Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The contribution of the Great Plains to the heritage of cinema is not limited to the nativeborn individuals such as Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando who made names for themselves in Hollywood. Not only was the Plains used for "location" filming in mainstream theatrical releases, newsreels, and documentaries, but the region was also home to many motion picture producers, both companies and individuals.

Motion picture technology was born in the 1890s in North America primarily through the work of Thomas Edison and his employees. The key was the invention of flexible photographic film, created by the Eastman Kodak Company for use in still cameras. Innovations abounded in the early years, but soon after the turn of the twentieth century the 35-mm film format was well established as a standard in America (by 1910, motion picture film was Kodak's best-selling product).

At the same time, motion pictures became an increasingly popular form of entertainment, and entrepreneurs were more than willing to exploit the trend. Public houses (particularly opera houses) were converted to accommodate movie projection, and new theaters were built. Pioneering Colorado filmmaker Harry Buckwalter described the situation in 1907: "The picture show business has developed into a most astonishing industry throughout the country. Everywhere it is flourishing. . . . It is the poor man's grand opera."

In 1915 the Omaha World-Herald, believing that the movies' influence on the public was significant, launched a weekly review page. By 1917 there were nearly 600 movie theaters throughout Nebraska, almost double the number of just a few years before. Motion picture projectors could be found in schools, churches, corporate offices, even in the state penitentiary and the State Hospital for the Insane. This scenario was played out in the rest of the Great Plains as well as throughout the United States.

All this activity was meant to accommodate the flood of films being produced both nationally and locally. In those early years, the large commercial film studios were located in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Los Angeles, all quite distant from the Great Plains. But the lure of the Plains was compelling for the fledgling motion picture industry, especially as a setting for that quintessential North American film genre, the Western. Studios like Selig Polyscope, American Biograph, Lubin, Universal, and Famous Players–Lasky all came to the Plains to take advantage of the broad landscape and the genuine pioneering qualities of the locals. Besides bringing Plains scenery to broad audiences, this cinematic activity served to encourage local filmmaking efforts. Photographers, film distributors, and investors set up independent businesses for the production of local motion picture projects, particularly during the 1910s and 1920s. This phenomenon was certainly not specific to the Great Plains; homegrown moviemaking was widespread throughout North America starting shortly after the turn of the century, fueled by the rapidly changing technology of motion picture production and by the great economic promise of the burgeoning motion picture industry. But the Great Plains more than kept abreast of this trend. Notable examples from the region were the Black Hills Feature Film Company (Nebraska), the 101 Bison Studio (Oklahoma), the Rocky Mountain Production Company (Wyoming), and the Jamieson Film Company (Texas), as well as independent filmmakers Harry Buckwalter (Colorado) and James Freer (Manitoba, Canada). Though many intended to capitalize on the Western theme (as did their larger and more famous counterparts), their productions ultimately ran the gamut of film genres, from fictional features, travelogues, and historical reenactments to industrial training, educational, and promotional films. In many cases, the people behind these ventures dreamed of widespread theatrical distribution, but most often their products enjoyed only a limited run within a relatively local geographic area.

In addition to these established production companies, the Great Plains was also home to independent itinerant movie producers who traveled throughout the region and filmed events, promotions, or short fictional pieces for a price. Such films were made in countless venues. They most often resulted in footage of a county fair or other local celebration or pageant (known as actuality footage), but some involved attempts at acting by local residents playing out roles from a prepackaged script (these latter productions are called local talent films).

Capturing the Great Plains on celluloid was limited to professionals only until 1923, when the 16-mm home movie film format was introduced (followed by the 8-mm format in 1932). This put the power of motion picture production in the hands of hobbyists and resulted in unique and voluminous film records of Plains life and culture. After World War II, the amateur 16-mm format gained professional status, leading to a flurry of motion picture production for use in educational, corporate, and recreational settings and in the new film delivery medium of television (the first local TV station within the Great Plains regional borders was WBAP-TV in Fort Worth, Texas; it went on the air on September 29, 1948). During this time, the production of promotional films, public service films, and educational films abounded, as did the capture of daily local events for television news broadcasts. This trend continues today, although celluloid film has been replaced with magnetic videotape.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Johnson, Noble; Micheaux, Oscar; Parks, Gordon.

Paul J. Eisloeffel Nebraska State Historical Society

Horne, G. S. "Interpreting Prairie Cinema." Prairie Forum 22 (1997): 135–51.

Jones, William. "Harry Buckwalter: Pioneer Colorado Filmmaker." Film History 4 (1990): 89–100.

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