LIGHTS, CAMERA, JASPER
Remembering Hollywood's love affair with the Canadian Rockies By Mike Donnelly
The tagline on the 1954 movie poster certainly painted a dramatic picture, but during the filming of the Hollywood production River of No Return, there was plenty of drama off camera, too.
As the Calgary Herald noted on August 14, 1953, ‘Marilyn Monroe Nearly Drowned.’ Wearing high rubber waders to protect her costume, Monroe had slipped and fallen in the Maligne River, the waders quickly filling with water. Although she was pulled to safety by her co-star Robert Mitchum, Monroe suffered a badly sprained ankle. Several other cast and crew were sidelined at times due to exposure to the icy waters, and of four identical, 3,500 pound wooden rafts that had been constructed for the film, three were wrecked by rocks and rapids.
When Monroe pulled into Jasper on July 25 for the filming of 20th Century Fox’s blockbuster western, she caused quite a stir. Two thousand people were on hand to greet her train when it arrived from Vancouver. Two weeks later, another celebrity would arrive for a visit: newly retired, star Yankee outfielder Joe DiMaggio, with whom Marilyn would eventually elope. While Marilyn was busy on set, DiMaggio was resigned to spending his days fishing the local rivers and lakes.
Arriving on location at Devona Flats, 30 km east of town, River of No Return director Otto Preminger decided that he would be hard pressed to shoot a bad reel of film.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter where I point the camera,” he said. “We are absolutely surrounded by scenery.”
It wasn’t Hollywood’s first foray into using the Rockies as a cinematic backdrop. Filmmakers had a love affair with the Canadian Mountain Parks that dated back to the 1920s. Prior to the filming of River of No Return, 18 feature films had been made in the Rockies, beginning in 1921 with Snowblind, filmed in Jasper, and Canadian Ernest Shipman’s Cameron of the Royal Mounted, filmed in Banff.
The Fox Film Corporation’s first project in the mountain parks was in 1926 with the silent film The Country Beyond, starring the raven-haired beauty, Olive Borden. Jasper outfitter Major Fred Brewster, along with a pack train of 98 horses, was on hand at the train station to meet the cast and crew. It was a two day trip up to Maligne Lake where filming was to take place. Much earlier in the project, while looking for a location to film, a silver-embossed booklet advertising Jasper National Park had caught the eye of the assistant director as he passed the Los Angeles office of Canadian National Railways. It was serendipitous because The Country Beyond’s writer, American adventure author Oliver James Curwood, had based many of his tales on his experiences in the Jasper area with the Otto Brothers (Jack, Closson, and Bruce).
Following the Depression and the Second World War, the 1940s brought Hollywood back to Jasper.
A lederhosen-clad Bing Crosby was on hand for three weeks in the summer of 1946 filming The Emperor Waltz. Paramount Pictures had invested $3 million into the Technicolor film, with the stunning Jasper landscapes standing in for the Austrian Alps. The main ballroom and grounds of the Lodge were used for rehearsals and came alive with the sounds of yodellers and scenes of colourful alpine dances. It’s safe to say that Bing was as enamoured with the townspeople of Jasper as they were of him. He organized a ball game between the Paramount crew and locals, performed for the Lodge staff in their recreation hall, and was elected Honorary President of the Maligne River Anglers Association for his prowess at catching trout with a fly rod. He would even return the following summer, entering in and winning the amateur Totem Pole Golf Tournament at the Jasper Park Lodge golf course. Crosby also donated money towards the construction of the new Legion hall in town and was on hand in 1949, seated in a large bulldozer, to ceremonially turn the first sod.
Many of Jasper’s famous vistas caught the notice of Hollywood cameras. MGM filmed parts of their remake of the 1936 Rose Marie on the Maligne River, and Universal filmed The Far Country, which saw Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan leading a cattle train of steers over the Athabasca Glacier to the gold fields of the “Klondike.” Parts of the movie were also filmed at Moberly Flats and near Mount Edith Cavell.
By 1953, Jasper, in particular, had become one of the favoured film locations in North America, but by the 1960s, it seemed that the golden age of Hollywood features filmed in the parks had come to pass. There were higher production costs due to fewer government incentives, the distances to travel were great, stricter national park regulations had come into place, and it seemed that audiences were growing weary of mountain scenery. The National Film Board of Canada, however, made a short film in 1964 featuring Buster Keaton, the legendary Vaudeville comedian and pre-eminent star of the silent screen. He passed through Jasper in the fall of that year on a yellow railway speeder car wearing a baggy suit, a pork pie hat and his trademark deadpan expression. The film was a comedic travelogue paying homage to the silent film era of the 1920s.
Artist and filmmaker Wendy Wacko runs Mountain Galleries out of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. During the 1970s and 80s, however, Wacko was heavily involved in the film industry, producing seven features, three of which were filmed in the Rockies and the Jasper area: Challenge: The Canadian Rockies (1981); Striker’s Mountain (1985) starring Leslie Nielson; and The Climb (1986). Challenge was a documentary of outdoor pursuits but soon after filming wrapped, park regulations clamped down. Many of the alpine shots for Striker’s Mountain were shot west of the park in Valemount, and scenes for The Climb were filmed in the Himalaya. Wacko suggests that the days of feature length films being shot inside the national parks are long gone.
“Parks Canada is very protective of any kind of unusual activity that might disrupt wildlife or landscapes,” she said.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the mountain parks continued to be showcased in films, but never to the extent as before. Still, blockbusters such as 1978’s Superman showcased scenes from the Columbia Icefields and the lesser-known Hong Kong production, Shanghai Express, used Marmot Basin as a snowy Siberian backdrop for the film’s opening scenes. Longtime locals will remember the giant styrofoam snowball that found its way into Marmot’s end-of-season celebrations. The Dummy Downhill prop shows up in the first five minutes of the spaghetti-western-meets-kung-fu flick.
When River of No Return was released in April of 1954, it was an immediate box office sensation. In those days a movie cost 75 cents, and a matinee $0.50. Marilyn was fondly remembered by the townspeople of Jasper as being very accommodating, always taking time for autographs and pictures. It was no secret, however, that there were issues between the studio and Preminger, the allegedly autocratic director. Monroe would later remark in an interview that she felt she should have got a better deal than what she got in River of No Return.
She figured she deserved better “…than a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery.”
Apparently, even Marilyn Monroe had found it difficult to compete with the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies.