Colorado arrives early to the movies: Edison, Mix , Selig, Morrisons, Wayne, Buckwalter

Posted 4/2/13

The truth is, Thomas Edison liked to play hardball when it came to patents. He could, and did, wear people out by bringing law suits against them, …

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Colorado arrives early to the movies: Edison, Mix , Selig, Morrisons, Wayne, Buckwalter


The truth is, Thomas Edison liked to play hardball when it came to patents.

He could, and did, wear people out by bringing law suits against them, and came to dominate the movie industry. William Selig, the father of Hollywood, was no exception.

But in the early days, you could say Colorado was bigger than Hollywood, in the eyes and lens of filmmakers.

"Colorado has been the location of choice for filmmakers for well over 110 years. The earliest filmmaking in Colorado dates to 1897 when the "Festival of the Mountain & Plain" was filmed,"according to the Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media.

"Many feature films followed immediately thereafter. Since then, hundreds of other filmmakers have come to Colorado to shoot such notable films as "True Grit", "Cat Ballou", "How The West Was Won", "The Searchers", "Sleeper", "City Slickers" and "Thelma & Louise".

H.H. "Buck" Buckwalter, the western agent for the Selig-Polyscope Company of Chicago who made short films in Colorado from 1904 to 1909 is a case in point. Some of Buckwalter's films starred Gilbert M. Anderson before his "Bronco Billy" days.

Another Selig troupe arrived in 1911 included future cowboy star Tom Mix.

In his book "Hollywood Colorado - The Selig Polyscope Company and the Colorado Motion Picture Company," David Emrich, a film and video editor in Denver who spent 15 years researching the Colorado film industry, tells stories of Tom Mix and his buddies shooting lemons off the glasses in local bars to see who would buy drinks, and relays the legend of the night Mix hid in the awning of the Elk's Club so his angry wife could not find her errant husband.

Actors behaving badly, apparently, is nothing new.

Mix and others in his troupe risked their lives to make movies in Colorado, according to Emrich, and he notes Mix endured multiple stays local hospitals during this period of his career. Selig company soon left Colorado for the promise of 300 days of sunshine and a wider variety of scenery established Southern California's first permanent movie studio, in the historic Edendale district of Los Angeles.

The formation of the Colorado Motion Picture Company in 1913 by former Selig employee Otis Thayer, who selected Cañon City because of scenery, and finnancial support via the local sale of $5,000 in stock on the first day of the company's existence, is also related in Emrich's book.

But the company was not destined to last long.

The drowning deaths of star Grace McHugh and cameraman Owen Carter during a river-crossing scene in "Across the Border" (1914), and the resultant law suits from the families, bankrupted the company and virtually put an end to filming in Colorado for nearly 30 years. McHugh, as many actors and actresses at that time, did many, or all, of their own stunts, and was riding along the Arkansas River, when her horse spooked and tossed her in the river. Carter jumped in to try and save her, and almost did, but ended up being carried away in the swift current as well. Their bodies were found separately, days later, downsteam.

But back to Edison, Selig, Buckwalter and Mix.

"Edison assembled representatives of the nation's biggest movie companies—Biograph, Vitagraph, American Mutoscope, and seven others—and invited them to sign a monopolistic peace treaty," writes Matthew Lasar in ARS/technica. Starting in 1891, after he filed his first patent on a motion picture camera/film system, his lawyers had launched aggressive infringement suits against others

"But the old man wanted it all, so he assembled his rivals and proposed that they join his Motion Picture Patents Company. It would function as a holding operation for the participants' collective patents—sixteen all told, covering projectors, cameras, and film stock. MPPC would issue licenses and collect royalties from movie producers, distributors, and exhibitors," Lasar says.

"To top it all off, MPPC convinced the Eastman Kodak company to refuse to sell raw film stock to anyone but Patent Company licensees, a move designed to shut French and German footage out of the country"

"Make no mistake, had Thomas Edison succeeded in this scheme, he would have killed the motion picture industry or at least delayed its flowering by a generation. The good news is that the Patents Company foundered for a couple of years, then was declared in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by a federal court," writes Lasar.

As for William Selig and Selig Polyscope Company, he and the company produced hundreds of early, widely distributed commercial moving pictures, including the first films starring Tom Mix, Harold Lloyd, Colleen Moore, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The business gradually became a struggling zoo attraction in Los Angeles as it ended film production in 1918.

Denver blogger Brad Weismann notes the connections.

"Selig recruited pioneer Denver still photographer H. H. “Buck” Buckwalter as his cameraman. By 1902, Buckwalter had begun his work for Selig on dozens of short films. He took footage of local sights -- “Arrival on Summit of Pike's Peak,” “Runaway Stage Coach,” and “Panorama of Denver from Balloon at Elitch's.” In a promotional stunt, Buckwalter advertised the mild climate by filming Denverites strolling 17th Street in their shirtsleeves one January day in 1905 (after unexpected snow canceled a couple of earlier tries). “Denver in Winter” may rank as one of history's first filmed commercials," Weismann writes.

"Hot on the heels of the smash success of the first Western, pioneering Edison director Edwin S. Porter's 1903 “The Great Train Robbery,” Buckwalter photographed Colorado's first narrative film, a tale of violence and mob retribution -- “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek”. The true Western hadn't arrived out West yet, however. A man would shortly be arriving from Chicago who would change all that -- the creator of the cowboy hero, “Bronco Billy” Anderson.," he says.

"In 1907, the ambitious Anderson went to Selig and convinced him to lend him funds and Selig's Denver filming crew in order to make authentic Westerns on location, working in the Golden/Morrison area. Displeased with the results, he split with Selig and formed Essanay Studios with George K. Spoor, proprietor of the National Film Renting Company in Chicago. Anderson returned to Denver in the fall of 1909 with money, equipment, and a small company of actors. Here the inventive, resourceful Anderson began rehearsing the ideas and techniques that would culminate in the wildly popular adventures of Bronco Billy."

The Denver Post described the outfit's activities during the making of “The Heart of a Cowboy” in 1909: “G.M. Anderson ... has been in Denver for six weeks, `making pictures' ... 'Colorado is the finest place in the country for Wild West stuff' (stated Anderson) ... the company reached Mt. Morrison at 9, where the train was met by a bunch of trained cow ponies and riders under the command of the Morrison brothers themselves.”

The Morrison brothers, Pete, Chick, Carl, and Bob, grandsons of the town of Morrison's founder, George, took to the lucrative pay and the excitement of slapping pictures together, Weisman writes.

Interestingly enough, an unrelated young actor named Marion Morrison, nervous about being overshadowed by the Morrison legacy, decided to use the name John Wayne instead.

Tom Mix went on to make more than 160 cowboy films throughout the 1920s. Mix appeared with the Sells-Floto Circus in 1929, 1930 and 1931 at a reported weekly salary of $20,000. The actor was killed in an auto accident by a large aluminum suitcase, (filled with cash, jewels, and travelers checks) when he wrecked his 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton between Tucson and Phoenix. The heavy suitcase flew forward and shattered his skull and broke his neck when he tried to stop quickly at barriers at a washed out bridge.



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