Demion Clinco exaggerates not a bit when he tells you that next week's screenings of "The Mine With the Iron Door" is a rare opportunity to see a part of Tucson's history.
The 1924 silent film, which was filmed here, hasn't been seen in these parts since it premiered at the Rialto Theatre.
That was 86 years ago, just a few years after the Rialto opened on East Congress Street.
And who knows how long it will be before the film will be screened again?
"It goes back into the vault after this," says Clinco, the 29-year-old president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit that's also behind recent efforts to save some of the neon signs that once welcomed visitors on Miracle Mile.
"This film was so important to Tucson in the early part of the 20th century," Clinco says. "It was the first internationally distributed movie that was filmed outdoors in the Sonoran Desert."
It proved to be a harbinger not just for the emerging film industry, but for the guest ranch business, he says.
"For a lot of people around the world, the film gave them their first glimpse of Arizona and the mythic West."
Tucson, home to about 25,000 at the time, basked in the attention, having welcomed the Hollywood cast and crew when they invaded for the quick and dirty summertime shoot.
"The Mine With the Iron Door" made a mega-splash in local media. The Arizona Daily Star hit the streets with a special section on July 13, 1924. The edition occupied eight full pages at a time when a page of newsprint was a page.
The banner headline: "Principal Pictures Company Now in Mountains Near Tucson Working on 'The Mine With the Iron Door.'
A smaller headline read "Old Pueblo to be Featured in Big Production."
Based on the 1923 best-seller of the same name by Harold Bell Wright, the movie was filmed here at the insistence of the author, who lived in Tucson at the time.
Says Clinco: "When Harold Bell Wright sold the movie rights, it was important to him that it be filmed in Tucson."
Wright was born in Rome, N.Y., in 1872. Wright, who once said that he owed "more to Tucson than I can ever repay," was drawn here in 1916 for health reasons. Our dry climate was thought to be a cure-all for a variety of ills.
He lived here until 1935, a period that saw him fully engaged in local projects and causes.
His name is on the cornerstone of downtown's Temple of Music and Art, but he also donated money for the nuns at St. Mary's Hospital while working tirelessly to get others to give what they could to their sicker, poorer neighbors.
Perhaps the Old Pueblo also provided an escape of sorts from East Coast critics, most of whom savaged his novels. The stinging reviews seemed only to make him more popular.
As predicted by Time, "The Mine With the Iron Door" was a smash hit with readers, and Hollywood soon came calling.
The movie was 80 minutes long when it debuted in 1924, but what exists today is about 65 minutes, Clinco says.
It's a wonder that it survives at all, he says, pointing out that 90 percent of films from the silent era have vanished.
"One of the reasons so few films (exist) is that there was no secondary market, like DVDs. Once the studio extracted as much capital as they could from the product, there was often no reason to save it. Once talkies came onto the scene, it was a quick decline for the silent form," he says. "Plus, the prints were nitrate, which is highly flammable, and lots of film archives went up in flames."
Clinco is a Tucson native who was raised in the historic Fort Lowell neighborhood, where his parents still live. He went to St. Gregory College Preparatory School, studied art history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and lived abroad for a time in Venice and Milan, Italy.
He was intrigued by records he stumbled upon of early films that were shot in the area.
"If there was a chance that one of these films had survived, I thought it might be this one, which has so many wonderful connections to the community."
He tracked down a print in Moscow that was the property of Russia's national film archives. But because the print had not been digitized, it was not clear what condition it was in.
He soon learned that the only other known print was in Paris and, best of all, the archive had digitized the movie.
The copy included French title cards, however, so Clinco enlisted Amy Clashman, who teaches French at St. Gregory, to translate the titles into English.
Tucson's LITSA Film Productions, owned by Paul Clinco, Demion's dad, worked the new titles into the movie, sticking to the original timing (people in 1924 apparently read very slowly).
"I didn't know what to expect, but I was surprised at what a significant role the Sonoran Desert played in the movie. I was taken aback at how beautiful, how cinematic it looked. It wasn't a B-movie at all."
Clinco searched for some indication of the original music, which often included a few themes tied to action and character, with plenty of room for improvisation. Finding nothing, not even a cue sheet, Clinco asked his longtime friend Brian Holman to compose an original score.
The classically trained Holman, who grew up in Tucson and now works in New York, came through with a score that will be performed live at the Rialto by a five-piece ensemble.
Holman, in his program notes, says that modern audiences may find the film too sentimental.
But he describes some moments as "stunning," including "the flash-flood scene, the knife fight between Natachee and Sonora Jack (decades before Steadycam), the panoramic postcard views of desert landscape."
A Variety review of the film described the locations as "truly works of art and a delight to the eye."
When the film premiered at the Rialto in October 1924, just a couple of months after it was shot, local audiences found much to recognize in the scenery.
According to Jennifer L. Jenkins, a film historian and associate professor at the University of Arizona, some of the locations are still recognizable in 2010, "from the establishing shot of Tucson framed by saguaros to images of Cañada del Oro and Mount Lemmon."
Jenkins said that the shoot lasted about a month, all told, including pickups and landscape shots.
"Some of the research material suggests that they edited at Harold Bell Wright's house so he could have creative control. I would bet the actors weren't around for a full two weeks. It was a fast and furious business in those days, even with slower transportation."
More than eight decades after the starry premiere on Congress Street, the film returns to Tucson as the centerpiece of the Rialto Theatre's 90th birthday celebration.
Proceeds from the Oct. 8 and 10 screenings will be split between the Rialto Theatre Foundation and the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.
"I've been wanting to see this film for 40 years, since I first heard about it," said Chuck Sternberg, president of the Oracle Historical Society.
Sternberg moved to Rancho Linda Vista in 1968, and he still lives in the same home in the artists' community north of Tucson near Oracle. The ranch was the setting for another film, Andy Warhol's "Lonesome Cowboys."
If you go
• What: Screening of "The Mine With the Iron Door," a 1924 silent film that was shot in Tucson, with live music by Brian Holman. A fundraiser for the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and the Rialto Theatre Foundation.
• When: 8 p.m. Oct. 8 and 2 p.m. Oct. 10.
• Where: The Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St.
• Tickets: $20 general admission floor seating, $50 for VIP cocktail party and 1920s fashion show, $10 general admission balcony seating Oct. 8. $10 for Oct. 10 matinée. Tickets available online, at the box office or by calling 740-1000.
• Online: rialtotheatre.com
Did you know?
Harold Bell Wright, one of the best-selling novelists of the early 1920s, first came to Tucson in 1911 or 1912.
When he returned in 1916, seeking relief from tuberculosis, he stayed until 1935. He lived here longer than in any other place.
Wright owned 160 acres near what is now East Speedway and North Wilmot Road, land that was subdivided in 1950. The community of half-acre lots formed Harold Bell Wright Estates.
The street names, such as Printer Udell Street and Shepherd (of the) Hills Drive, come straight from his novels.
Source: "Best-selling writer leaves legacy in Tucson," Arizona Daily Star 2005