‘Marilyn Monroe Nearly Drowned,’ read the headline, tucked away in the entertainment pages of the Calgary Herald for August 14th, 1953. Monroe was on location in Jasper National Park for the filming of the 20th Century Fox blockbuster western, River of No Return, when she slipped and fell in the icy waters of the Maligne River. Although pulled to safety by her co-star Robert Mitchum – and a dozen other crew members who quickly rushed to her rescue – she suffered a badly sprained ankle.
The cast and crew had caused quite a stir when they first arrived in the tiny mountain town of Jasper on the 25th of July. Two thousand people, more than the population of the town itself, were on hand to greet the train when it arrived from Vancouver. Director Otto Preminger, when first arriving on location, made a complete circle, shook his head and said, “I guess it doesn’t really matter where I point the camera. We are absolutely surrounded by scenery.”
1953 wasn’t Hollywood’s first foray into using the Mountain Parks as a cinematic backdrop; filmmakers already had a long love affair with Banff and Jasper dating back to the 1920’s with one of the earliest movies being Cameron of the Royal Mounted, filmed in Banff and released in December of 1921. The film was produced by Canadian Ernest Shipman. A prolific filmmaker of his day, Shipman produced 12 movies between 1919 and 1922. It was at this time however that large Hollywood interests, supported by the U.S. State Department, began exerting control over foreign markets, vertically integrating the production, distribution and exhibition of films, effectively putting independent filmmakers out of business and ending a successful decade of domestic film making in Canada.
When production of River of No Return moved to Banff on the 16th of August, Marilyn was again injured while working on the Bow River, tearing ligaments in her ankle which left her confined to a wheelchair for the week. It was said that the bellhops employed at the Banff Springs Hotel would toss a coin to decide who would be lucky enough to wheel her around the corridors that day. If the movie was hard on its lead, it was also hard on equipment – three of four identical, 3500 lb wooden rafts, were lost to the rocks and rapids of the Maligne, Snake Indian, and Bow Rivers – one being sent over Bow Falls in the final scenes of the film.
1953 had certainly been a banner year for Hollywood filming in the Canadian Rockies, helped in part by the creation of the Canadian Cooperative Project (CCP), brought in by the St. Laurent government in 1948. Instead of a tariffs on American films distributed in Canada (an idea being floated at the time), Hollywood would spend more money in Canada making films and thereby promoting Canadian tourism and Canadiana. MGM filmed parts of their remake of the 1936, Rose Marie, on the Maligne River; Universal filmed The Far Country, which had Jimmy Stewart and Walter Brennan leading a cattle train of long horns over the Athabasca Glacier to the gold fields of the ‘Klondike,’ and Saskatchewan starring Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters. Although Saskatchewan takes place in 1877 on the tumultuous Canadian plains, with the North West Mounted Police keeping the peace between Sitting Bull’s Sioux and the U.S. Cavalry, the Director felt the Rocky Mountains offered more dramatic scenery. The movie was filmed in Banff and Yoho; many scenes being shot at Bow Lake and a replica fort built at the abandoned coal mining town of Bankhead, 6 km outside of Banff. A common complaint with many of the Hollywood films of the era was the inaccurate portrayal of Canadian history along with promotion of Canadian stereotypes.
1926 marked Fox Studios first project in the Mountain Parks with, The Country Beyond starring the raven-haired, silent film star, Olive Borden. Jasper outfitter Major Fred Brewster was there at the train station to meet the cast and crew with a pack train of 98 horses. It was a two day trip up to Maligne Lake where filming was to take place. Under Suspicion, another Fox picture, released in 1930, was the first out of doors sound picture filmed in Canada. Once again it featured a Mountie, a damsel in distress and a few requisite musical numbers. Filming in the Parks picked up again in the 1940’s featuring several films, most notably, MGM’s The Son of Lassie (1945) filmed around Lake Louise and The Emperor Waltz with a lederhosen wearing Bing Crosby on hand in Jasper during the summer of 1946. Paramount Pictures had invested three million dollars into the film, with the stunning Jasper landscapes standing in for the Austrian Alps of the Tyrol.
By the 1960’s however, although scenes from the Mountain Parks continued to be featured, including mountain scenes from the Lake Louise area in 1965’s Dr. Zhivago, it seemed that the golden age of Hollywood features being filmed in the Parks had come to pass. There were higher production costs due to fewer government incentives (The CCP had been repealed in 1958), the distances to travel were great, stricter National Parks regulations had come into place and audiences were growing weary of mountain scenery.
Artist and Filmmaker Wendy Wacko now runs Mountain Galleries, out of Jasper Park Lodge, a studio supporting Canadian landscape painters. During the 1970’s and 80’s however she was heavily involved in the film industry, producing seven film productions, three of which were filmed in the Rockies and the Jasper area; Challenge: The Canadian Rockies (1981), Striker’s Mountain (1985), and The Climb (1986). Challenge was a documentary of outdoor pursuits in the Canadian Rockies, and although now in favour of very strict policies with regards to protection of the environment, Wendy admits that at the time they were probably the last people to use helicopter assist for filming in the Parks, establishing a camp for 30 people at the base of Snowdome on the Columbia Icefields. Even a few years later it was easier to film many of the alpine shots for Striker’s Mountain, west of the Park in Valemont, BC, and alpine scenes for The Climb were actually shot in the Himalaya. She concedes that the days of feature length films being filmed inside the national parks are long gone, “Parks Canada is very protective of any kind of unusual activity that might disrupt wildlife or landscapes.”
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the Mountain Parks continued to be featured in Hollywood movies but never to the extent as before. From blockbusters such as 1978’s Superman to other lesser known films like the 1979 made for TV movie, Ski Lift to Death. Although filming within Banff and Jasper has become prohibitive, as Wendy concludes, ‘‘There are enough gorgeous landscapes that surround the National Parks.” Areas like the Stoney reserve at Morley, which featured prominently in 1970’s, Little Big Man, and in 1994’s, Legends of the Fall. The surrounding areas of Canmore and Kananaskis have also gained popularity in recent years with The Edge (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), and Inception (2010) being filmed here. With Fox’s The Revenant recently taking home Oscar’s for Cinematography and Best Actor (leading man Leonardo Dicaprio), the Canadian Rockies reputation as a film destination has only been heightened.
When River of No Return was released in April of 1954 it was an immediate box office sensation, in the days when a movie cost 75¢ and a matinee 50¢. Marilyn was fondly remembered by the townspeople of Jasper and Banff as being very accommodating and always taking time for autographs and pictures. It was no secret though that Marilyn had issues with the studio and autocratic director, Preminger. She would later remark in an interview that she felt she deserved a better deal, “…than a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery.” Even Marilyn Monroe had found it difficult to compete with the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies.
Written By: Mike Donnelly (Independent Historian)
Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives
Calgary Herald. August 14, 1953. Calgary, Alberta.
Crag and Canyon. Friday, September 3rd, 1954. Banff, Alberta.
Edwardson, Ryan. Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
Jarvie, Ian. Hollywood’s Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920–1950. (Toronto, York University. Cambridge University Press, 1992)
Spoto, Donald. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1993).