February 20, 1940 was a much-anticipated date in Boise. That evening would be the world premiere of a major motion picture at the Pinney Theater.
The movie was Northwest Passage, filmed around McCall, particularly in what is today the North Beach Unit of Ponderosa State Park. It starred some big-name actors, Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, and Ruth Hussey.
Based on a popular novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts, Northwest Passage was called an “epic” picture and “Hollywood’s Greatest Adventure Drama” in headlines leading up to the premiere. Roberts was billed as “America’s foremost historical novelist.”
Filming the movie had certainly been an epic adventure for the citizens of McCall. It was shot over two summer seasons. Some 900 locals worked as extras and at other jobs related to filming. The production set up shop on 50 acres bordering Payette Lake. Twelve freight cars brought in dozens of Indian drums, sugar kettles, gun racks, weaving frames, rush bottom chairs, spinning wheels, leather bellows, anvils, and 1,000 cannon balls. It was a virtual traveling museum including antique desks, tables and chests, pelts of every North American mammal worth mentioning, candlesticks, mahogany buckets, brass clocks, and on and on.
A blacksmith shop was built to look like it originated in 1750 for some of the movie scenes, and it was used to forge nails for the buildings the crew would set up. Every effort was made to assure the props looked like the real thing. Indian items were designed using tribal markings of the Abenakia (the setting for the movie was in Maine). For verisimilitude the 700 scalps hung from poles on the set were made with human hair, though the “scalps” were made of rubber.
The green buckskin uniforms Rogers’ Rangers wore in the movie seemed totally wrong to people used to brown or buttery yellow buckskin. In the book, Roberts had specified that they wore green buckskin, so MGM went with that, though it was a constant headache to keep the costumes dyed evenly.
This was to be two-time Academy Award-winner Spencer Tracy’s greatest role, playing Major Rogers, of Rogers’ Rangers. Legendary director King Vidor directed. So, the speculation in Boise was, who would show up for the premiere?
On January 10, Pinney Theater Manager J.R. Mendenhall announced that Robert Young would attend, along with others yet to be named. Also, yet to be named were the members of the local committee set up to plan the festivities surrounding the premiere. Governor C.A. Bottolfsen didn’t waste any time, naming Idahoans from Boise, Caldwell, Nampa, Weiser, Payette, and Emmett to the committee, with state Senator Carl E. Brown of McCall to head it. Brown, along with the McCall Chamber of Commerce and the Idaho Timber Protective Association had been instrumental in bringing the production to Payette Lake.
As the date approached there was continued speculation in The Idaho Statesman about who would attend. Would King Vidor be there? Tracy? Brennan? Young? There was also speculation about what reserved seats at the Pinney would cost, this during a time when a ticket to the movies was typically 15 cents. MGM, suggested $2.50 would be about right. The Pinney settled on $1.10, and assured those who might be outraged at the price that the film would stick around for at least a couple of weeks at regular prices.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s committee charged ahead with planning. The stars, whomever they were, would be greeted at the Boise Depot at 7:23 am by committee members and Mayor James L. Straight. Then, it was off to the Owyhee hotel for a breakfast to be attended by the committee members and their wives (no women were on the committee) and the stars. After breakfast the stars would be escorted (by the committee) to the governor’s office. All Idaho mayors were invited to be on hand for that meet and greet. Then, at 12:15 a public luncheon starring the stars would be sponsored by the Boise Chamber of Commerce, with tickets available to the masses. At 2 pm there would be a parade featuring high school students—participants in a costume contest—dressed in clothing as depicted in the movie. Along the way merchants were expected to have appropriate displays.
That evening, a radio broadcast would air from 8 until 8:30 outside the theater, around which would be Hollywood props and spotlights. Then, practically as an afterthought, they would show the film. The stars would catch the 11:20 out of town.
So, when the big day came, who of the Who’s Who showed up? Stars. Maybe none you’ve ever heard of, but it was still a big deal to welcome Ilona Massey, Virginia Grey, Alan Curtis, Isabel Jewell, and Nat Pendelton, luminaries all, to town. The crowd that came to see them was reportedly so enthusiastic that Boise’s new fire engine had to be called to rescue the actors, which was totally not a planned event. Certainly unplanned was the trampling of several cars when the star-struck climbed on hoods and roofs the better to capture a bit of stardust. And, as if to justify the firetruck, one of the klieg lights caught a tree branch on fire.
For those on tenterhooks, Shirley Weisgerber won the costume contest. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy sent a telegram to the governor expressing his regrets for being unable to attend due to his “continued employment in Hollywood on Edison the Man.”
There was to be a sequel to Northwest Passage, but the studio never got around to making it. The movie won the Academy Award for best cinematography in 1941, in spite of the glowing green costumes.