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BEFORE SUNDANCE, 41 YEARS AGO

     

Robert Redford, left, and Sterling Van Wagenen, circa 1978. Redford was on the board of the Utah/US Film Festival while Van Wagenen was one of the driving forces behind mounting the event, and later helped Redford found the Sundance Institute.

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the 2019 Sundance Film Festival gears up (it begins Jan. 24), let's look back at its beginnings. Utah’s first major film festival was held in Salt Lake City during summer 1977 as part of the nationwide celebration of the country’s bicentennial. Out of that sprang the Utah/US Film Festival, which was held in Salt Lake City, Sept. 6-12, 1978, and was composed primarily of old classic movies. But there was one unique element, an independent-film competition with six low-budget American movies judged by a panel of cinema professionals. The second Utah/US Film Festival shifted to late October 1979 and again featured many vintage classics on Salt Lake theater screens, along with five “regional cinema” independents to be judged by a professional panel. So, I’m using this space for the next three weeks to highlight some of my stories about that gestating period, which would eventually lead to what we now know as the Sundance Film Festival. I was a city desk reporter, not yet the full-time film critic at the Deseret News (although I was freelancing occasional reviews to the entertainment section), but because of my interest in all things celluloid I was allowed to write about some of the events. This story was published Sept. 6, 1978, under the headline, ‘Fest focuses on film history.’ (This link is to my story about the results of the competition that first year, filed under ‘Sundance 1978-98’ at the top of this page.)

A lot of history and lore of the movie industry will be represented in films to be shown during the Utah-US Film Festival, which opened at Trolley Corners today.

Names of some of Hollywood’s outstanding pioneer personalities appear as stars, directors or producers of pictures to be shown during the festival, which continues through Sept. 12.

For instance, the late John Ford is represented in eight of his own productions to be shown during the festival and a John Ford Medallion dinner is scheduled. Ford also will be remembered through two special retrospectives, “Directed by John Ford,” and “On Working With John Ford,” scheduled at 4 and 5:30 p.m. Sept. 11. Admission to these films will be free.

The John Ford movies to be shown with admission prices will be “The Searchers,” “The Quiet Man,” “Stagecoach” and “My Darling Clementine.” Ford has been selected for the tribute because “he best represented the U.S. story in his films,” according to festival directors. John Wayne, who starred in many Ford movies, will receive the Ford medallion. Wayne has been invited to be on hand for the festival, but so far has had to decline.

     

The John Ford Medallion was an award at the first Utah/US Film Festival in 1978.

Some pioneers in the industry, represented with films in the Festival, are still living. One is Allan Dwan, now 93 and living in the Hollywood Motion Picture Home. He directed “Sands of Iwo Jima” back in 1949. It starred John Wayne and Forrest Tucker. Dwan is noted for many camera innovations such as the dolly shot.

Another film from a still-living pioneer is “True Grit.” It was made in 1969 by Henry Hathaway and won an Oscar for Wayne. Now in his 80s, Hathaway has been around longer than most of the others. He started as a child movie actor in 1908 in San Diego. The first movie lot in Hollywood came into existence in 1911, and Hathaway moved to Hollywood and continued acting and later went into directing and producing.

Still another legendary figure of the business who is still alive and will be represented at the Festival is Raoul Walsh, who started as an actor in “Birth of A Nation,” which was made in 1915 and which will be shown at the Festival.

Walsh has been familiar because he wears an eye patch. He was scheduled to both direct and star in “In Old Arizona” in 1928. On location at night, he swerved his car to avoid hitting a rabbit, and lost an eye in the mishap.

Walsh is given credit for discovering John Wayne. Walsh took the Duke from the University of Southern California football team and put him in “The Big Trail,” which started Wayne on the road to his big career.

Another pioneer in the movie industry is Jack L. Warner, actually a frustrated comic. He took over Warner Bros. Studio in 1918 and the next year Rin Tin Tin bit the seat out of Jack’s pants. Jack fired the original dog and made a star of the canine’s son. Several Warner pictures will be presented in the Festival.

Howard Hawks, another pioneer of the industry who died only last year, will be represented in “Rio Bravo,” which he directed in 1969, and “Red River,” which he made in 1948.

     

Lillian Gish, center, with Lionel Barrymore in 'The New York Hat' (1912), a D.W. Griffith short.

And Lillian Gish, who has returned to acting, stars in “Birth of a Nation” and “The New York Hat,” which are on the schedule. The latter also stars Mary Pickford, a recluse in Hollywood. Miss Gish was the greatest star of D.W. Griffith, who made “Birth of a Nation.”

And, of course, the Festival will feature the oldest youngster in movies with a special two-hour tribute. He’s Mickey Mouse, who was involved in many pioneer features in the world of animation. He turns 50 this year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Wayne was not able to accept his award, since, as we now know, he was battling cancer at the time. He died 18 months later. During the run of the festival the medallion was accepted on Wayne’s behalf by filmmaker/actor/author Peter Bogdanovich. There was no film festival in 1980 but in January 1981 “The Third Annual Festival for American Film,” as the program referred to it, changed its name to the United States Film and Video Festival and made its Park City debut. The Sundance Institute was founded in 1979 and took over the festival in 1984, though the ‘Sundance’ moniker would not become part of the festival’s name until 1990.