When I think back to movies I have loved and were filmed at least partially in Oklahoma, “Grapes of Wrath” always comes to mind. Filmed in 1940 in Sayre and McAlester, it brought to life the Great Depression, which had a great influence on my boyhood and my approach to hard work and life.
I also recall memorable scenes from “Around the World in Eighty Days,” (Lawton, 1956); “Dillinger” (Enid, Nash and Oklahoma City, 1973) and “Twister” (Waurika, Wakita, Ponca City, Pauls Valley, Norman, Maysville and Guthrie, 1996).
Now, the Oklahoma History Center, in conjunction with Tulsa-based OKPOP, is presenting “Oklahoma @the Movies,” a dramatic 8,000-square-foot exhibit that features Oklahoma's role in filming movies.
Oklahoma has hosted the production of upward of 73 movies from “The Daughter of Dawn,” filmed in 1920 in the Wichita Mountains, to “August: Osage County” (Pawhuska and Bartlesville, 2012), according to Jill Simpson, director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office. The locations include 35 Oklahoma cities and towns.
“Encouraging people to visit Oklahoma sites where movies have been made accomplishes two goals,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “It promotes tourism and the shared memory of movies to open doors to history for a wide range of people from all parts of the world.”
The History Center exhibit also explores films about cowboys and westerns, American Indians and Hollywood, African American movies filmed in Oklahoma, the film industry in Oklahoma and the “Oklahoma image” on screen, said Larry O'Dell of the Oklahoma Historical Society staff.
“Oklahoma's vast number of actors provides the magic of the ‘on screen' section of the exhibit,” said O'Dell. “These range from early cinema heroes such as Tom Mix and Will Rogers to current stars, who tell hundreds of stories.”
Many of the most important movies produced in Oklahoma were shot in the Tulsa area, said John Wooley, who wrote “Shot in Oklahoma.” His book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, was named Outstanding Book on Oklahoma History for 2011 by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Wooley pointed to a trio of movies made in Tulsa from books by S.E. Hinton of Tulsa during the early 1980s. These included “Tex,” (1982), “The Outsiders” (1983) and “Rumble Fish” (1983). Matt Dillon starred in all three movies. Also starring in “The Outsiders” were C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise — young actors who went on to “considerable fame,” Wooley said.
Two years later, Tulsa was the site of “Blood Cult,” a low-budget revolutionary film made for less than $30,000 and the first feature movie to go directly to home video.
“Among the smaller communities, Guthrie has been Oklahoma's most popular location,” said Jill Simpson. “It has been described as resembling a studio back lot because of movies filmed there, including ‘Rain Man' (1988), ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys' (1991) and ‘Twister' (1996), to name a few.”
Wooley also pointed to significant movies filmed in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge area of southwestern Oklahoma. The first was “The Daughter of Dawn,” filmed in 1920 by Norbert Myles and the first full-length movie to feature an all American Indian cast. Pivotal roles were played by members of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, including White and Wanda Parker, son and daughter of Comanche chief Quanah Parker.
The Oklahoma Historical Society acquired five reels of the unedited film in 2007. The film was preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, and the OHS subsequently commissioned a score to be written by Comanche composer David Yeagley. During the spring of 2012, the faculty and students from Oklahoma City University's Wanda L. Bass School of Music recorded Yeagley's score. The movie is being prepared to hit the film festival circuit in 2013. Interest in the film has come from all over the world.
During the 1940s, “Prince of Peace” was shot outside of Lawton as an enhanced filming of the Lawton passion play, which had been held in the Wichitas since 1926. The movie was played in churches and other venues, but eventually the filmmakers added Hollywood footage, created a wraparound melodrama and called it “The Lawton Story.”
Other movies shot at least partially in the Wichitas included “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Charge of the Model T's” (1979).
Visitors to the “Oklahoma @ the Movies” exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City can find Oklahoma sites where more than 70 movies were filmed, opening special “doors to history” of Oklahoma.
Max Nichols writes a monthly column for the Oklahoma Historical Society.