“You don't have to come with grips to Texas. Or anything else. Except maybe a scenario. Or a script. We've got everything you need to shoot a Lawrence of Arabia. A Patton. An African Queen. A GWTW. An Airport or a Waterfront. We even have the props. Homegrown settings. Natural. For takes instead of fakes.”
-Texas Film Commission ad in The American Cinematographer, 1973
For over a century, Texas has served as a location for thousands of film productions, from independent features to Hollywood blockbusters. The state has also been home to some of cinema’s most influential players both in front of and behind the camera: Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Matthew McConaughey, and Robert Rodriguez, to name only a few. Texas’ prominent role in the industry began with the very dawn of American cinema at the turn of the twentieth century. In “Starring the Lone Star State,” the Texas Archive of the Moving Image leads you through highlighted films in our collection to explore the history of moviemaking in the state. Join us — it’s time for Texas’ close-up!
SILENT ERA: Early 1890s to Late 1920s
Some of the earliest films still in existence were shot in Texas at the turn of the century. One of the most famous examples is film pioneer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, who captured the aftermath of the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 despite warnings from public officials that film cameras were banned from the site. Even before the Los Angeles-based industry rose to global prominence in the 1920s, many Texas-based production companies prospered throughout the state. In 1910, Gaston Méliès, brother of famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès, selected San Antonio as the U.S. base for their Star Film Company. With the growth of the major studios in Hollywood, Texas increasingly provided shooting locations for several prestigious features, including The Warrens of Virginia (1924), The Big Parade (1925), and Wings (1927).
The earliest motion pictures shot in Texas did not tell stories but rather chronicled everyday activities and major events. In 1900, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer—a cameraman with the Biograph Company—captured eight scenes depicting the aftermath of the Galveston hurricane. The newsreels, later distributed worldwide, are considered the oldest surviving footage of the state. With an estimated death toll of between 6,000 and 12,000 people, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.
By the early twentieth century, multiple film distribution and production companies began to form in Texas, beginning with the Wheelan-Loper Film Company of Dallas and San Antonio in 1908. Established by John D. Wheelan, it was the sole Texas representative of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The earliest non-Texas production company to operate in Texas was also the state’s first movie studio: the Star Film Company of San Antonio. Gaston Méliès—brother of famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès—founded the company in 1910, choosing Texas for its favorable climate and the range of its geography. Méliès produced approximately 70 feature films at the Star Film Ranch—including The Immortal Alamo (1911), the production pictured below—the first of many films to dramatize the titular event. No copy of the film is known to exist.
On May 16, 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its inaugural Academy Awards ceremony. Wings (1927), a war picture starring Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, took home the award for Best Picture, the only silent film to ever do so. Director William Wellman filmed Wings at Kelly Field in San Antonio. With intricate aerial and battle sequences, the film took seven months to shoot and employed hundreds of extras and pilots. One stunt pilot, Dick Grace, broke his neck during the set-up for a crash scene, but the injury did not set him back; Grace left the hospital after six weeks.
GOLDEN AGE: Late 1920s to Early 1960s
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, producing “on the lot” meant very little location filming—representing less of a golden age and more a drought for Texas in the 1930s and 1940s. As television consumed increased amounts of Hollywood real estate in the 1950s, a turning point came when high-profile features such as Viva Zapata! (1952), Giant (1956), John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960), and Hud (1963) re-established Texas’ success in garnering film production. Although the state may have been largely left out of Hollywood film production during the 1940s, it did offer one major contribution to American cinema: “Race” films, or motion pictures featuring Black casts produced for an all-Black audience.
|Of the handful of westerns filmed in Texas during Hollywood’s Golden Age, The Big Show (1936) was perhaps the most unique. Starring Tioga-native Gene Autry, the picture filmed almost entirely on location at the Fair Park complex in Dallas during the Texas Centennial Exposition, with the celebration serving as the film’s principal setting. Also appearing in the picture was the WRR radio building. Still broadcast from its original location in Fair Park, WRR is the oldest commercially operated radio station in Texas and the only city-owned station in the country.
|From 1941 to 1947, Hollywood screenwriter and actor Spencer Williams shot 10 race films in and around Dallas for Sack Amusement Enterprises, a Texas-based production and distribution company. The first of this series, The Blood of Jesus (1941), was presumed lost for many years until an original 35mm print was found, among 100 other works, in a Tyler warehouse in 1983. Considered one of the first race films ever made, the Library of Congress selected the picture for entry into the National Film Registry in 1991.
To recreate 1836 Texas in The Alamo (1960), John Wayne did not just need to film in the state; he also needed to build elaborate movie sets. So in 1957, construction began on a replica of the Alamo compound and the village of San Antonio on James T. “Happy” Shahan’s ranch in Bracketville. Working from plans found in an old Spanish vault, as well as drawings of the real Alamo by the film’s art director, Al Ybarra, the project employed 5,000 workers and took a year and a half to complete. After shooting wrapped, Shahan turned the permanent sets into a tourist attraction, known as the Alamo Village.
This behind-the-scenes footage offers a look at actors on the Brackettville set in 1960. See John Wayne shaking hands with Happy Shahan, owner of the ranch in Brackettville where the Alamo set was built and the movie filmed. Scenes also include actors Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, and Joan O'Brien, among others.
Filming on location in Texas not only provided a boost to local economies but also meant a near invasion of Hollywood casts and crew. Nevertheless, these visitors from the West Coast tended to act more like guests than intruders. Everyone in the cast and crew of Giant except Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed in Marfa’s one hotel, and director George Stevens reopened an old movie theater, the Palace, to screen the daily rushes. While filming Hud in Claude, star Paul Newman lived with and worked alongside the other hands at the ranch where filming took place, studying their mannerisms to help bring the titular character to life. He also regularly stopped by the Amarillo newsroom to check the score for that night’s Los Angeles Dodgers game.
NEW HOLLYWOOD: Late 1960s to Early 1980s
“New Hollywood” denotes a period in which the baby boomer filmmaking generation assumed greater prominence in Los Angeles, bringing in a new energy that built upon existing genres and cinematic techniques while also exploring the artistic value of film. The success experienced by many New Hollywood films ultimately gave rise to the modern blockbuster, which came to dominate the box office. This era also ushered in a major turning point for the Texas film industry. The movement’s emphasis on realism resulted in an increased reliance upon location shooting, with hundreds of film productions coming to Texas during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Governor Preston Smith established the Texas Film Commission, and by 1977, the state earned at least $40 million from selling film-related goods and services. Some of the era’s biggest titles (Brewster McCloud! The Last Picture Show! Terms of Endearment!) and the era’s most famous directors (Robert Altman! Steven Speilberg!) solidified Texas as a central component of new American cinema.
|While Hollywood may have forever changed with the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the film industry’s interest in Texas remained the same. Producer and star Warren Beatty lobbied to film across the state, hoping to add authenticity to the events depicted and escape the prying eyes of Warner Bros. executives. This home movie shows Beatty and co-star Faye Dunaway filming a scene in Venus.
|The permanent sets at Alamo Village in Bracketville made it a favorable spot for westerns, so eight years after the release of The Alamo, Hollywood returned to Shahan’s ranch to film Bandolero! (1968). The movie starred James Stewart, Dean Martin, and Raquel Welch. These outtakes capture the cast and crew on set in Bracketville, including Stewart on the gallows.
While Texans largely welcomed Hollywood’s presence in the state, Viva Max! (1969) did not experience the same warm reception. Filming in downtown San Antonio triggered protests by historical groups such as the Daughters of the Republic, who found the film—in which a Mexican general attempts to recapture the Alamo—an offense to the memory of the monument. The unrest halted production and forced the filmmakers to film other scenes at the Alamo Village in Bracketville and studios in Rome, Italy. This home movie captures scenes of filming outside of the Alamo before the production relocated.
The release of Urban Cowboy (1980), starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, not only brought national attention to Gilley’s Club in Pasadena—the film’s central shooting location—but it also launched the career of Houstonian Patsy Swayze, mother of actor Patrick Swayze. A resident choreographer at several local institutions, Swayze taught dance at the University of Houston and founded the Houston Jazz Ballet Company. CoachingTravolta in the moves of the two-step, however, marked her first attempt at cinematic choreography. Swayze went on to choreograph Liar’s Moon (1982) and Hope Floats (1998), the latter of which was filmed in Smithville.
In this news story for Houston’s KPRC-TV, reporter Ron Tank visiting Gilley’s Bar, Johnny Lee’s, and Moe and Joe’s. All three honky-tonks try to take advantage of the success of Urban Cowboy. Ken Stabler, the new quarterback for the Houston Oilers, makes an appearance at Moe and Joe’s, even joining the country music duo Moe Bundy and Joe Stampley in a performance of one of their hits.
Filmed on location in Austin and Hallettsville, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas became the first film to shoot inside the Texas State Capitol in 1982. The picture—which stars Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds—is inspired by the true story of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, a brothel that was in operation for over 100 years. As a public building, the Capitol could not close during normal hours, and the production did not want to disturb workers and visitors. So director Colin Higgins filmed the scenes at night, with days beginning at 11 p.m. and ending at 7 a.m. the next morning. But if the filmmakers thought shooting late at night would cut down on the number of spectators, they were wrong. Countless fans flocked to the site for a chance to see Reynolds and co-stars Dom DeLuise and Charles Dunning. (Parton never filmed at the Capitol.)
INDUSTRY INDIES: 1990s
While blockbusters continued to dominate movie-related headlines in the early 1990s, the decade witnessed the rise of commercially successful independent cinema. Several of its most prominent directors—Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Robert Rodriguez—hailed from Texas and shot their first films in the state. Such independent films were not merely produced in Texas; they consciously depicted a new look at the state’s unique culture. The development of the state capital’s high-profile film festivals, South by Southwest and the Austin Film Festival, worked alongside an increased number of productions to celebrate Texas as the ultimate Hollywood “indie” location.
After making a number of short films, Houston-born director Richard Linklater transitioned to feature films with the release of Slacker (1991), filmed on location in Austin. Produced through Linklater’s Austin-based company, Detour Filmproduction, the film grossed more than $1.2 million on a $23,000 budget, solidifying Austin’s reputation as a viable place to make independent films. It also showed a new side of Texas on the big screen. “There’s another culture, educated and post-modern, that you’d never associate with Texas,” Linklater told The Texas Monthly. “How could you, given the enduring stereotypes?” Linklater's second film, Dazed and Confused (1993), starring a newly discovered Matthew McConaughey, came to define Austin during the period.
Linklater breaks down the making and reception of both Slacker and Dazed and Confused in this 1995 episode of Alternative Views, a public access television program broadcast in Austin.
In 1994, Austin-born actor Ethan Hawke starred alongside Ben Stiller and Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. Filmed on location in Houston, the movie captures the challenges faced by Generation X. Reality Bites was Stiller's feature film directorial debut and Houston-native Janeane Garofalo's first major film role. In this behind-the-scenes footage, Stiller and Ryder perform multiple takes of a scene at Houston's Transco Tower (now the Williams Tower).
Just two years after her murder, Warner Bros. released Selena (1997), a biopic about the late Tejano music star starring Jennifer Lopez in her breakthrough role. The picture was filmed in locations across the state, including San Antonio, Houston, Poteet, and Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi. It also recreated many of her concerts, from a performance in Monterrey, Mexico, to her appearance at the Astrodome during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo a month before her death. The latter scene, filmed in the Alamodome in San Antonio, featured approximately 35,000 extras.
|On March 19, 1996, an estimated 6,000 people lined up through San Antonio’s Market Square to audition for the title role in Selena. This raw footage documents the event, including interviews with Selena hopefuls as well as Selena’s father and manager, Abraham Quintanilla.
|In this 1997 segment for MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams, Larry Weidman previews the release of Selena. Reporting from her hometown of Corpus Christi, he highlights Selena's enduring legacy with her fans and the movie's potential importance to Latinx filmmakers.
The Texas film industry continues to thrive in the modern era. The state remains a favorite for location filming, with areas across Texas serving as the backdrop for such award-winning films and blockbuster franchises.
San Antonio-born director, writer, and producer Robert Rodriguez released the first Spy Kids film through his Austin-based production company, Troublemaker Studios. The series became Rodriguez’s highest-grossing film enterprise. While Spy Kids marked Rodriguez’s first film aimed at the youth market, it nevertheless followed the same moviemaking approach he established in his debut feature, El Mariachi. Rodriguez served not only as the film’s director, but also its writer, producer, editor, and special effects supervisor. He also kept the budget down by using what he called the El Mariachi technique, relying on creativity rather than money to solve problems. “Let’s put it this way,” Rodriguez told the Austin Chronicle, “Inspector Gadget had 300 effects shots and [an effects] budget of $15 million, and our film had over 500 effects shots with [an effects] budget of $4 million.” This PSA for the Lower Colorado River Authority features Spy Kids stars Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara giving safety tips for young swimmers. The production worked with LCRA to shoot portions of the movie on Austin's Lake Travis.
In 2007, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were both filmed in Marfa. In 2008, the two movies battled for the Academy Award for Best Picture, with No Country taking home the Oscar. To capture the look of 1980s West Texas, Joel and Ethan Coen not only filmed in the state but also cast actor Tommy Lee Jones. Born in San Saba, the directors believed Lee understood the area in a way most actors could not. “There’s a short list of people who could play that part at the basic level of qualities you need,” Ethan Coen told The Guardian. “He’s the real thing regarding that region.” Texas also provided the inspiration for the moptop haircut donned by co-star Javier Bardem. The Coen brothers allegedly gave Bardem the look after seeing a 1979 photograph of a guy in a Texas bar sporting the same coif.
The Great Debaters, a film based on the true story of Professor Melvin B. Tolson and the Wiley College debate team, was released in 2008. Partially filmed in Marshall, the film starred Longview’s Forrest Whitaker and Denzel Washington. To prepare for his role of Tolson in the period piece, Washington turned to Dr. Thomas F. Freeman of Texas Southern University. “He is concerned about the state of historically Black colleges and universities,” Freeman said in an interview, “and hopes that by working with us it will attract more young Blacks to Black colleges.” The professor not only provided the model for Washington’s character, but he also led a two-day boot camp at TSU for the star and several other members of the film’s cast in the art and skills of debate. In the video below, Freeman talks about coaching future Congresswoman Barbara Jordan on the TSU debate team over scenes from Freeman’s home movie collection of her receiving an honorary doctorate at TSU.
As celluloid, a nineteenth-century medium, begins to fade out well over a century after its creation, digital technologies are driving moviemakers further into a new era of filmmaking. Texas, with decades of experience in digital media production from commercial film to interactive gaming development, continues to inspire what The American Cinematographer cited in 1973: “Homegrown settings. Natural. For takes instead of fakes.”
Edited and reproduced in 2023 by Katharine Austin.
It features archival materials contributed to the award-winning Texas Film Round-Up program by the following individuals and organizations: Gordon Wilkison, Rick Wyly, Austin History Center, Emil Wesselsky, Jim Ruddy, Larry Weidman, LCRA Corporate Archives, and Thomas F. Freeman.
Special thanks to the Texas Film Commission.