It was good to get out of my element and visit a world I never even knew existed. And actually, it no longer exists and never did except in magical frames that flash across a big screen. Old Tucson Studios is to the American western what Cinecittà is to Italian cinema. Built in 1939 for the William Holden and Jean Arthur vehicle Arizona, the studio is now more a tourist attraction than a buzzing hive of filmmaking (though it still hosts productions, mainly for TV and cable). But in its heyday, under the guidance of the still energetic octogenarian Bob Shelton, who married into the business via his wife Jane Lowe (of the theater chain), Old Tucson Studios was home to around 400 productions, setting the stage for every last giant of the boots-and-saddle genre.
While in town covering the Arizona International Film Festival, I briefly met the local icon while checking out his personal collection of movie posters and memorabilia that were part of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Tucson held in conjunction with his AIFF retrospective. Though I’m not even a fan of the western, the room seemed to reverberate around me with the ghosts of old Hollywood. Names like Hawks, Sturges, McQueen, Lancaster, Newman, Eastwood—and, of course, Shelton’s lifelong friend John Wayne, and Sam Peckinpah, who shot his first film, The Deadly Companions, on Shelton’s lot—were everywhere. (Hawks’s Rio Bravo, starring the Duke, actually kick-started the Tucson film industry. The two legends would go on to make three more flicks there together: McClintock!, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo.)
Luckily, I was able to catch the screening of the Paramount studios release McLintock! Shelton introduced the film with a politically incorrect tale about paying the Native American extras before the shoot was finished, resulting in their getting drunk and doing “war dances” on the roof of their hotel. Yet Shelton handpicked the movie because it was one of the best times he ever had on a set—and McLintock! actually opens with a grumpy and hung-over McLintock (Wayne) warning an underling, “Don’t say it’s a fine morning or I’ll shoot you.”
Alcohol back then was the stuff of harmless comedy, not rehab drama—and the film itself is one deliciously fun romp of a western. A Native American in the movie who’s learned English from a cellmate speaks with a Russian accent. (Was there a commie in jail with him?) “I reckon it’s the only engagement that ever started with a spanking,” McLintock says about his daughter’s pending nuptials to his hired hand. (Really?) In addition to the bottom poundings and public humiliation, not to mention the fact that no one ever bleeds during a brawl, there’s Maureen O’Hara’s character smoothly jumping through a plate glass window, and she and McLintock tumbling down stairs for laughs. And like Old Tucson Studios (which also holds the annual Wild Wild West Con, a “celebration of all things Steampunk!” according to its website), McLintock! is both refreshing and foreign when viewed from the 21st century. Ultimately, the desert and the Duke were unfamiliar yet welcome sights for these weary and jaded East Coast eyes.
For more information about Old Tucson Studios, click here.