Old Tucson: Studio and Location, Geography and Film Historiography

Drone image of Old Tucson, courtesy of the authors

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, dozens of Hollywood productions traveled to Old Tucson Studios, an isolated production facility a few miles past the outskirts of Tucson, largely to shoot Westerns. Why journey 500 miles away, at considerable expense, to film a genre that thrived on the back lots and surrounding wilderness of Southern California? Picturesque Western landscapes helped draw the major studios from the East to the West Coast in the early years of the 20th century.1Brian Jacobson, Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, New York: Columbia University Press, 188. Moreover, every major studio had a Western street on their back lot, as well as movie ranches to supplement studio setups with realistic landscapes. Old Tucson’s rise to prominence paralleled Hollywood’s postwar shift to more extensive location shooting, which pushed filmmakers far beyond the well-trodden locations of Southern California and normalized the process of seeking specific or unfamiliar backgrounds over generic, locally available sites. Tucson offered an exceptional range of western landscapes in a concentrated area that radiated from a professional back lot with a variety of large, western standing sets. Rather than painted backdrops, mountain ranges loomed between the makeshift buildings, and the thirty-mile zone surrounding Old Tucson Studios offered an array of sites to suit nearly every Western topos, from the rocky outcroppings of Winchester ’73 (1950) to the dense forests of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). These unmistakable landscapes connote the expansiveness of the frontier, but in actuality, they constitute a discrete set of backgrounds that recur throughout the genre, as location managers guided filmmakers towards familiar sites that efficiently met their aesthetic goals.

Location map for Monte Walsh (1970)

This relatively tight cluster of locations, as well as unique access to a largely intact back lot, will allow us to draw a detailed map of a critical site in the construction and reinforcement of the Western imagery. Relying on Old Tucson’s internal archives and local historians, as well as production files from studio holdings in external archives, we are building a comprehensive and geographically precise data set of locations used by the myriad productions shot at Old Tucson. Along with writing traditional research papers, we plan to build an array of visualizations to chart the course of both individual productions and the overall use of the Southern Arizona landscape on film and television. We hope to later broaden this project to encompass location shooting throughout the American West, including a publicly-available map and interface.

Yet as we accumulate a wealth of information, we face the hardest task of interdisciplinary research–how do we productively combine approaches from geography and film history without diluting our findings or splintering our results towards our respective fields? Our forthcoming posts lay out our distinctive methodologies and their applicability to Old Tucson. In the next issue of Mediapolis, we plan to discuss how these different fields can best be reconciled. As a preface, we would like to introduce some of the profound geographical and cinematic strata that underlay this complex site and region.

Old Tucson is located in the northern extent of the Sonoran Desert, one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. Here, one can find mountains approaching 10,000 feet in elevation skirted by bajadas, or broad alluvial fans, as well as box canyons, slot canyons, and isolated riparian biomes. Nestled within these features is Tucson, one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in North America, which is embedded in the mythos of the “Old West,” a diverse cultural landscape of cattle ranching, mining, Eastern settlers, Spanish missions, and Native American tribes. With this geographic and historical backdrop, it is no wonder that Old Tucson became a production facility that helped define the Western film genre.

Old Tucson is difficult to categorize as a filmmaking site. The official letterhead from its heyday of Western filmmaking reflects its unique history and geographical imaginary, reading, “Old Tucson: Motion Picture Locations and Sound Stage Since 1938.” This name represents a conundrum to film historians, according to whom “location shooting has been almost exclusively defined in opposition to studio filmmaking.”2Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb Eds., Hollywood on Location: An Industry History, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019, 1. Old Tucson represents neither a Hollywood-based studio nor a shooting location but instead represents both a studio and collective of shooting locations. Old Tucson can be better understood as a central hub for a collection of places, including three developed backlots at distinct locations, and as the operational center for the routinized production practices that occur on these ancillary sites. These backlots include the central facility, an 80-acre Western ghost town in Mescal and the destroyed ‘Slash-Y’ facility at Empire Ranch, now a part of the Los Cienegas National Conservation Area located just north of the town of Sonoita. Finally, Old Tucson, unlike other Western production nodes, flourished as a theme park, where Hollywood productions served as a minor source of income that led to new construction and rabid interest (and roughly 90% of studio profits) from tourists, eager to glimpse a star on set or at the very least, to walk the same streets that icons like John Wayne had walked onscreen. In conclusion, Old Tucson’s geography and cinematic practices are multi-faceted and inherently intertwined.3Old Tucson Development Company Stockholders Documents, Arizona Historical Society

 

The authors wish to thank Old Tucson Studios for graciously providing regular access to their archive and facilities, as well as generous assistance.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Brian Jacobson, Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, New York: Columbia University Press, 188.
2. Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb Eds., Hollywood on Location: An Industry History, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019, 1.
3. Old Tucson Development Company Stockholders Documents, Arizona Historical Society

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