1950. Viva Zapata, with Marlon Brando and Jean Peters, was made near Rio Grande City in 1952. And Marfa was the location for the filming of Giant in 1956, with a cast which included Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.


Texas-Made Horrors

No history of Texas filmmaking would be complete without a mention of two horror films made in the late 1950s by Gordon McLendon's McLendon Radio Pictures: The Giant Gila Monster and the now-classic The Killer Shrews. Shrews, which turns up regularly on the late show, was nominated for a Golden Turkey Award by Harry and Michael Medved in their 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards: The Worst Achievements in Hollywood History. And who can forget that gory epic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, made in the Round Rock area in 1973.


The Last Third of the 20th Century

There was scattered filmmaking activity throughout the state during the 1960s, including such popular features as Hud (1962), filmed in the Panhandle town of Claude and featuring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal. Bonnie and Clyde, shot in the North Central Texas area in 1967 with a cast that included Faye Dunaway, and Viva Max! (1968), which utilized the original Alamo and starred Peter Ustinov.

The 1970s saw the start of a steady increase in the number of film projects made in Texas, due at least partly to the birth in 1971 of the Texas Film Commission. The commission, created by Gov. Preston Smith, scouts locations for film companies, acts as liaison between the movie-makers and local governmental bodies, furnishes information about equipment and technical personnel available in the state, and generally does whatever it can to smooth the way for out-of-state companies to shoot films in Texas. Film commissions have now been established in several regions of the state to provide the same types of assistance to film companies that the Texas Film Commission offers statewide.

That classic film of small-town Texas between World War II and the Korean War, The Last Picture Show, was shot in Archer City in 1971. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it starred Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager and Randy Quaid. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars for best supporting actor and actress in 1972, and the film and its actors were nominated for six additional Oscars.

San Antonio, Floresville and Del Rio were used for the filming of Sugarland Express in 1973, after which even people who knew how to spell the name of the town of Sugar Land often misspelled it as one word. In a change from the Southwestern look of most made-in-Texas films up to this time, the futuristic Logan's Run was shot in 1975 in ultramodern (at that time) buildings in Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. And the modern but Western-flavored Urban Cowboy (1979), was set in Houston.

The 1980s saw an explosion of filming activity in Texas, not only in theater films, but also in made-for-TV movies, TV series and TV specials. In 1980, the Sissy Spacek film, Raggedy Man was shot in Maxwell, and the TV series Dallas was filmed in (where else?) Dallas. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was made around Austin and Hallettsville by Universal in 1981.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, some of the most memorable films produced in the state included feature-length movies Born on the 4th of July, Hope Floats, All the Pretty Horses, and Lone Star; the TV series Lonesome Dove, from the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name; Walker, Texas Ranger, shot in and around Dallas; and the Austin City Limits music series, shot in the obvious place.


Economic Impact on the State

From 1988 through 1998, the gross budgets of all major film projects shot at least partially in Texas totaled more than $1.9 billion. Normally, about half the gross budget stays in the state, making a total impact on the Texas economy for that 10-year period of almost $1 billion. While there was an increase in filming during the early 1990s, the last half of the decade saw a gradual decrease, as many areas of the United States lost filmmaking projects to lower-cost Canadian provinces.

— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1992-1993 .

 

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