‘And … Action … in Arkansas!’ State’s film industry grows through the years

April 2-8, 2018

By Jay Edwards


It was way back in 1926 that movie production crews first made their way into Arkansas, to Helena, where they would shoot scenes for Harry Pollard’s silent film, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” They came to capture images aboard a magnificent riverboat named the Kate Adams, known more fondly to her local admirers as, “The Lovin’ Kate.”


Most of the movie was filmed in Natchez and after finishing her scenes, Kate paddled back up the Mississippi, to her usual spot at the Memphis port between Arkansas and Tennessee. Tragically, it was there, on the night of January 8, 1927, that Kate caught fire, and by morning there was nothing left but her charred steel hull. Sounding straight from a movie, a local reporter mourned with his pen, “Sole survivor of the elegance, the beauty, and the romance of a hundred years in the history of the western waters, the steamer Kate Adams, third of her illustrious line, has cleared the Memphis landing for all time.” Investigators never found a cause for the blaze.


“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was made for the very large sum, in those days, of $2,000,000, didn’t come close to making a profit, partly because 1927 was a year of strong competition, with classics like Best Picture winner, “Wings,” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” But those three together could not match the gate receipts of the country’s first real “talkie,” – “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, which brought in over $7,500,000.


A decade later, filmmaker Pare Lorentz brought cameras back to the east Arkansas area of the Mississippi for his documentary, “The River,” which gives an excellent history of the exploitation of the Mississippi River Valley, and talks about the great  floods of 1937, mentioning Helena and Blytheville. As good as it was however, anti-Roosevelt politics kept it out of that year’s Academy Awards, although it would win best documentary at the Venice International Film Festival.


A few years later a brief scene for a movie was shot in Central Arkansas, where it is still easy to get up close to and even inside of the state’s most famous landmark to ever be in a film. The Old Mill’s wheel is still turning in North Little Rock, just as it did during the opening credits of the 1939 epic Best Picture winner, “Gone With The Wind.”


It would be nearly two decades before Hollywood returned to Arkansas. In 1957, director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg were searching for a small town location for a setting for their film, “A Face in the Crowd.”


Schulberg and Kazan had collaborated three years earlier, as writer and director, for the classic “On the Waterfront,” and now they were together again, making a film adapted from Schulberg’s short story, “Your Arkansas Traveler,” from his book of stories, “Faces in the Crowd.”


Somewhere during this time, Schulberg was at his home in Key West, when he was visited by Otto “Toby” Bruce, the assistant and friend of Ernest Hemingway. Bruce was from Piggott, the same town that hailed Pauline Pfeiffer, who Hemingway had been married to from 1927 to 1940.


Bruce, knowing Schulberg was looking for a small town for his new movie, convinced him to take a look at Piggott, and after he and Kazan did just that, they had found what they were looking for.


The story centers on a drifter named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith, in his first role, who was discovered by the producer (Patricia Neal) of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.


Scenes were shot at the local football field, the Clay County Courthouse and at the home of Pauline Pfeiffer’s brother, Karl. The production crew also built the town a swimming pool, which is no longer there.


In his February, 2016 Washington Post article titled, “The movie that foretold the rise of Donald Trump,” Marc Fisher gives a couple of excerpts from Schulberg’s 1953 short story:


“In the sheep’s clothing of rural Americana, he was a shrewd businessman with a sharp eye on the main chance. He was a complicated human being, an intensely self-centered one, who chose to wear the mask of the stumbling, bumbling, good-natured, “Shucks-folks-you-know-more-about-this-stuff-’n-I-do” oaf.”


And this:


“Our suite with money and wine and women and worried executives and slave writers and stooges was just about as close as you can get in this country and this century to the ancient splendors of the Persian kings.”


A half-century after “Your Arkansas Traveler” was published, the Hemingway connection was captured on film in the 2003 documentary, “Arkansas’ Hemingway,” by a former Jonesboro TV investigative reporter named Jack E. Hill. It told of the Nobel Prize winner’s ties to the state and of his writing some 100 pages of “A Farewell to Arms,” in a remodeled barn near Piggott, until, supposedly, the Arkansas summer heat and humidity drove him away.


Hill would leave the news station in Jonesboro, and move to Little Rock, where the production company he founded produced more than 50 documentaries of stories around the state. Other home grown filmmakers would follow Hill’s example – men like Larry Foley of AETN and the University of Arkansas, best known for his 2009 Emmy-winning documentary, “The Buffalo Flows.” And Foley’s colleague at the U of A, Dale Carpenter, would also garner accolades and awards for many of his own works, notably, “Broncho Billy: The First Reel Cowboy,” the story of Max Aronson of Pine Bluff, better known as Broncho Billy Anderson, who became the first Western movie star. Anderson received an honorary Oscar in 1958. Carpenter’s best known work is “A Long Season,” about a Little League team that he followed in Jacksonville in 1993.


While he was governor in the ‘60s, Winthrop Rockefeller saw the potential of bringing Hollywood to the state and began promoting to filmmakers by offering help from his staff in scouting locations, and from state troopers during actual  production. Because of these actions, Arkansas became a regular shooting site for independent films during the ‘70s. Notables during this time were “Bloody Mama,” shot in Mountain Home and Little Rock; not a very good film but it featured an unknown actor named Robert De Niro who some thought had a future. In 1972, Camden was the location for a film in the same vein, “Boxcar Bertha,” which starred Barbara Hershey and Keith Carradine, and had a first-time director named Martin Scorsese. During filming, Hershey gave her director a book she’d just finished that she thought he might like called “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which he took to the big screen in 1988.


Two of the more successful Arkansas movies from the ‘70s were “White Lightening,” starring Burt Reynolds, filmed mostly in Saline County; and native Arkansan Charles B. Pierce’s, “The Legend Of Boggy Creek,” which he made for $160,000, and which grossed over $22 million.


In 1979, the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) formed the Arkansas Motion Picture Development Office (now the Arkansas Film Unit) to promote film production in the state. The film office would provide movie producers with administrative support and offer training opportunities for residents to learn about film production. Also, the legislature authorized a sales tax refund for film companies working in the state to encourage production.


Since then, organizations like Arkansas Production Alliance and Arkansas Cinema Society (ACS), among others, have formed to continue growth and promotion of the film industry in Arkansas. ACS, started in 2017 by director and Little Rock native Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Loving,” “Midnight Special”), seeks to “create a cinema society that gets people together to watch movies of filmmakers they may not know about; to not only bring films, but also filmmakers to Arkansas.”


Motion picture production in Arkansas has suffered from competition with other states and with locations outside the nation’s borders. To help counteract the challenge, Arkansas lawmakers passed more incentives to filmmakers by rebating the state’s sales tax to production companies that spend a minimum of $500,000 in the state during a six-month period or a minimum of one million dollars on multiple projects during a twelve-month period. As of 2018, the state gives a twenty percent rebate for film projects in the state and an additional ten percent rebate for hiring Arkansas-based production crews. Through incentives like these, and creative minds staying and returning home to make their movies, the future of film in and about Arkansas looks bright. A testament to that was when HBO recently chose Fayetteville for its third series installment of “True Detective.”


Devin Howland, Fayetteville’s director of economic vitality, said the production has a total budget of $70 million and will take place over a nine-month period. The production crew for the show, Howland said, totals over 236 people, with a payroll of about $38 million, and includes over 100 temporary “quality compensation” jobs for local residents.


The creator of “True Detective” is Nick Pizzolatto, a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas.


During a 2016 event for a new production company, Governor Asa Hutchinson said, “When a film or television production is in a community, it benefits everything from the local hotel to the hardware store. For many decades Arkansas has had a significant impact on Hollywood, both through films and television shows shot here and the talented actors, directors and producers that call Arkansas home.”


Sources: Arkansas EDC, Indiewire, Arkansas Encyclopedia,“Lights Camera, Arkansas” by Suzanne McCray and Robert Cochran, and memphismagazine.com  




The Old Mill’s wheel is still turning in North Little Rock, just as it did during the opening credits of the 1939 epic Best Picture winner, “Gone With The Wind.” From the filming of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1926 to the formation of today’s Arkansas Cinema Society, the film industry in the state has grown. (Photo by Todd Sadowski, www.toddphotos.com)