Silent Films Intrigued & Occasionally Offended

W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, August 1995

Not long after the turn of the century motion pictures made their debut in Salt Lake City and rapidly became popular throughout the state. Utahns were not only enthusiastic patrons of the new art but were often the subject of movies during the silent film era. In addition, during the film industry’s infancy Utah businessmen even developed several motion picture companies for the production of films in local studios.

The first movie goers in Utah crowded into converted storefront showhouses that rapidly appeared along Main Street in the state capital. The situation was similar in rural Utah where in some small villages movie houses sometimes even preceded electricity. In Hurricane, Charles Petty, the manager of the local mercantile store, brought the latest entertainment craze to town in 1914, three years before the community was wired for electricity. He ran the projector from a gasoline motor that created a loud “putt, putt” sound heard all over Hurricane; residents flocked to the theater in response.

Before long the crude show halls began to be replaced by opulent theaters, especially in urban areas. In 1912 the American Theater, boasting a seating capacity of 3,000, opened on Main Street in Salt Lake City amid considerable fanfare. Regardless of the surroundings, however, audiences across the state delighted in the blunders of Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops or thrilled at the sight of Indians attacking wagon trains and shootouts in the Old West.

A surprising number of silent-film-era movies even featured stories about Utah. A Trip to Salt Lake City was the first effort to depict the state. A comedy built around the theme of polygamy, it portrayed the problems of a polygamist father and his many children. Most films about Utah had similar polygamous themes but were blatantly anti-Mormon in nature. Such titles as A Victim of the Mormons (1911), Marriage or Death (1912), Married to a Mormon (1922), and Trapped by the Mormons (1922) are illustrative. Some Utahns tried to fight back. Governor William Spry, for one, felt responsible for the film industry’s ridicule of his state and began a campaign to censor films entering Utah. His first attempt at censorship came after the release of A Victim of the Mormons. On February 4, 1912, Spry insisted that the title and content of the film be altered for the Utah audience. His demand was ignored, and the film was shown without alterations in Utah theaters that year. There were also some sympathetic depictions of the Mormons; perhaps the most important was a documentary titled One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913) that even received active cooperation from Mormon authorities.

While out-of-state producers continued to shoot pictures with Utah themes, several local entrepreneurs also decided to enter the popular industry. The Utah Theater Company began operations within the state in 1912, and the following year the Satchwa General Amusement Enterprises Company also opened. Satchwa completed its first major film, Big Heart, in 1914. A tale of Indian love and sacrifice, it premiered in Salt Lake City to rave reviews. Other Utah companies such as the Arrowhead Motion Picture Company and the Ogden Pictures Corporation came and went. In the end, limited financing and remoteness from Hollywood and New York proved too great a challenge for Utah filmmakers; most failed within a few years. Even without an in-state production studio, however, Utahns continued to enjoy the entertainment of the silver screen.

See Richard Nelson, “Utah Filmmakers of the Silent Screen,” Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (1975).