What Hit Us?

Now that NBC's Asteroid has leveled much of Denver (which stood in for Dallas and Kansas City), it's time to sift through the smoking rubble and unearth some more of our state's memorable celluloid moments.

Hollywood fat cats come here because they like the mountains and because it's cheaper to shoot here than in L.A. Meanwhile, locals teeter between annoyance at the intrusion and a clinging hope that the next film project will be the start of a cinematic boom for Colorado--or at least include some recognizable scenery.

The Rocky Mountains may never become a film mecca, but the hits--both entertaining and embarrassing--keep on coming.

A news and commercial photographer in Denver around the turn of the century, Harold Buckwalter made several short pictures about life in Denver and Colorado.

* Denver Firemen's Race for Life was Buckwalter's 1902 film about Denver firemen racing at full speed up 16th Street between Champa and California. That's it: Buckwalter staged the gag just to promote the city.

* For Denver in Winter (1905), Buckwalter picked a warm January day and persuaded Denverites to walk about in short sleeves to tout the city's mild climate. A major snowstorm hit a few days later.

* In 1905 Buckwalter was in western Colorado, filming a hunting party of President Teddy Roosevelt. At some point, a young woman who was apparently part of the hunt got into a few scenes with the president. Scared that his masculine image would be tarnished, Roosevelt ordered Buckwalter to destroy the footage.

It has to be Ida Noland, mother of former Denver district judge James Noland, who appeared in The Great Bear Hunt (1908). Directed by Edwin S. Porter, who shot The Great Train Robbery five years earlier, the new film's plot was designed to appeal to Eastern audiences unfamiliar with the beauty and adventure of the Rockies.

The threadbare plot: Heroine Noland goes fishing in a stream, only to be surprised by a large grizzly. She runs to warn the camp, and the hunters move in for the kill.

Between 1910 and 1912, Chicago's Selig-Polyscope Company came to Canon City and fired off dozens of two-reel silent Westerns, many starring the legendary Tom Mix. News of year-round filming conditions in a little town called Hollywood drew the company to California in 1913, and it never came back.

Some of William Selig's old employees, however, stuck around and started up the Colorado Film Company, which continued to make short Westerns for a few more years. Alas, a drowning accident involving star Grace McHugh and a subsequent lawsuit bankrupted the company.

Still, filmmakers have returned to Canon City often for movies such as:
* Vengeance Valley (1951), a Burt Lancaster vehicle about dueling foster brothers (the other is Robert Walker) in a small Western town.

* Canon City (1948), based on a real-life prison break from the Colorado State Penitentiary in December 1947. With a young DeForest Kelley before he became "Bones" McCoy.

* The Outcast, a 1954 Western revenge drama with John Derek, shot at the MacKenzie B-H and Everheart Mountain ranches near Canon City. Derek, of course, went on to fame as the groomer and hubby of Bo Derek.

* The White Buffalo (1977), in which Charles Bronson portrayed an aging Wild Bill Hickok obsessed with a mythical white buffalo (a la Moby Dick) that represents his fear of death.

Possibly 1912's The Equine Hero, about a horse that crosses a deep ravine on a narrow log, unties a rope and saves the heroine. Described by the Canon City Record upon its release as "probably the greatest motion picture ever taken in Canon."

* Former governor Ed Johnson had a brief role in Night Passage (1957). Johnson, who had started out as a railroad telegrapher, got to play one named Big Ed. Apparently, he got through his brief scene without flubbing a line.

* Johnson's successor, Governor Steve McNichols, was invited to do a cameo in These Thousand Hills (1959), a Western being shot in Durango (which was filling in for Montana). McNichols was offered the part of the starter of a big horse race but couldn't make it down to Durango.

* In Canon City (1948), Warden Roy Best played himself and allowed some filming in his office.

* Ever hear of Robert Christides? In the 1960s he was set to be the fictional hero of a television show called The Mayor, to be shot in Denver by the makers of Dr. Kildare. The show's creator, E. Jack Neuman, reportedly chose Denver for its lack of recognizability.

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T.R. Witcher