Film's Role in Popularizing Alpine Skiing in America
By Richard W. Moulton
The German ski and mountain Films of Dr. Arnold Fanck and his star, Hannes Schneider, were the first Alpine ski films and helped the sport evolve from the Nordic tradition. These films emerged from the Alps with the sport and were the first ski films to influence American skiers. While Schneider was the father of modern Alpine technique, Fanck was the conceiver of the ski film. Together they teamed up to create the "Das Wunder des Schneeschuhe" (The Wonder of the Skis), in 1920. It was the first of some dozen releases*1 culminating with "Der weisse Rausch", (White Ecstasy), of 1931, (in which Schneider shared the bill with the infamous Leni Riefenstahl). Ecstasy represents Fanck's perfection of the 'Ski Chase' genre that he started in the 1923 with "Eine Fuchsjagd durchs Engadin" (Fox Hunt in the Engadine). Fanck's work was a production crucible that spread the gospel of downhill skiing in Europe, launching star directors like Louis Trenker and camera ace Sepp Allgeier. Everyone who saw these films was awestuck by the photography and action. Dr. Fanck set a standard for only using untracked snow, especially for instructional films, when he depicted Schneider's step by step methodology of the Arlberg technique etched in perfect tracks. These mountain films set a standard of excellence in mountain photography that has yet to be surpassed. He not only captured shadows skiing on textured snow, he captured shadows skiing the vapor of the back-lit air. And all this accomplished with the most cumbersome of equipment; there were no ski lifts, helicopters or walkie-talkies. The slow- motion camera used for "The Wonder of the Skis" weighed tons and required a team of snowshoed horses to haul it into place.
Fanck's original ski film had a 'how-to' component. A ski film always offered the viewer a visual impression of what good technique looked like. In studying early film rushes, Schneider saw that his famous high-speed stem was shrinking smaller and smaller as his speed and position improved. He thought it actually disappeared but with the advent of the slow motion and careful analysis, he declared that an initiation stem shadow was always present.*2
These first ski films exposed a whole European generation to downhill skiing and established Hannes Schneider as the sport's master instructor. These films migrated slowly to this country. When Americans went to the Alps to learn to ski, they invariably chose to attend Schneider's Ski School in St. Anton. In 1930 when Peckett's Inn on Franconia's Sugar Hill opened the first Alpine Ski School in America, its European instructors taught Schneider's Alberg technique. Kate Peckett traveled to St. Anton and asked Otto Lang to come teach at the Inn, which he did in 1935.*3
It was the elite, the privileged few who ventured to Europe, or who could stay at a place like Pecketts, that were aware of these German mountain films.*4 Since European ski technique and ski film expertise were far ahead of the early American efforts, many Americans who traveled to Europe brought instructional films back. Before any American 'how-to' films existed, these imports were helping to improve American skiing. By 1936, a lot of Europeans were teaching skiing in the U.S.A. and the influence of the mountain films was slight, compared to the large number of people these "ski ambassadors" taught.
For most Americans at this time 'skiing', meant ski jumping. Billed as "Thrills and Spills of the Hickories" newsreels featured the ski jumpers as daredevils with Scandinavian names who hurtled off the huge ski jumps with names like Iron Mountain. Throughout the twenties and thirties local Nordic ski clubs fed neighborhood ski jumps and ski jumping meets with aspiring homegrown ski jumpers. Throughout the snow belt of America, and to anyone counting participation, it looked as if ski jumping was the real sport.
In 1932 while the Lake Placid Olympics only had Nordic Ski events and the newsreels continued featuring the spectacle of ski jumping, Dr Fanck was into his second decade of making films about Alpine skiing. At this time America began yielding up its first crop of homegrown Alpine filmmakers. One of the first was Winston Pote who was excited about climbing the White Mountains of New Hampshire in winter and recording his experiences on the new 16mm film format. By 1927, he had captured enough amazing scenes of the White Mountains to quit his career as a druggist and try making a living showing his films, which he would accompany with a sparse narrative.*5 Pote met the first skiers on Mt. Washington, like Dartmouth stars, Johnny Caldwell and Charlie Proctor, and later the European ski instructors who arrived in the 1930's like Swiss guide, Peter Gabriel. Ironically, Pote decided that movies were a second-class medium and he shifted entirely to still photography.*6
Another who used this 16mm format to capture early skiing was John W. McCrillis of Newport N.H. In 1931 he captured the Dartmouth Outing Club Invitational Race on "Hells Highway", Mt. Moosilauke, N. H. This film was taken out to Chicago to help persuade the Nordic minded National Ski Association to sanction a National Championship Downhill for the winter of 1933. Up until this time official sanctioned ski competitions had been Nordic only.*7 Jack McGillis went on to make some instructional films on Downhill ski technique with Dartmouth Coach Otto Schniebs, but his most sensational film was a short entitled "Skiing on Pine Needles" with Dick Durrance.
Brad Washburn, who is well known for founding the Boston Museum of Science and the maps he made in the 1930's, also made several films in the early 1930's for the State of New Hampshire. Demonstrating his penchant for technical excellence, he shot these in 35mm. They were silent films about New Hampshire's White Mountains intended to encourage the public to visit them in winter. Like the European mountain films, Washburn captured the rugged terrain and drama of the mountains in winter. Seeing one of these productions might have encouraged some intrepid mountaineers to seek these forbidding mountains of snow and ice to purse winter 'sport' but it is more likely they scared most people away.*8
Also in the early thirties a group was forming that would become the genesis of the United States Ski Instructors Association. Meeting in Hanover they adopted the British program of a series of proficiency tests through which a general public could pass, building the elements of downhill ski technique. Instructional films by Rockwell Stevens, Charlie Proctor, Otto Schniebs, and Hans Thorner (to name a few), demonstrated these maneuvers in slow motion.*9 By the late thirties home grown instructional ski films were becoming common fare in America and through these films, individual ski stars and ski schools promoted regionally specialized techniques. Sold and rented to ski clubs, local ski areas, and individuals, these teaching films offered silent demonstration of proficient skiing. They increased the popularity of the sport and gave confidence to aspiring skiers.
Meanwhile the recognition of Downhill skiing by the U.S. National Ski Association together with collegiate participation in the sport was making Alpine skiing newsworthy. Alpine skiing began to appear before the public in the newsreels. The preparation for the 1936 Winter Olympics, which would feature Alpine events for the first time, brought more newsreel coverage of skiing to the public. But the build up in the press and subsequent lack of medals for American skiers just reinforced the superiority of European skiers.
While many amateur filmmakers were now filming the fledging sport, a couple of Schneider's disciples stood apart, Otto Lang and Luggi Foeger. Luggi's talents and productions were typical of the time and focused upon instruction or promotion of a place like Grey Rocks, the inn in Canada's Laurentians where he first taught or of Yosemite where he later settled. Otto was a special case. His "Ski Flight" premiered in New York City's Radio Center Theater. Land was a prime force in the opening of the Sun Valley Ski School, and his early Hollywood credits included direction of "Sun Valley Serenade" and other Hollywood features.*10 These productions glamorized the new sport. But skiing was just a novelty, a curiosity to spice the film's story line. Most of the ski sequences were faked in the studio. In Europe, where the sport enjoyed a much broader appeal, feature movies often included Alpine skiing. The expectation of the audience called for real ski action upon real mountain slopes. So, in Europe ski movies developed in and around their feature films.
The American star of the 1936 Olympics was Dartmouth student, Dick Durrance, who had grown up skiing Germany. (Dick was 8th in the Slalom). He had seen Dr. Fanck's films and produced his own "Fox Hunt" in 1938, called "Sun Valley Ski Chase," a 35mm film promotional for Gov. Harriman and the Union Pacific Railroad the year before they opened lifts on Baldy Mt. He based the film solidly on the classic Fanck model. Durrance moved on to open the All American Ski School at Alta but remained a filmmaker throughout his working years.
It was also back in 1936 that Kodak offered consumers color, 16mm film. A recent MIT graduate, Sidney Shurcliff, immediately used the new film stock and captured the exploits of the emerging Alpine skiers. Shurcliff was a homegrown cinematographer. He marketed his films as having the new "brilliant color" look and advertised the action as "tripod steady". He was filming skiing across the country with the specific goal of making "Ski America", an entertaining ski travelogue to show on a lecture circuit in the fall. Although a film/lecture circuit was not a new idea, (remember Pote had toured his film in the late twenties), Sidney seems to be the first to start the tradition of the American fall ski travelogue circuit. He made four films over four years before World War Two ended his efforts. His last film, "Dr. Quakenbush Skis the Headwall," featured the newly arrived Austrian exile, Hannes Schneider. John Jay, who attained great fame for his yearly 'fall ski travelogue', attended Sidney's shows in the late thirties at Williams College.*11
A filmmaker while in College, Jay perfected his filming technique in the Tenth Mountain Division. After the war and every fall, for over fifty years, his films focused audiences by the thousands, upon the coming ski season. Jay had a clever way of weaving a dry sense of humor into his shows. Where Sidney traveled throughout America, Jay traveled the world. And Jay brought a business sense of marketing to his tour. He had a team that traveled ahead promoting and creating a public relations buzz around his up-coming show. These shows routinely sold out. Humor and laughing at everyman's attempts to ski, replaced the set up and dramatic script. In bouncing from one ski location to the next, they publicized ski areas and these films encouraged their audiences to travel to various areas. Places to ski became like pins on a hat, patches on the parka, badges of achievement. Jay was followed by a host of imitators all doing their part to increase the popularity of the sport.
Two of these filmmakers in the 1960's, Rick Farnsworth and Dick Barrymore, focused their yearly film efforts more upon competitive skiing scene then on recreational skiing. They helped promote interest in the exploits of the US team and made such names as Billy Kidd and Jimmy Huega synominous with the public's association with skiing. Not since Dick Durrance staged and made a film of 1950 World Championships at Aspen, had racing been promoted as effectively by film in this country. Barrymore's solo feature film, "Last of the Ski Bums" didn't leave much of a historic footprint, but his portrayal of 'hotdog skiing' in "The Performers" and his next season's "White Heat" helped elevate freestyle to a medal sport in the Olympics.*12
The advent of video tape offered ski schools the tool of instant replay, so after "filming" the skiing student they can show them their problems. This seemed to offer great promise, except for the fragility of skier's egos. The overwhelmingly negative reaction of skiers at seeing themselves, shows that in a skier's mind, they all ski like the stars in the ski movies. Unlike Hannes Schneider they were not excited about going slow-motion to see a bit of stemming in their technique. But the old instructional film genre continues to flourish with titles like Ski the Bumps, Hints to Better Racing, Learn to Snowboard in Two Hours, Telemarking in the Back Country and so on. With the wide distribution offered through the sale of videotapes, some "how-tos" have enjoyed record sales. But perhaps the most successful instructional film was produced in the early 60's with Cliff Taylor presenting the Graduated Length Method. The sheer volume of skiers who watched the presentation and then rushed onto the slopes, tried GLM, and at least felt they learned to ski, testifies to its success.
As mentioned, Europe developed a stronger ski action component within its feature film industry than was ever found in Hollywood. The notable American film exception was the production, "Downhill Racer", starring Robert Redford. This mainstream film did very well at the box office, and helped raise the exposure and expectations for the US ski team. Ironically, Europeans shot much of the ski action in Europe. It did serve as a spring board for aspiring filmmaker, Joe-Jay Jalbert, who was Redford's double for the movie's downhill racing shots. Joe-Jay's New York based company Jalbert Productions has been a prime leader in ski industry films ever since.
Of course, the most influential grand daddy in the American Ski film Industry was, and still is, Warren Miller. Starting as a ski instructor at SunValley, reportedly living out of his car, he created his first fall ski travelogue in 1951 , and just never stopped--over 50 years of productions. Regardless of who did what first, Warren Miller Productions has done more to influence and encourage America to ski than the rest of us, put altogether. Starting like Jay, Warren began with a silent film that he accompanied and narrated. He developed a style that guaranteed a belly laugh amid his deadpan delivery. He personally attended every showing right up through the 1970s. His Son Kurt has now taken over their business. Their company has produced countless promotionals for resorts, manufactures and organizations throughout the ski industry. Much of Miller Productions' success comes from staging an amazing road tour of the latest film, to hundreds of thousands, in theaters coast to coast. And Miller Productions does this every year in a two month window, from October to December. . John Jay offered a program at his shows. The program at this year's Miller show is thicker than the yellow pages of the New York telephone book: and that is mostly paid advertising. His show teams, cover the country, doing media buys for theater dates at a faster pace than his film crews, who have six months to circle the globe shooting extreme skiing.
While I am examining the role of film in the development of American skiing I would like to mention Television. Ski Racing has never offered the networks the big audience guarantee of tennis or golf, (or most other sports for that matter), but it is carried. The 1960 Olympics was televised and the success of the U.S. girls, Betsy Snite and Penny Pitou made them overnight sensations. But hockey was a stronger galvanizer of public pride and stole the limelight. Since ski racing is most often shown during weekend afternoons, when the real ski enthusiasts are skiing, it often misses its most likely viewers. Today, television's biggest contribution is providing information to skiers. Magazine format shows like Bob Beattie's "Wide World of Skiing" have been a fixture on cable TV for the last twenty years and the weather channel is always available for its "stormwatch".
One can argue the case that Dr. Fanck's films were filled with what we now call 'Extreme Skiing' but I would say that American fascination with extreme skiing could be traced back to the mid-sixties and a small film company in Gypsum, Colorado, Summit Films. Creating a niche producing films that promoted skiing at Vail and other new western resorts, Summit found patrons in the airline industry. Their ski travel productions were not a new format; Swiss Air and Air France had been promoting skiing in the Alps with short travel films since the late fifties. Summit's principals Roger Brown, and Barry Corbet just Americanized the genre. Then they created their own "Ski Chase" that was over the top, and their film "Mobius Flip" certainly had a twisted plot However, the moment that really changed the way many people skied and certainly upped the ante for ski filmmakers came in 1967 with a slow motion sequence of a flip into Jackson Hole's Corbet couloir kicking off, "Ski the Outer Limits". Most every film that followed had to have bigger air and steeper skiing. "Outer Limits" put extreme skiing into the mix, and the focus of American ski films changed.
Today, the travel component remains but it is just the backdrop, a location that can offer the next sensational exploit. And it is not just Warren Miller making the yearly fall offering. Greg Stump's "Blizzard of Ahhhhhhs" and it annual sequel dominated the nineties with high voltage skiing and now as film goes digital there is Teton Gravity Research, Crested Butte Flyers and others who show the same entrepreneurial spirit necessary for making and showing a yearly ski film. And every fall it works like a pep rally to help pump up interest in the sport for the coming season. In 1923 Dr Fanck was hard pressed to hire 18 "expert" skiers for his "Fox Chase in the Engadine" and when Hannes saw them ski he realized he had to teach them technique for a few weeks. Even then, three broke their legs learning.*13 Today, Dr.Fanck could find thousands of "expert" skiers ready to blast down the steeps emulating the hotest skiing seen in the last crop of adrenaline films. Film has increased our expectations of what is expert skiing, and it will continue to lead the way for skiers of their day to evolve into the skiers of tomorrow.
*1 See attached listing of Fanck's films
*2 Mort Lund, "The Forgotten Film Life of Hannes Schneider" Skiing Heritage 5, 1 (April 1993), Pg 8
*3 Allen Adler New England & Thereabouts 1985, Pg. 16
*4Transcript interview, Thomas Cabot, Boston, 1980 interviewed by Richard W. Moulton for the documentary film,"Legends of American Skiing" (1984), Directed by Richard W. Moulton.
*5 Tom Eastman, "Winston Pote Pioneer Photographer" Skiing Heritage 10, 2 (June 1998),
*6 Moulton Interview with Pote 1980.
*7Legends of American Skiing," Interviews with McCrillis & Roger Langley who took the film to Chicago.
*8 Brad Washburn interview for Thrills and Spills in the North Country, 1998. Director Richard W. Moulton.
*9 Legends of American Skiing.
*10 Doris Talyor, Sun Valley 1980, Pg.182-3.
*11 Interviews for Legends of American Skiing.
*12 "Tip and Tales," Skiing Heritage 9, 1 (1997), Pg. 8
*13 David Gunston, "Schneider's Films," Skiing (Feb. 1961), Pg. 15
Rick Moulton January 10, 2002
@ Tel 802 434-3629
Dr. Arnold Fanck's German Ski and Mt. Films
1920: "Das Wunder des Schneeschuhe" (1919-20)
winter of 1920 'Wonder of Skis' or'The Wonder of the Skis'
1920: "Die weisse Kunst", 'The White Art'
1921: "Der Kampf mit dem Berg" (1921) 'Struggle with the Mountains' or 'The Battle against the Mountains'
1921: "Eine Fuchsjagd durchs Engadin" (1922-23) 'Fox Hunt in the Engadine'
1924: "Der Berg des Schicksals" (1923-24)'Peak of Destiny'/'Mountain of Fate' co-stars Louis Trenker and Herta von Walter and Erna Merena as mother
1924: "Wunder des Schneeschuhe" 'Wonder of Skis' released in 1924 of composite of first three films
1925: "Die weisse Kunst," ''The White Art' An instructional how-to ski dramitized with slow motion and a summer excursion to the Dolomites to make the Book Wonder of Skis (Skiing) a pictorial textbook/many language versions
1926 : "Hannes Schneider" Instructional/Historical short subject Co Starring Leni Riefenstahl
1926: "Der heilige Berg" (1925-26), 'the Holy Mountain'
1928: "Der grosse Sprung" (1927), 'The Big Leap'
1928: "Der Kampf ums Matterhorn", 'The Fight for the Matterhorn'
1929: "Die weisse Hoelle von Piz Palu", 'The White Hell Of Piz Palu' (which in Austria was called "Sonne ueber dem Arlberg" (1930-31), 'Sun over the Alberg'); Stars Leni & German Air Ace Ernst Udet, while Schneider plays small part of Guide.
1931 "Mit dem Skiern in den Alpen", 'With Skis Over the Alps'.
1931 "Der weisse Rausch " White Ecstasy' (or White Intoxicant, or White Frenzy) Leni Riefenstahl and Hannes Schneider co-star again.
Fanck's other films without Schneider
1928: "Das weisse Stadion", 'The White Stadium' about the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics.
1929: " Stuerme ueber dem Mt. Blanc" (1930),'Storms over Mt. Blanc'.
1931: "Abenteuer im Engadin" (1932), 'Adventures in the Engadin'
1932: "SOS Eisberg"(1932-33).
1933: "Der Koenig von Mt. Blanc",'The King of of Mt. Blanc'.
Hans Thoeni, Hannes Schneider zum100 Geburtstag des Skipionieers und begruenders der Arlberg-Technik. Innsbruck: Tyrolia,1990 Chapter 6: 'Filme,'translated by Jon Auran,1992.
In brackets are different dates (which I presume means release dates) from Klaus Spathelf (Ed.), 100 Jahre Freiburger Ski-Geschichichte. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1994, p.104
L. Dana Gatlin's "Hannes Schneider Arrives" Ski Magazine (Feb. 1989) p . 89
David Gunston, "Schneider's Films" Skiing Magazine (Feb. 1961) p. 64
Roland Palmedo, Skiing the International Sport. New York Derrydale Press, 1937, pp.. 87-112