John Wayne is credited as saying, “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.” Romanticized images of those rugged buttes, and dramatic monoliths still weave their charm today, enticing both tourists and movie makers into Navajo Country.
Dozens of movies, documentaries, and TV shows have been made in San Juan County’s iconic monolithic paradise. However, when movies were first made in San Juan, it was seen as an economic opportunity for locals, not as a creative adventure.
Although many movies have been filmed in the area since the 1930s and 40s, most locals and visitors claim Monument Valley belongs to only one Hollywood actor, John Wayne.
The “Duke” made five movies here in his lifetime, Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956).
Credit for this economic coupe goes to Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding, who helped to popularize Monument Valley as a destination for both tourists and film making.
In 1938, Harry was able to convince Director John Ford to “go East” to Utah to film the real West. Ford struck gold when he matched up fledging new actor John Wayne in a series of western hits all set in Monument Valley.
In the process, he provided jobs for Native and Anglo residents alike as extras on the set. The Great Depression hit many parts of rural America hard, and San Juan County and Monument Valley were no exception. Good paying jobs were hard to come by.
However, as a movie extra, they could earn anywhere from $5 to $20 a day, which was great money in the days of poverty.
Robert McPherson’s article on“Navajos and the Film Industry in Monument Valley, 1930-64, provides insight into the impact of this new industry in SE Utah (see issue 39, Blue Mountain Shadows).
John Ford was liked by the Navajos, as he treated them well and relied on their skills and horsemanship.
Anglo and Navajo extras alike soon fell into a friendly comradery at the movie camps.
“In the evening, people gathered around the worker’s tents... They sang songs in English and Navajo, played cards, and ate together… Gambling was a prominent pastime, and the men’s prowess in feats of strength and skill were always a welcomed addition,” observes McPherson.
The role of Navajo Medicine Man Hosteen Tso was especially important on the movie site, as he was believed to have special powers, and even control, over the elements. Ford relied on him often.
Navajo and Anglo alike had direct interaction with John Wayne. Lucy Harris, a beloved Blanding performer, worked as an extra, along with her sister Josephine Bayles.
“One evening, they challenged the professional actors to a competition of sorts – an impromptu talent show with both local and Hollywood groups performing.
“Lucy and Jo composed a special number for John Ford and John Wayne. Then Lucy gave a hilarious reading called ‘Herbeda’ which was a hit of the evening.” (Jean Bayles, Blue Mountain Shadows #2)
The Gouldings were not only promoters of filmmaking, but also saw the importance of preserving the history of the area.
Goulding’s Trading Post Museum continues to feature films and memorabilia from southern San Juan County.
Recently, photos taken at the Goulding’s museum were posted on Blanding Historic Photos. Descendants of “extras” in those early movies were quick to recall family participation.
Lyle Roper wrote, “Paul J. Black was in the movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”
Deb Allen added, “Grandpa Black shared a steak with John Wayne at dinner one night. He didn’t want it, so ‘The Duke’ reached over and speared it off his plate!”
Valarie Turk’s grandmother, Nellie Jane Johnson Harvey, was also an extra in it, as was Jean Laws Pehrson’s dad, Wilbur Laws.
Paul Brown was able to find a journal entry his father Aroe wrote in the fall of 1948: “I got on as a Cavalryman in a show they were filming in Monument Valley. We stayed in Army tents with butane heaters.
“They warmed the tents about as good as a pilot light in a refrigerator! It snowed about six inches and got very cold. We finished filming the movie on November 12.”
Clint Palmer and his sister Becky recalled that their grandfather, Ervin Palmer, had a cameo of sorts in She wore a Yellow Ribbon when he was called by name in a scene at the burned-out fort.
Ron Eberling confirmed that the blond girl in this photo showing Ervin is LaRue Helquist Barton Kirkham.
Sallee Shumway remembered her father DeVar was also in that movie. Kirk Nielson, along with Milt Nielson, John Rogers, and Dick Butt, are featured in one of the photos accompanying a Deseret News story from 1949.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon called in the talents of many San Juan residents, including Phillip Palmer, Lloyd Bayles, Laverne Tate, Marilyn Lyman, and others.
LaVerne recalls that she earned $20.25 for her work as an extra, “which was pretty good wages for an eight-year-old at that time.”
Later movies involved Clea Johnson, who was Piper Laurie’s “second” in the river scene in Smoke Signal. Rusty Musselman provided many of the props, as well as livestock for the movies. The list of locals participating could go on and on.
Perhaps one reason for the large number of Blanding residents participating as extras was that Bishop Ervin Palmer was a sort of a middle man soliciting extras for John Ford.
He announced in a sacrament meeting one Sunday, “John Ford asked me to express his appreciation to all who signed the paper this morning indicating their interest in participating in My Darling Clementine. He said to tell you, that you are all hired. You are to be at Goulding’s Trading Post next Saturday.” (Gary Shumway memory)
Many years later as a Cal State University professor, Dr. Shumway returned to San Juan County with his students, and interviewed county residents about their memories related to the movies as part of an extensive oral history project done in southeast Utah in the 1970s.
Dave Guymon’s memories of the experience were both positive yet tragic.
In his personal history he shared, “In 1940, my wife Freeda was expecting another baby. I had been out of work for quite a while, and we were really excited when I finally found a job in Monument Valley at Goulding’s in the movie Kit Carson.
“John Ford came out of Hollywood to direct it. He hired a bunch of what he called “greenhorn” fellows to help. We had a cavalry of close to 50 men on horses.”
The very day Dave left for Monument Valley, his wife, Freeda, went into labor.
“It was a long hard ordeal for everyone, as it was a breech birth. Finally, the baby came, but he only lived a few minutes. The day was May 23, 1940.
“We named the baby Clark Perkins, and even with the help of Myrtle Palmer the local midwife, the baby did not live.” (There was no phone service in those days to call him.)
“Because this was the first work I had had for a long time, Freeda and my parents decided not to even send for me to come home. Glen Johnson made a little casket for the baby, and a small service was held at my parent’s home, and our little son was laid to rest at the cemetery right next to our little son, Leonard.”
Despite this personal sorrow, the chance to have a job that paid cash was a blessing. At the time of the filming of Kit Carson, Dave recalled that Harry Goulding owned a really pretty, but mean, horse named Old Leo that they wanted to use in the movie.
“He told me if I could break that horse, he would give me my pick of a set of indian jewelry,” said Dave.
He accepted the challenge saying, “That is where I got Freeda’s first squash blossom necklace and a matching bracelet and ring. In addition to that, I received room and board and $5 a day working at the movie.”
By the time the movie finished, Dave considered they were squared up, money wise.
Dave also had the opportunity to be in the movie Billy the Kid. He then switched to the other side of the camera, and worked in Monument Valley with the San Juan County road equipment helping to build roads.
It was when they were filming Sergeant Rutledge and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring Linda Darnell. Over 260 miles of road were either constructed or improved during this time. Most of the work was done by local laborers. Movies had a powerful economic impact in many ways.
Issue #39 of Blue Mountain Shadows has more than a dozen well researched articles describing events, movies, and personalities involved in those early San Juan County films.
There is also a good chance that one of your relatives or friends may show up in the photographs showcasing San Juan’s first movie stars.
A limited number of copies of this issue are now available at local businesses for $10.