The year 1938 was an off year for Westerns. Cecil B. DeMille hadn’t traveled West since making The Plainsman in 1936, while Stagecoach and Jesse James were still a year away. Major studio heads thought Westerns were strictly bread and butter for “B” outfits grinding out six-day features and serials.
Columbia Pictures’ tough-minded president, Harry Cohn, took a stand by backing a script for a big-budget Western, Arizona, assigning his newest star William Holden to the lead and pairing him with Jean Arthur. Cohn loved to gamble, and he raised the stakes by building an entire town just for the film’s production.
Construction of Old Tucson Studios began in 1939, when John Wayne’s Ringo Kid was exploding across movie screens for John Ford. Director Wesley Ruggles spent months crafting his epic. Released on Christmas Day, 1940, Arizona was an immediate hit. Old Tucson looked like a real place, without the false trappings so common to studio back lots. Like many towns of the Old West, it was isolated, with an encroaching desert and unforgiving winds beating it. Old Tucson felt right.
The studio’s struggle was as real as the town it represented. Labeled a “distant location,” the facility didn’t see Hollywood again until the non-Western The Bells of St. Mary’s, starring Bing Crosby. Production picked up in the 1940s, and then Old Tucson became a favorite site for John Wayne, Howard Hawks, John Sturges and, later, Clint Eastwood. Writer and director Burt Kennedy said that shooting there was “as comfortable as coming home.”
Production boomed as TV moved into the studio in the 1960s. Old Tucson was expanded into a theme park, with a natural focus on Western movies, and history, as part of the attractions. Who wouldn’t want to trod the same streets as did the Duke in Rio Bravo and McLintock!, Paul Newman in Hombre or Eastwood in Joe Kidd and The Outlaw Josey Wales?
I became aware of Old Tucson as a place you could actually visit when I saw Michael Winner’s Death Wish on TV and watched Charles Bronson’s character learn about gunfights at the Old Tucson stunt show. I finally made it to the studio in the early 1980s, getting the chance to admire John Wayne’s holster, before leisurely wandering the sets of Rio Lobo and The High Chaparral.
I was planning a return when the studio caught fire in 1995, destroying many sets and a great collection of props and memorabilia. Anyone who cared about Westerns felt a sense of loss.
Like the cowboys who had ridden there, Old Tucson was too tough to die. Resurrected with new buildings and streets, and a park expansion, the town is again a fully functional movie studio.
This year, Old Tucson is celebrating its 75th anniversary. “Old Tucson will feature a ‘story in pictures’ of the building of the original sets for Arizona,” Marketing Director Marie Demarais says. In March, the studio will host a reunion of the stunt performers who have bitten the dust there since the 1960s. Other events during the year include the Cowboy Music Festival, the Wild West Performing Arts Society Championships and Steampunk conventions.
The studio has seen a surge in activity, with independent productions such as Miracle at Sage Creek and Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink. The sequel to Hot Bath is shooting at Old Tucson and at its adjoining location, Mescal.
With The Homesman and Bone Tomahawk bringing back the crack of a Winchester and the thunder of hooves to the Western genre this year and the next, Old Tucson is the place where Hollywood should once again turn its cameras.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director with more than 25 produced movies to his credit. He is the author of The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.