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Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema

Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema

by John Wooley

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When inventor and movie studio pioneer Thomas Edison wanted to capture western magic on film in 1904, where did he send his crew?

To Oklahoma's 101 Ranch near Ponca City. And when Francis Ford Coppola readied young actors Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon to portray teen class strife in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, he took cast and crew to Tulsa, the setting of S.


When inventor and movie studio pioneer Thomas Edison wanted to capture western magic on film in 1904, where did he send his crew?

To Oklahoma's 101 Ranch near Ponca City. And when Francis Ford Coppola readied young actors Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon to portray teen class strife in the 1983 movie The Outsiders, he took cast and crew to Tulsa, the setting of S. E. Hinton's acclaimed novel. From Edison to Coppola and beyond, Oklahoma has served as both backdrop and home base for cinematic productions. The only book to chronicle the history of made-in-Oklahoma films, John Wooley's Shot in Oklahoma explores the variety, spunk, and ingenuity of moviemaking in the Sooner State over more than a century.

Wooley's trek through cinematic history, buttressed by meticulous research and interviews, hits the big films readers have heard of—but maybe didn't realize were shot in the state—along with lesser-known offerings. We also get the films' intriguing backstories. For instance, President Theodore Roosevelt's fascination with a man purportedly able to catch a wolf in his hands led to The Wolf Hunt, shot in the Wichita Mountains and screened in the White House in 1909. Over time, homegrown movies such as Where the Red Fern Grows (1974, 2003) have given way to feature films including The Outsiders and Rain Man (1988). Throughout this tale, Wooley draws attention to unsung aspects of state and cinematic history, including early all-black movies lensed in Oklahoma's African American towns and films starring American Indian leads.

With a nod to more recent Hollywood productions such as Twister (1996) and Elizabethtown (2005), Wooley ultimately explores how a low-budget slasher movie created in Oklahoma in the 1980s transformed the movie business worldwide. Punctuated with photographs and including a filmography of more than one hundred productions filmed in the state, Shot in Oklahoma offers movie lovers and historians alike an engaging ride through untold cinematic history.

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Shot in Oklahoma

A Century of Sooner State Cinema

By John Wooley


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8409-8


Dawn at the 101 Ranch

The first film shot in Oklahoma was on the famous 101 Ranch near Ponca City in May of 1904. Thomas Edison sent a film crew to capture the magic of that ranch and share it with the world.

—Bill Moore, moving-images archivist, Oklahoma Historical Society, quoted in Scott Pitcock's "Oklahoma on the Silver Screen," Oklahoma Magazine (March 2007)

It's my belief that the Miller Brothers as a unit, the whole 101 Ranch operation, could unquestionably be considered a pioneer of the film industry in Oklahoma. And over and above that, it was right up there near the top in the western-movie genre nationally.

—Michael Wallis, author of The Real Wild West

Taking up 110,000 acres that sprawled over parts of four counties in north-central Oklahoma, the 101 Ranch in the early 1900s was a self-contained livestock and farming operation that might as well have been its own city. Remarkably diversified, it was home to not only thousands of employees and the Miller family, who owned it, but also to a school, a general store, a meat-packing plant, a dude ranch, and a rodeo showground, among other things. For some years, it had both its own newspaper and its own money, the latter good for making purchases in the ranch's store and at participating establishments in nearby towns, including the 101's hometown of Bliss (now Marland) and the neighboring Ponca City. (The brass coins issued by the ranch were popularly referred to as "broncs," and the paper money as "bucks." It's been suggested that the slang term for dollar bills may have sprung from the latter.)

In 1903, the year The Great Train Robbery hit American screens, the patriarch of the ranch family, Col. George W. Miller, died, leaving the operation to sons Joe, Zack, and George. The next year, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society's Bill Moore, a camera-toting entourage from Edison's New Jersey studio traveled to the 101 to shoot some western-themed shorts.

"They shot several films there during that time period," Moore said recently. "One was called A Brush between Cowboys and Indians. Obviously, in the period we're talking about, around the turn of the century, film is in its early stages. So, as far as production values go, they're very crude, to say the least. The camera's set up for a wide shot, and it just pretty much stays there. You don't have cutaways, you don't have close-ups, you don't have establishing shots, because it's too early in the process.

"To us, it's something that's a minute long, and it looks like they just had some guys run across the river and go past the camera," he added with a chuckle. "It's the single scene in the film. But to them, it was a complete movie."

A Brush between Cowboys and Indians is also noteworthy because it featured a former vaudevillian named Gilbert M. Anderson, who'd had a small part in The Great Train Robbery the year before. He would go on to much greater fame a few years later, after leaving Edison, co-founding a Chicago-based film company called Essanay and becoming Broncho Billy Anderson, the first real cowboy-movie hero. Chances are good that Anderson was also involved in the other shorts filmed at the ranch by Edison in '04, all with similar self-explanatory titles. They included Bucking Bronco, Driving Cattle to Pasture, Rounding Up and Branding Cattle, Western Stage Coach Hold Up, and Cowboys and Indians Fording a River in a Wagon, the titles reflecting activities that surely seemed wildly exotic to city-dwelling audiences.

Moore said he could only make an educated guess about why the Edison crew came all the way to Oklahoma to shoot these pictures. "Westerns were popular, any kind of western action," he explained. "That's why the wild-west shows were so popular. People in the cities wanted to see that kind of stuff."

As noted earlier, Edison had used some members of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show to make at least one of his company's early kinescope films, but the traveling show was apparently visiting the East Orange area at the time, so Edison's people were able to film real cowboys without ever having to leave their home turf. The specific reason that Edison would send a crew all the way from New Jersey to Oklahoma remains something of a mystery, especially since the 101 Ranch would not start sending out its own wild-west show until 1906. However, a clue may lie in a trip that Joe, the eldest of the three Miller brothers, took in May of 1904, the same month Edison visited the ranch.

It was then, as Wallis observed in The Real Wild West, that Miller traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, for a meeting of the country's newspaper editors, in order to promote the idea that their next annual meeting ought to be held in Oklahoma Territory and include a trip to the 101, where visitors would be able to see real-life cowboys and Indians in a spectacular show—and dine on buffalo meat as well. His pitch to the group, the National Editorial Association, was a success, and the next year the conventioneers traveled to Oklahoma for their get-together. Of course, the itinerary did include a visit to the 101 Ranch, where the visitors were treated to a heavily promoted day of parades, Indian dances, trick riding, and other specialty acts; a buffalo hunt featuring the famed Apache chief Geronimo; and, to cap things off, a simulated Indian attack on a wagon train. Drawn by extensive regional and national publicity for the event, thousands of curiosity seekers from all over joined the editors and publishers at the event. "By best estimates," Wallis wrote, "at least sixty-five thousand men, women, and children showed up at the 101 Ranch, making it the largest gathering of its kind in the history of the Twin [Oklahoma and Indian] Territories" (p. 249).

The runaway success of that outdoor spectacle created a major buzz across the country. The fact that newspaper executives were honored guests at the blowout, of course, didn't hurt the ranch as far as publicity was concerned. It should be noted that the huge cast of cowboys entertaining the vast crowd included two eventual film stars, Tom Mix and Bill Pickett—both just beginning their association with the 101.

This extravaganza unfolded in June of 1905, more than a year after the Edison unit had visited the ranch. But it's possible that news of Joe Miller's sales pitch to the National Editorial Association the previous year, which included a no-doubt glowing description of the authentic western-style entertainment the 101 Ranch could offer, enticed Edison into sending his camera crew halfway across the country to capture on film some real cowboys and Indians, with their horses and buffaloes, ranch houses, and teepees.

Perhaps, also, Edison was solicited by George Miller, the youngest of the three brothers and the one who, according to Bill Moore, was the first to see the potential in the 101 as a filmmaking site. "He was always trying to convince Joe that motion pictures would be a real benefit to the ranch," Moore said. "And he was working hard at it, sending out letters to film companies."

It's not much of a stretch to speculate that one of those letters found William Selig, owner of the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago. Selig had been producing films since 1896; one of his more audacious efforts, 1909's Hunting Big Game in Africa, was an alleged documentary showing former president Teddy Roosevelt shooting a lion on a big-game safari in Africa. Roosevelt shot the lion, all right, but none of that was in the movie. Selig had faked his version of the lion-bagging—let's be generous and call it an homage—in Chicago, utilizing hometown talent (including a guy who looked a little like Teddy R.), some tropical plants, and an aged lion he'd bought, as Wallis wrote, "at a bargain price" (p. 342).

Hunting Big Game in Africa turned out to be a popular success, bogus though it may have been, and its box office take encouraged Selig not only to acquire an entire zoo for the purposes of filmmaking but also to send camera crews out to various spots around the globe, where they shot footage that could be incorporated into future movies. Less exotic than Africa, but much closer to home, was the 101 Ranch, where a crew showed up in the spring of 1909 to shoot some background scenes of authentic ranch life for use in upcoming Selig opuses.

Thus began a practice that would continue for decades—that of a movie company coming from elsewhere to Oklahoma to film background, or second-unit, footage. (The two terms, while sometimes used interchangeably, aren't quite the same. Film shot by a second-unit crew usually includes more than just scenery and settings—stunts, for instance, are traditionally done by a second unit. Still, as indicated by the term, second-unit material isn't as important to the film as what's being shot on the main sets with the major actors.) Evidence does exist that suggests at least one of these Selig westerns, The Stampede (1909), was primarily shot at the ranch.

Apparently, Selig met up with Tom Mix during this time. Mix, a Pennsylvania native and former Oklahoma City bartender, had been just one of many cowboys in the 101's big 1905 wild-west show, eventually signing on with the Miller brothers full-time and working primarily in the dude ranch part of their sprawling business. In The Life and Legend of Tom Mix (1972), Paul E. Mix remarked that the future movie star lacked most of the traditional cowpoke skills during his early days on the spread:

His first job for the ranch was to act as a host for "dude" cowboys and cowgirls on vacation from the East. Colonel Zack Miller didn't think much of Tom as a cowboy. Tom looked the part however and proved himself to be an excellent host for the ranch. One oldtimer said, "Tom's duties at the ranch consisted mostly of just hanging around and looking pretty. He was not much of a cowboy as such when he first came to work for the 101. People used to say that Tom could get lost in an 800-acre pasture." (p. 47)

It's not clear whether Mix was working for the 101 full-time when he first became acquainted with William Selig. We do know, however, that he and the filmmaker got together somewhere around the middle of 1909, which was proving to be a busy year for the soon-to-be cowboy movie star. Mix had gotten married—for the third time—in January, to a cowgirl from Dewey, Oklahoma, named Olive Stokes. There were dozens of the circus-like wild-west shows touring the country then, including the three-year-old Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show, and Mr. and Mrs. Mix hooked up with one out of Texas for a few months before quitting and forming their own. They worked for still another wild-west outfit in '09, and sometime after that, Mix returned to the 101.

In The Real Wild West, Wallis wrote that Selig immediately saw the potential Mix had for the movies and "put the handsome cowboy to work as an extra and a scout for film locations for a low-key movie entitled Ranch Life in the Great Southwest" (p. 343). Wallis's description of Mix's duties on the film was amplified in the 1979 book Photostory of the Screen's Greatest Cowboy Star—Tom Mix, written, compiled, and published by longtime western-movie aficionado Mario DeMarco: "The film company hired Tom to handle the live stock and at the same time act as a safety man in keeping animals from hurting the members of the cast and crew. (This was quite common in those early flicks because Tom once related how he was locked in a small building and several wolves were put in with him. The cameras kept grinding while the scared Mix battled these hungry animals with his bare hands!)" (p. 12). That parenthetical anecdote probably illustrates a penchant Mix had for, as today's business jargon would put it, "inflating his resume." Wallis was a bit more blunt about it in The Real Wild West, writing that "Mix had invented various aspects of his life and spiced up his professional resume with exaggerations and, in some instances, outright lies" (p. 343).

There is, for example, the one about Mix's law enforcement career. In the credits for the August 1910—released Ranch Life in the Great Southwest, his first picture, he's billed as a former deputy United States marshal. No record exists, however, to support that title. He did serve for a time as a deputy sheriff and night marshal in his third wife's hometown of Dewey, seventy-five miles east of the 101 Ranch, after he and Olive returned to Oklahoma from their wild-west show adventures.

DeMarco wrote that, after being hired to work on Ranch Life in the Great Southwest, Tom "realized that 'picture making' was the answer to his dreams" and asked the director for a role in the movie (p. 12). This appears to have been the case. And if the movies indeed gave Mix a raison d'être, director Francis Boggs nudged him along by casting the cowpoke in a bronc-busting sequence for the one-reel opus. (A reel of film ran approximately ten minutes.)

Was Ranch Life in the Great Southwest shot on the grounds of the 101? Probably not, although it was definitely filmed in the Sooner State. Western-movie historian Buck Rainey, for one, believed that it was done at a location other than the Miller spread. In his Saddle Aces of the Cinema (1980), Rainey wrote: "Tom and Olive had a small spread in the Cherokee Territory, and it was this fact that led to his entrance into the movies. The Selig Company was looking for a ranch on which to shoot a picture and for someone who knew the surrounding country. Tom Mix volunteered his ranch and himself" (p. 60).

Regardless of exactly where it was lensed, however, Ranch Life in the Great Southwest was the beginning of a spectacular career for Tom Mix. In no time at all, he was starring for Selig and director Boggs in such western-themed films as The Trimming of Paradise Gulch, The Long Trail, and Pride of the Range, the latter featuring another 101 ranch hand who would go on to fame as a movie cowboy, Hoot Gibson. By 1913, Mix was a major player for the Selig Company, later achieving even greater fame at Twentieth Century-Fox—where, as Rainey put it, he "remained the most popular screen cowboy until the advent of sound" (p. 61).

In the late 1920s, as the talkie era dawned, Fox pulled the plug on its western movies, and Mix, after making a series of silents with another studio, hit the sawdust trail, finding new life as a circus attraction. After that, he tried adapting to the new talking-picture format, and he might have made it if he hadn't been seriously injured in a fall with his horse while shooting Rustler's Roundup (1933), his final feature film. Upon recovering, Mix returned to the world of circuses and personal-appearance tours until his death in a one-car accident in 1940. In 1968 the Tom Mix Museum opened in Dewey, the town where Mix met Olive Stokes and served for a short time as a law enforcement officer. The museum continues today under the auspices of the Oklahoma Historical Society and the local Tom Mix Museum Board of Directors.

* * *

Another filmmaker associated with the 101 Ranch may not be nearly as well known as Edison or Selig, but his contribution to Sooner cinema is powerful and undeniable. Bennie Kent, the story goes, became a filmmaker after a camera operator from a visiting studio abandoned his equipment during a shoot at the 101. "Kent was on the ranch when some of these films were being shot," explained Bill Moore, "and the story he told to a newspaper reporter was that one of the photographers had stomped off the set—upset about something, I guess—and one of the Millers said, 'Well, Kent knows how to frame a shot. Let him run the camera.' And that's what started his interest in filmmaking."

Was that story a fabrication? Or did it happen when Edison—or evenanother filmmaking outfit, its name lost to the ages—came to the ranch in search of authentic western footage? We may never know.

What we do know is that James Bennie Kent (the "Bennie" may have been a nickname) was a derby-wearing, cigar-chomping Englishman who'd learned the watch repair trade in his own country before immigrating to America in the late 1800s. First setting up shop in Nebraska, he later made his way to Chandler, Oklahoma, about eighty miles south of the 101 spread, and plied his trade there. He also began indulging his hobby of photography in this new place, roaming the area for suitable subjects, which included scenes of both Indian and cowboy life.

Kent's photographs soon attracted the attention of the Millers, who brought him on board to document the life and work of the ranch. Apparently, he became a full-time employee fairly quickly. "The 101 Ranch had something called the Wagon Wheel, in which a wheel was used to show the various administrative responsibilities," said Moore. "Bennie Kent was on that wheel, on one of the spokes, as the photographer for the ranch." Among his other duties, Kent put together the big souvenir booklet following the 1905 wild-west extravaganza at the 101, finding a place in it for many of the photographs he'd taken to document that historic event.


Excerpted from Shot in Oklahoma by John Wooley. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Wooley, formerly entertainment writer with the Tulsa World, has written, co-written, or edited more than 20 books, including the recent novel, Ghost Band, and the nonfiction From the Blue Devils to Red Dirt: The Colors of Oklahoma Music.

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