A Stunning Backdrop: Revisiting Marilyn in Alberta

River of No Return is featured in a new book about the history of filmmaking in Alberta, Canada, the Calgary Herald reports. (Incidentally, another movie was being made nearby when Marilyn came to Jasper in the summer of 1953. Saskatchewan starred her friend Shelley Winters, who took time out to visit Marilyn on location. And back in 1948, Marilyn had attended the Hollywood premiere of Billy Wilder’s The Emperor Waltz, a film also made in Alberta. )

“In 2015 and 2016, Calgary film historian Mary Graham would regularly get together with 12 elders from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation for movie nights at the resort and casino on the Morley reserve.

The screenings were part of the Stoney Nakoda Film Project, an ongoing collaboration between the writer and elders to uncover and document the history of the Stoney Nakoda’s involvement in Alberta’s film history. But they also were a part of the exhaustive general research Graham was doing at the time for her recently published book, A Stunning Backdrop: Alberta In the Movies, 1917-1960.

Graham began researching the book 12 years ago and it wasn’t long before she realized that the Stoney Nakoda’s involvement in Alberta’s early film industry had largely been untold. The first film to be shot in Alberta, for instance, was 1917’s Until They Get Me … A Stunning Backdrop, released Oct. 31 on the University of Calgary’s Big Horn Books imprint, is not exclusively about the Stoney Nakoda and their involvement in the history of Alberta film. But it became a pivotal part of the story and just one aspect of Alberta film history that had not been properly documented.

Graham’s original idea was to simply create a book that showcased some of the landscapes used in those early films. But the more she researched, the more she realized that Alberta’s film history was rich and inextricably linked to the history of cinema in general. These days, the province is largely associated with films of the past 30 years, including 1992’s Unforgiven, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2015’s The Revenant. Graham said she had assumed the early days were made up of ‘B-westerns and low-budget movies.’ But she soon realised that a number of pioneering, important American filmmakers had shot here, often very early in their careers.

The subject was so complex that Graham decided that it would have to be divided into two volumes, one that covered the early days until 1960 and one that covered the industry from 1960 until today. The first volume was the result of a deep-dive into research that took Graham everywhere from UCLA’s film archives to The Library of Congress and Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy Awards in Beverly Hills, to the town archives of Jasper, High River and Brooks, among others.

Alberta’s pre-1960 history includes Billy Wilder shooting 1948’s The Emperor Waltz with Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine in Jasper and along the Icefields Parkway; Otto Preminger bringing Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum to Snake Indian River and the Morley reserve for River of No Return; Anthony Mann filming Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan for 1954’s The Far Country in Jasper and the Columbia Icefields, and Raoul Walsh shooting Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters at Bow Lake and Jasper for the film Saskatchewan. John Ford even filmed a part of his 1956 classic The Searchers at Elk Island National Park.

But Graham’s book goes back much further, showing how film pioneers became enamoured with and were early proponents of Alberta’s cinematic landscapes … ‘I hope (readers) can get a full picture of the (Alberta) film industry and realize how important it is,’ Graham says. ‘It’s probably the most historic in Canada, the most historically valuable. I certainly don’t think anybody else had these directors and this activity going on.'”

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