Sun Valley Movie History: The Hollywood Connection

This week the second annual Sun Valley Film Festival comes to town. In honor of the event and the enduring bond between Hollywood and Sun Valley it represents, The Valley Sun blog is running a series of movie history posts by guest blogger Jennifer Tuohy. For more on the festival, which runs March 14 through March 17, visit sunvalleyfilmfestival.org.

Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert chat on the slopes of Sun Valley in the early '50s. The two were among the celebrities to visit Sun Valley in its opening season and, like many of their contemporaries, returned year after year to their favorite ski resort.

At 11 o’clock on a chilly Wednesday morning, a slender figure clad in a long camel hair coat dashed across the platform of Los Angeles’s Central Station and slipped onto the waiting train. Hidden beneath a ski cap, the irresistible eyes of Hollywood’s most famous leading lady, Greta Garbo, smiled mockingly back at the waiting photographers and newsmen, whom she had manage to evade.

It was December 30th, 1936, and the train was filled to overflowing with Hollywood’s elite on their way to ring in the New Year at a glamorous new winter wonderland nestled in the heart of Central Idaho. Once inside the special Union Pacific train, Ms. Garbo took her seat alongside the assembly of glittering stars and powerful men, including film noir femme fatale Joan Bennett, swashbuckler Errol Flynn, America’s sweetheart Claudette Colbert, Hitchcock heroine  Madeleine Carroll, Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick and celebrated director George Cukor. As the “Sun Valley Special” pulled out of LA, beginning its 20-plus hour trek to the tiny town of Shoshone, Idaho, the passengers’ eventual destination was placed firmly on the map, and the special relationship between Hollywood and Sun Valley, America’s first destination ski resort, was born.

Of course, it was not by happy accident that this galaxy of stars had aligned itself to travel in style for a taste of America’s newest passion, skiing. It was the result of months of schmoozing and networking by three men, Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad company and founder of Sun Valley; Steve Hannagan, the larger-than-life publicity guru who sweetened the deal by promising stars they could write off their snowy vacation on their taxes if they posed for his photographers; and Count Felix Schaffgotsch, the charming Austrian nobleman who had found for Harriman a “St. Moritz in the Rockies.”

Although Sun Valley was originally envisioned by Harriman as a modest ski lodge for him and his wealthy East Coast buddies, the savvy Hannagan already had a handle on the power of celebrity. Having introduced the idea of the bathing beauty to the world with his enormously successful promotion of Miami Beach, America’s other destination vacation spot, Hannagan knew how important pretty pictures of celebrities cavorting on the slopes would be to the success of Sun Valley. So he convinced Harriman to tap his somewhat limited Hollywood connections to drum up interest in Sun Valley along the glamour-filled West Coast. Harriman sent his golden boy, Count Felix, off to California with specific instructions to gather as many celebrity bookings as possible.

“I am hopeful that we can get a big crowd from Hollywood,” Harriman said to Schaffgotsch on October 29, “and the kind that we want, if you are able to contact them and tell them the story in the vivid and enthusiastic way that you do.” Just a few days earlier he had dispatched letters to his connections, including Selznick, actor Gary Cooper and Hollywood heavy-hitters Samuel GoldwynMerian Cooper (King Kong producer), and Lewis Milestone (Oscar-winning director of All Quiet on the Western Front), in which he introduced the “Austrian boy who discovered Sun Valley,” and asked if they would “put him in touch with a few people who might be interested in hearing about [SunValley].”

Count Felix Schaffgotsch escorts actress Madeleine Carroll into the lodge in January 1937. At Harriman's request, the Count spent a week in Hollywood before the resort's opening charming stars and directors into booking rooms at Sun Valley.

Arriving in Los Angeles on a Friday night in November, the handsome Count proceeded to charm the pants off Hollywood society, securing large reservations from Selznick, Goldwyn and Cooper, as well as Paramount star Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin, among others. However, it was a chance conversation that planted the seeds for another, now deep-rooted connection between Sun Valley and the world of filmmaking.

On November 20th, 1936, after a long week of schmoozing starlets and chatting-up producers, Schaffgotsch sat down at the desk of his Beverly Wilshire hotel room to relay his successes to Harriman. Alongside the list of celebrity bookings, he described a conversation from that day with some Paramount executives. “They want to shoot a picture under the name of St. Moritz,” he wrote. “It was supposed to be taken in Lake Placid. But as it stands now, I have the feeling they will do it in Ketchum … It certainly would be excellent publicity if the first American snow picture will be done there, the title of St. Moritz is not definite yet, and it would be a good breack[sic], if they would change it to Sun Valley.”

While a name change was in the picture’s future it was not in Sun Valley’s favor and Idaho’s mountains merely stood in for their Swiss counterparts. Indeed, the movie’s eventual name, I Met Him in Paris, so detracted from its shooting locale that many erroneously believe Sun Valley Serenade to be the area’s first claim to movie-making fame. While Serenade, shot in 1941, certainly put the resort on the map, its star, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Heine, never actually shot a scene there, due to something familiar to many Sun Valliants – un-cooperative skies.

I Met Him in Paris was a moderately successful, lighthearted romantic comedy directed by Wesley Ruggles; today its biggest claim to fame is ironically its shooting location. As soon as the Paramount scouts arrived in Ketchum one a sunny December day, they fell in love with the place. “Paramount location men I talked to in Hollywood have arrived with others yesterday,” Schaffgotsch reported to Harriman on December 8, 1936. “They are crazy about the place. Producer Ruggles coming today; it is very likely picture will be turned here during January.”

The picture’s star, Claudette Colbert, was duly dispatched to the grand opening of Sun Valley Lodge on December 21, and, when she returned a few weeks later to “turn” the film, the friends she subsequently made cemented a long-lasting relationship between the actress and Sun Valley. I Met Him In Paris was actually filmed seven miles up the road from the lodge on land owned by a local silver prospector, 28 year-old Gus Anderson (Anderson appears in the movie as a skating waiter who serves Colbert a drink). The production crew built an entire Tyrolean village set on his Baker Creek property, complete with a Swiss-style lodge with overhanging eaves and carved balustrades, a little church and a skating rink with an ice-bar. After filming was complete the Andersons moved into the lodge, which today stands on the west side of the southern end of Ketchum’s Main Street.

A postcard of The Challenger Inn, modeled on the sets built for the first movie to be shot in Sun Valley, Caludette Colbert's I Met Him In Paris.

The other legacy the movie left behind however, is far grander. During the filming Harriman was contemplating the building of a second hotel at Sun Valley. He instructed Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architects of Sun Valley Lodge, to draw up some sketches but was disappointed with the results (it looked exactly like the hotel he already had). As soon as he saw the elaborate Swiss village at Baker Creek he knew he’d found his new hotel. He asked the movie’s art director, Ernst Fegte, to come up with a design for a hotel. He complied, producing a series of sketches depicting an idyllic Tyrolean village perfectly evoking the Austrian ski towns Sun Valley was modeled on. Harriman was delighted and demanded the sketches come to life. This proved to be slightly tricky however, as Fegte was far from a trained architect. But with some tweaking the Challenger Inn was born. Now called the Sun Valley Inn, the hotel boasts a variety of different facades, giving the illusion of a classic Austrian village street when inside it is all one building – lending a touch of Hollywood magic to the heart of Sun Valley.

Jennifer Tuohy

Coming Wednesday in the Sun Valley Movie History series: “The Perfect Location” A look at all the motion pictures shot in the Sun Valley area from 1937 through to today.

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  • Michael Guillen

    Jennifer, what a FANTASTIC entry.  You’ve provided a glamorous historical backdrop to the festival, enrichening what will no doubt be a fun experience.  Thank you so much for all this research.  The photos are fabulous.