Tuesday, April 24, 2012

FOUR CORNERS TOUR, Part 2: Zion & Grafton

Last year, my wife and I visited Zion National Park outside of St. George, Utah.  It was a whirlwind trip (we were on our way home from Salt Lake City) and the weather wasn't the best -- it was hazy most of the time -- but I was still impressed with the silence and grandeur of the park at sunrise.

Last week, I returned to Zion.  It was another whirlwind trip -- I was just passing through on my way from St. George to Kanab -- but I remain impressed.  With its steep valley walls, Zion is a place that seems far removed from the rest of the world.  The same is true of a half dozen sleepy towns that line the road just west of the park.  I confess that one of these towns was the real reason I took this route again.

Grafton is nothing but a ghost town, founded by Mormon farmers in 1859 and abandoned by the 1930s.  Amazingly, it has been perfectly preserved and protected by the residents of the neighboring town of Rockville.  That made it an irresistable location for several Hollywood filmmakers, who came there to film THE ARIZONA KID in 1930, RAMROD (a noir western starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake) in 1947, and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID in 1968.

James V. D'Arc's book When Hollywood Came to Town offers a wealth of insight into the making of RAMROD, a surprisingly gritty western in which filmmaker Andre de Toth (who got the directing gig based on the personal recommendation of John Ford!) cast his wife Veronica Lake as a rugged cowgirl.  De Toth is best known as the director of the 1953 horror film HOUSE OF WAX, starring Vincent Price, but his earliest films were westerns.  With RAMROD, he was determined to make an ultra-realistic western that would break his wife out of her one-note "peekaboo" image.  According to De Toth's biography, he had to convince producer Harry "Pop" Sherman to use the Zion area instead of Lone Pine, California, arguing that the latter was too postcard-perfect.  He also had to browbeat his wife to get the performance he wanted out of her.  The marriage didn't last, and both Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake later renounced the film in their respective biographies.  D'Arc's book leads me to believe, however, that their disgust might have been based more on audience response to the film (several prominent Utah residents took to calling the film "Hamrod" after it was first released) than the quality of the actual picture itself. 

BUTCH CASSIDY was shot in Grafton on the recommendation of Robert Redford, who by 1968 had practically adopted Utah as his home state.  D'Arc quotes the actor as follows: "I've been driving through St. George since the mid-fifties... I had always liked the area very much - been drawn to it - and saw early on that it had great potential for filmmaking.  They were initially going to film BUTCH CASSIDY in New Mexico.  I got them to come and look at St. George and, of course, much of it was filmed there."  In his book Cinema Southwest, John A. Murray adds some details about Grafton: "An abandoned adobe church in the ghost town was converted into a schoolhouse, and one other structure was built, but the rest of the landscape remained unchanged.  The film was shot at this location in October and November of 1968, and the autumn foliage along the Virgin River was at its lovely peak - yellow cottonwoods, orange alders, and russet-red scrub oak (all against that chromium-blue Utah sky)... Viewers will note that the film has a washed-out, almost bleached quality - this results, according to the documentary [THE MAKING OF BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID] from the cinematographer (who would also win an Oscar) regularly shooting into sunny, backlit landscapes: intentionally overexposing the film two or three stops; and introducing a lot of dust into the scenes to create a slightly hazy effect.  Also, many shots of the actors are through objects - such as foliage - whcih makes the audience actively search for the characters, and also pay closer attention to the action and especially the dialogue."

The first time I saw the famous BUTCH CASSIDY bicycle scene shot in Grafton, set to the music of Burt Bacharach, I was struck by the sadly nostalgic light.  In a way the entire film is sadly nostalgic, which is true of a lot of western movies during that time period.  Murray calls them "anti-westerns," but I prefer to think of them as elegiac westerns.  It would only be a few short years before traditional westerns were deemed box office poison, and places like Grafton became even further removed from the everyday world that most of us live in.

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