Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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Picturing Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park (continued)
By William H. Goetzmann
Donald Duck
Donald Buys the Rubber Snake Ranch by Bill Schenck. Schenck, who specializes in irony, painted Donald Duck against a stage-painted Tetons background. Bill Schenck

Hollywood and the motion picture, as well as the television industry, provided still another picturing of Jackson Hole. Because of the gleaming snow-covered freshness of the Tetons, countless television commercials have been filmed in the region. One of the most notable was an Old Milwaukee beer commercial. The film makers sent out a casting call for "authentic-looking Jackson Hole fishermen." As one newspaperman put it, "Looking for fishermen in Jackson Hole is like looking for criminals in the state pen." [43] Hundreds of locals immediately auditioned. None of them looked just right. The director, weary of screening virtually the whole male population, finally found the right outdoorsman. Dan Woodward at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery would be, as the paper put it, "the leading man." The two other "stars" were Breck O'Neill, a stuntman and his downstairs neighbor, Todd Link. Clearly, the real thing wouldn't do.

This theme of pseudo-authenticity was carried forward on many interesting levels. The big scene (a 30-second clip) was shot at sunset at Oxbow Bend of the Snake River. It purported to be dawn in the commercial. Then, because Jackson Hole fish were not photogenic enough, the film company imported 50 huge yellowbelly cutthroat trout from the Star Valley Trout Ranch in Afton, Wyoming. They were kept in live boxes at a second site on Pacific Creek. The fish were not fed for several days. A large number of them died, and as the report recounted, "the rest were too stressed out to move." So Dale Best, the Fish Hatchery biologist, was ordered to stitch a thin but strong monofilament to the upper lips of several huge fish that had survived. The cameras were lowered underwater and then, just at the right moment, the fish were yanked above the water surface as if by one of the three fishermen. The fish were dubbed "heroes" by the company. An ordinary trout was attached to Woodward's fly and lifted by him into his net. Woodward "caught" several this way and then the big yellowbellied micro-filamented "hero" fish attached to his line, leaped its high dance above the sparkling waters. The artificially dirtied-up rustic-looking fisherman celebrated with, what else, an ice tub full of Old Milwaukee beer at "dawn." As the reporter concluded, "It doesn't get any better than this." It was art. Today it would be called a "neo-constructivist temporary wildlife experience." This artistic experience was shown whenever possible at NFL football game breaks. It only cost about $250,000 to make.

The hazards of filming commercials became apparent during the filming of a Mountain Dew commercial. One tourist complained to the local newspaper that clearing the brush from the shore destroyed the ecosystem and that his female friend, cruising before the cameras in a canvas kayak, had hit the camera platform, turned over and ripped her boat. [44]

More recently, during the 1997 Major League All Star baseball game, a Chevrolet rolled onto the TV screen, the driver's side door opened and the whole Teton Range flowed out—"Like a Rock." Other commercials filmed in Jackson Hole include ones for Jeep, Toyota, Levis, Maxwell House Coffee, and Ski Doo.

As far as dedicated research can tell, filming in Jackson Hole began in 1921 when the valley was only just opened to dudes. The silent film was entitled Nanette of the North, a different story but the title is a play on Robert Flaherty's popular documentary Nanook of the North. The original footage of Nanette perished in a fire. It was reshot in Alaska.

The Cowboy and the Lady
The Cowboy and the Lady, filmed in 1922, was Jackson Hole's first feature film. The movie, which starred Hollywood ingenue Mary Miles Minter, was shot on the old Pederson Ranch on the south side of the Gros Ventre River north of Jackson. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Soon after, in 1922, the controversial Hollywood ingenue, Mary Miles Minter showed up as the heroine of The Cowboy and the Lady, Jackson Hole's first feature film. It was shot on the old Pederson Ranch on the south side of the Gros Ventre River north of Jackson. That same year, whether before or after her visit to the valley is not precisely known, the famous director-actor Desmond Taylor was found shot to death. Purportedly her lover, Mary had sent him missives on butterfly stationery that read: "Dearest—I love you—I love you—I love you—xxxxxxxxxx X yours always! Mary." Mary and the actress Mabel Normand (a movie cowgirl from the 101 Ranch) were the prime suspects. Mary, who looked like Mary Pickford and who was on her way to stardom, suddenly found her career ended. Latter day research indicates that Taylor was probably a homosexual and that Mary's mother, Charlotte Shelby, shot him in a jealous rage. Mary married her milkman and lived along with Charlotte in obscurity in Santa Monica. She died on August 5, 1954. The Cowboy and the Lady was her last big film as the star. [45]

In 1930 John Wayne made his movie debut in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail filmed in Grand Teton National Park. Wayne played a mountain man and Marguerite Churchill was his citified co-star who initially fears him, then rushes to his arms.

The Big Trail
The Big Trail (1930) starring John Wayne, which told the story of a settler's wagon train to Oregon, featuring the settlers lowering wagons down this steep cliff into Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole Historical Society

To keep their wagons from rolling out of control downhill, the settlers reversed the wheels, putting the large wheels on the downslope side and the smaller wheels on the up slope. Ropes tied to the wagons let them down the steep slope slowly, and logs placed at intervals below the front wheels enabled them to negotiate the descent, though some wagons crashed. Hollywood duplicated this descent mode exactly, though several spectacular crash scenes were filmed along Spread Creek to the west of the valley.

Then, after a lapse of ten years, Wallace Beery appeared as the lead in Wyoming. Six years later he appeared as the gruff but lovable co-star of little Margaret O'Brien in Bad Bascomb in 1946, much of it filmed at Teton Pass and near Signal Mountain. Beery, who, like Mary Miles Minter, was born on April Fool's Day, began his work in the movies as Sweedie, a Swedish maid. As a female impersonator he made at least eight Sweedie films including Sweedie's Hopeless Love. They were not westerns. In 1916 he married Gloria Swanson. They were divorced in 1918, long before Beery made his gruff hero films in Jackson Hole. [46]

Wyoming movie set
The 1940 movie Wyoming. some of which was filmed on the shores of Jackson Lake. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Wallace Beery
Wallace Beery, star of Wyoming and Bad Bascomb, liked Jackson Hole so much that he built a cabin on the shores of Jackson Lake below Signal Mountain. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Bad Bascomb told the story of the Mormon trek into Jackson Hole where they came over Teton Pass in a rough crossing. During the shooting of the picture many of the cast bunked in the scattered dude ranches. Beery, of course, played a bad man with a heart of gold continually fighting off romantic advances by Marjorie Main. After helping the Mormons fight off an Indian attack, in the end, rather than marry Marjorie Main, Beery goes back to town believing he will be hanged for his "evil" deeds. Beery liked Jackson Hole so much he built a cabin on Jackson Lake below Signal Mountain.

Even though it was the era of the television western, it was 1951 before another major film was made in Jackson Hole. This was The Big Sky, an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning A. B. Guthrie's splendid novel based on the first script that the noted Montana novelist ever wrote. Howard Hawks had purchased the rights to Guthrie's novel, perhaps the best ever written about the mountain men. RKO produced it. The somewhat oddly chosen stars for the movie were an unknown, Dewey Martin, as the hero Boone Caudill, Kirk Douglas as his red-headed friend Jim Deakins, and Elizabeth Threatt as Teal Eye, Boone's Blackfoot Indian wife.

In what promised to be a major film with a triangular love affair, Dudley Nichol's script focused only on the first half of the novel in which Boone kills his redheaded friend Deakins because Teal Eye, his Indian wife, has a redheaded baby. Nichols and Howard Hawks chose to excise the dark parts of Paul Guthrie's tale and concentrate on the positive. They emphasized the "brotherhood" of the mountain men, the French boatmen, the woman Teal Eye and Poordevil, a crazed but comic Indian. The whole thing became a parable of "togetherness." [47]

The real stars of the film are the two exact replicas of the old Missouri River keelboat of the 1820s that the mountain men poled and tugged by ropes up 2,000 miles of the Big Muddy, contending with logs, brush, poison ivy, snakes, wolves and hostile Indians. The best feature of The Big Sky keelboats is their silent motors that make such labor in the movie make believe. One of these boats, that originally cost $28,000 in 1952, has been recently restored by the Montana Historical Society. Much of the film features the keelboat on the Snake River as it came out of Jackson Lake. Menor's historic ferry crossing was another place the boat was filmed. The crew camped in a large tent village near Moran, Wyoming.

The Big Sky
The Big Sky, released in 1952, was adapted from A.B. Guthrie's novel. Portions of The Big Sky were filmed at Menor's Ferry. One of the make-believe keelboats used in the movie has been restored by the Montana Historical Society. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

An anthropologist from the American Museum of Natural History, reviewing The Big Sky found it grossly inaccurate. The keelboat was satisfactory, but birchbark canoes on the Upper Missouri? No. The tipis were furnished with southern Arizona bric-a brac such as Apache baskets, the Blackfeet (actual tribe members) "are portrayed with the same magnificent disregard for fact that we have learned to expect in the average grade-B horse opera," he ejaculated. Teal Eye, the female lead "slinks about in a costume that recalls Minnehaha in a school pageant." The New York anthropologist and some later Indian commentators made the point that to Hollywood all Indians were alike. He concluded "perhaps it is too much to expect that the purveyors of what passes for history in most movies should be aware of them" [the special culture and dress of the Blackfeet] [48] The critic had nothing to say of the casting and acting. He should have. Can the film be remade today?

At the same time, another of Guthrie's scripts was coming to life—Shane. This interpretation of a New Haven, Connecticut, reporter's novel is perhaps the best loved of all the films made in Jackson Hole. Directed by George Stevens, this film, like the unfortunate The Big Sky, aimed to get away from the gun fighter-saloon-girl town western or even the cowboy extravaganza. Realism was said to be the keynote. It was indeed the first film with loud realistic gun shots that startled audiences. Shane is the story of settlers just like those who came into Jackson Hole in the late nineteenth century and the mysterious "Knight Errant" gunman who defends them. Van Heflin starred as hard-working honest Joe Starratt, the settler; Jean Arthur, no glamour girl, played his wife; Ben Johnson, always authentic, played the town bully; Jack Palance played the gunfighter; and Alan Ladd played the mythical samurai who defends the homesteaders, Shane. Brandon de Wilde as the child, Joey Starratt, almost stole the show. One can still hear him calling "Shane, Shane, Shane," as the wounded Alan Ladd rides out of their lives and into the Tetons. While realistic, Shane had much of the mythical about it to which the slow-moving reptilian gunfighter Jack Palance contributed a great deal, as did the paradise scenery of the Tetons and Jackson Hole itself.

Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur
Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur in Shane, which was made in 1953 and is one of the most popular movies filmed in Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Most visitors to the park want to see the Shane sets and locations. Alas, the rude town with its saloon and general store is now long gone from Antelope Flats. A slowly crumbling homestead cabin, the Luther Taylor Homestead with a Teton Mountain background, still remains. So does Mormon Row and Schwabacher's Landing where the homesteaders crossed the river to reach the town. The Ernie Wright Cabin near Kelly Warm Springs was also used as the Starratt Homestead, though a complete interior of the cabin was built inside the unfinished Jackson Hole High School. Teton Valley Ranch, on the Gros Ventre, also figured in the film. It is to some a significant question as to whether some of the Shane cabins should be restored, though the local authority on the subject of their location has not committed himself. [49] Restoration of early settlers' cabins and dude ranches sometimes runs counter to the philosophy of Grand Teton National Park, though one notes on the U.S.G.S. and the National Geographical Society official topographical maps that not far from Jackson, near Miller Springs, is the historic Miller Cabin, where Teton Jackson, the notorious outlaw, holed up. [50]

town set for Shane
The town set for Shane once stood on Antelope Flats. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Spencer's Mountain, made in 1963, also caused a stir. It starred Henry Fonda who was variously termed "a great guy, very down to earth" and a bad interview. Maureen O'Hara, James McArthur and Mimsy Farmer were also in the film about a boy, oddly named Clayboy, growing into manhood in a poor homesteader family, grateful for the chance to go off to college where he will be with blonde beauty Mimsy Farmer, his first love. It is a story of family sacrifice that became a TV series, The Waltons.

Spencer's Mountain was filmed primarily near Triangle X Ranch, not far from the Cunningham Cabin. As one writer put it for the Jackson Hole Gazette, "The hill behind Triangle X Ranch may have had another name once, but the Turners of the Triangle X Ranch call it "Spencer's Mountain." [51] From it one could look far across the flats and Jenny Lake to the Tetons in the distance. Actually the Triangle X was the same location where Jubal, starring Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, was made in 1956. Fonda, between takes for Spencer's Mountain, went fishing only to get a hook in his eyelid. So great was the Jackson Hole hysteria about Spencer's Mountain that someone wrote that "Henry Fonda milked a cow in the Moulton Barn!"

In 1969, the Hunter Hereford Ranch, the Twin Creek Ranch, Teton Valley Ranch, and Brooks Lake were the settings for The Wild Country, released in 1971. The movie starred Steve Forrest, Vera Miles, and Ron Howard. It is the story of a pioneer family that moves west from Pittsburgh, homesteads and, as in Shane, is forced to fight the cattlemen. On the Hunter Hereford Ranch the town of Kelly, washed away in a flood in 1927, was reconstructed and the old Moulton Cabin was moved to the Twin Creek Ranch to serve as the family homestead. Today the Hunter Hereford Ranch still stands in good condition, one side of the barn altered by the filmmakers to look antique. The hay shed and stud barn were also remodeled to serve as movie props. Hollywood added Greek Revival windows to the north side of the hay shed so that it could serve as a movie-set church. The cabin and stable still stand, used to store equipment, and a lone buffalo calls the ranch home.

As of 1993 there had been a number of more or less significant films made or partially made in Jackson Hole, including Sylvester Stallone's Rocky IV, the video releases for Dances With Wolves, Lakota Moon (an all-Indian film pilot made in 1991 but never released), Clint Eastwood's Any Which Way You Can, The Wrong Guys and small parts of James Michener's Centennial. Much of Dream West, a TV series starring Richard Chamberlain as Lt. John C. Fremont, who never saw Jackson Hole but did climb a high peak in the Wind River Mountains that he named for himself was made in the valley. Another TV series of the 1960s, The Monroes, was the story of five orphaned children, the oldest of whom is played by the fresh and beautiful Barbara Hershey. She was the star, along with her Great Pyrenees dog, Snow. However, in the atmosphere of the sixties, the series was too wholesome. It had a short run. Another wholesome production of the nineties, however, A River Runs Through It, was partially filmed in Jackson Hole. The famous falls sequence was filmed on Fall Creek, not the Yellowstone.

Some of the other significant motion pictures were early silent films such as Charge of the Light Brigade (1912), The Man From Panted Post (1917) starring Douglas Fairbanks and Hoot Gibson, Indian Life (1917) with an all Indian cast, and The Thundering Herd (1924) by Famous Players Laskey, starring Tim McCoy (Yellowstones first park ranger), Noah Beery and Gary Cooper.

Later, more famous films included The Plainsman (1937) starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Pow Wow Highway (1989) which was also shot on or near the Lame Deer Reservation in northeastern Wyoming, The Vanishing (1993), a Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock extravaganza, and Christmas in Connecticut (1992). [52]

Photograph and film locations in the Jackson area. (click on the image for an enlargement in a new window) U.S. Geological Survey

One film made in and around Jackson Hole in 1979 that curiously has not received enough praise is Charleton Heston's The Mountain Men, which also starred the late Brian Keith. This picture, perhaps the best one ever filmed in Jackson Hole, made by far the best use of its scenic possibilities, from the opening credits which feature the Tetons and Jackson Lake, to many locations along the Snake River, as well as the higher fields near Triangle X Ranch east of the river. Some spectacular sequences were filmed in Yellowstone's geyser basins, others at the foot of the Togwotee Pass in five feet of snow. It is also an authentic film that recreates an uproarious mountain man rendezvous on the Triangle X Ranch. This scene, filmed over a two-week period, required the construction of 80 tipis, rows of tents for fur traders, wagons, a corral, fire sites and extraordinary costuming for a large number of people. Many of the 500 "mountain men" who participated in the rendezvous scene were recruited from mountain man re-enactment clubs all over the country. The Indians were recruited from the Wind River Reservation, Fort Hall, Idaho, and Ogalalla, Nebraska. The script was written by Charleton Heston's son, Frazer, himself an expert on mountain man history. Many of the scenes bring the history paintings of John Clymer, Tom Lovell, Kenneth Riley and Frank McCarthy to life. [53]

Perhaps it was too authentic, too historical for audiences of the 1970s. Now, however, many prefer their history as pseudo-authentic documentaries like Ken Burns's recent TV series, The West, partly filmed in Jackson Hole and loaded with politically correct messages and talking heads as well as many gaffes such as photographs of Coronado and the leaders of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

One wonders, has the documentary with expert authenticators as talking heads taken the place of historically-oriented feature films? What of the Old West and its history where, in 1928, Owen Wister, the prolific author Struthers Burt, and Ernest Hemingway, completing a draft of his very modernist book, A Farewell to Arms, could still fish the Snake and appreciate rustic living on Burt's Three Rivers Ranch, with its jerry-built dude cabins with sod roofs and homemade furniture? Then it was a dude-ranch paradise in which even the fastidious publisher Alfred A. Knopf reveled. It was where Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto tried to blend the Old West with the new. Have Jackson Hole's human inhabitants either turned banal, contemporary or disappeared? Is Jackson Hole too scenic, too identifiable for modern film makers who prefer road films, urban dramas where the Mafia reigns, stories of serial killers, or Stephen Spielberg's special effects movies? Are we tuned toward the vast universe of Contact, in which case Jackson Hole is too small, its historic past too brief. [54] In addition, the park's relentless return to a pristine, non-human ecosystem seems the wave of the future as few of the picture makers now look back. The tourists and environmentalists are mostly into nature and its destruction by "rapacious" alien humans, not the settlers' era portrayed in Shane and Spencer's Mountain. For Jackson Hole and its temporary historical denizens substitute Zabriski Point in Death Valley and the Nevada Atomic Test Sites as we follow the avant garde picture makers of a West that is no longer ours.

Moulton Barn
The Moulton Barn, with the majestic Teton Range in the background, is popular with photographers. The barn is located on Mormon Row. Roger Whitacre


The National Park Service's "nature only" policy has largely effaced Jackson Hole's historic dimension. Famous dude ranches, as well as the barns and cabins used in film making, are being left to molder away. This has caused some controversy. Struthers Burt sold his ranch, the Bar BC, and Nathaniel Burt sold the Three Rivers Ranch at cost to the Rockefeller Snake River Land Company, and they thus became part of the Grand Teton National Park. Both Burts, strong advocates of the Rockefeller expansion of the park, felt it was their patriotic duty. As they and others lived on at the Three Rivers Ranch as lessees under the terms of sale, neither father nor son envisioned the destruction of the ranches. They believed them to be historic sites, not only because famous people like the publisher Alfred Knopf who served on the National Park Service Advisory Board, had stayed there, but also because of the distinctive vernacular architecture of the ranch buildings. [55] Nathaniel Burt felt, and Roy Graham Associates, a restoration architectural firm who made an assessment in 1994, felt that the Bar BC Ranch buildings of Burt's first dude ranch were part of the landscape. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they should be properly cared for and, if necessary, restored though at some, possibly donor, expense. [56] An offer of funding for restoration purposes with respect to the Three Rivers Ranch was offered by Burt's son, Nathaniel. [57] His offer was rejected. Some buildings were moved, and the rest, owned by the National Park Service, were demolished. In an era where American history is being severely distorted for political purposes, it does seem important that some vestiges of the past remain—some evidence of the staying power of the pioneer past and the romantic cowboy past—even into the mid-twentieth century. The buildings and the furniture of the Bar BC, which is still standing, were made on the ranch; the stone chimneys were constructed with stones from the Snake River by an amateur local builder. It represents a time before the pre-fabricated age and, to an historian and even a tourist, the Bar BC Ranch, while not a work of art, is a work of interest—a sight to be seen and interpreted, as are some of the remaining structures from the era of motion picture making. To many people the Old West is the West and Jackson Hole, with its colorful setting and history, should probably be more interesting than one's hometown hike-and-bike trail or a ski resort. Keeping in touch with the past is keeping in touch with nature in all its varied forms.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004