Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
• To find other rock features or look up movie titles, TV shows, actors and production people, see the "labels" section — the long alphabetical listing on the right side of the page, below.
• To go right to the great Iverson cinematographers,click here.
• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• If you know of a way I can set up this blog so readers can subscribe to receive future posts via email, please let me know. In the meantime there's a link all the way at the bottom of this page that says "Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)," and if you're inclined to try it, it seems to take you into a world of customizable home pages or something, and you can have blog updates as a part of that page ... whether this is useful to you, who knows, but I thought I'd let you know it's there.
• Your feedback is appreciated — please leave a comment on any post, or email me at

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Someone carved footholes in a rock for cowboy hero Tom Mix back in 1935 — and they're still there today!

Tom Mix was Hollywood's biggest cowboy star of the silent era, appearing in close to 300 movies going back to 1909. He helped define the Western movie genre, rivaled contemporaries such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford at the box office, and became known as the "Idol of Every Boy in the World."

Mix rode the Iverson Movie Ranch for his final full-length production, the 1935 Mascot serial "The Miracle Rider" — one of only a handful of talkies he made during his career. Running more than five hours long, the Western adventure, laced with minor sci-fi elements, was the only 15-chapter serial among the many cliffhangers produced by Mascot Pictures. The bulk of the production's outdoor sequences were filmed on the Iverson Ranch.

Tom Mix left his bootprints at Iverson with this production in a very real sense. The above lobby card for "The Miracle Rider" features a rock at the right that was used in a stunt sequence in which Mix climbed down from the top of the rock before supposedly jumping off of it onto a horse. The actual jump was done using a different rock, but the most interesting part of the sequence is where Mix climbs down from the top of the rock.

This version of the lobby card highlights the rock I'm talking about. The rock didn't previously have a name, although it has been featured in movies going back to the silent era — including a prominent role 12 years before "The Miracle Rider," in Buster Keaton's 1923 silent comedy short "The Balloonatic." But with Tom Mix literally leaving his footprints on the rock, I think it just about has to be called Tom Mix Rock.

"The Miracle Rider" (1935) — Tom Mix on Tom Mix Rock

"The Miracle Rider" was a landmark production for the Iverson Movie Ranch — one of the first big sound Westerns to shoot on the location ranch. In the above shot of Tom Mix on top of what I'm now calling Tom Mix Rock, a reader of this blog, Scotty, noticed while he was watching the serial that someone had carved two bootholes into the rock to help Mix with his descent. The sequence takes place in Chapter 3 of the serial.

The bootholes are clearly visible in the movie, as indicated here. Presumably a producer or someone else behind the cameras had a crew member go ahead and carve the holes into the rock — or at least widen existing indentations to make them big enough to accommodate the star's feet.

Here Mix, who plays a character named Tom Morgan, gets in position to climb down from the rock.

As he begins his descent, Mix puts his right boot directly in the carved boothole.

Notice how carefully Tom Mix is studying where to place his foot.

Now the actor has both feet planted squarely in the bootholes.

Here's a shot of that same rock as it appears today, taken on a visit to the site earlier this month. The bootholes are still visible — I've highlighted them in the shot below.

This is the same shot from that recent visit to the site, with the bootholes noted. The "A" and "B" labels correspond with the holes as labeled higher up in this post in a screen shot from the movie.

Boothole A, in closeup

Here's a closeup of Boothole A. Considerable weathering has occurred in the almost 80 years since the holes were set up for the "Miracle Rider" shoot, and the holes now seem to blend in a little better with the rock's natural contours than they did in the movie. But thanks to the evidence we have in the serial itself, I think it's still possible to determine that these are not entirely naturally occurring holes.

Closeup of Boothole B

Here's a closer look at Boothole B. Here again, I think we can see signs of chipping and scraping, as the area in particular along the base of the hole does not quite match the surrounding rock.

Garden of the Gods today — bird's-eye view

Tom Mix Rock can easily be found today in a section of the former Iverson Movie Ranch that has been preserved for public use as Garden of the Gods Park. The above bird's-eye view of Garden of the Gods pinpoints the location of Tom Mix Rock. If you can find your way to Redmesa Road in Chatsworth, Calif., just north of Santa Susana Pass Road, you'll find the park entrance on the west side of Redmesa. Just up the trail you can go straight to Tom Mix Rock. (I suggest clicking on the photo to see it in greater detail.)

Tom Mix Rock today

This is the view of Tom Mix Rock as you approach it from the top of Garden of the Gods Trail. The white chalk that can be seen on the rock in some of these shots was left by rock climbers — even though the rock is not particularly tall, its shape makes it useful for practicing certain climbing skills.

The area of interest for purposes of tracking the Tom Mix sequence in "The Miracle Rider" is marked in this version of the shot. The best way to view this area is by going around the left side of the rock.

Here's the view of Tom Mix Rock from the left side, which is the southern end of the rock.

The bootholes can be found near the southern end of Tom Mix rock, in the area indicated above.

The scene in "The Miracle Rider" transitions from here, with Tom Mix about to jump off Tom Mix Rock ...

... to here, with a stuntman standing in for Tom Mix, taking a leap from a different rock, onto a horse that does not appear to be Tom's horse Tony Jr., which Mix rode in the serial. I'm assuming it's a stuntman, even though Mix was known to do a lot of his own stunts. Mix was 55 years old by the time "The Miracle Rider" was filmed — certainly not ancient, but maybe a bit too old to be jumping off rocks.

This is that same shot with a number of the main elements identified. I would guess that a big reason they opted to shoot the jump in this particular spot was so they could get a shot of the Sphinx in the background.

"Bonanza" episode "Escape to Ponderosa" (1960)

The rock from which the jump takes place no longer exists, but it is known from appearances in other productions, including the above scene from an episode of the long-running TV Western "Bonanza."

Here's the same "Bonanza" shot with a note about the jump rock.

"Army Girl" (1938)

Another shot of the jump rock, this time from the Republic movie "Army Girl," comes a little closer to duplicating the angle used in "The Miracle Rider."

Here's the same shot with two of the key rocks highlighted.

Tom Mix

My hunch is that the rules about carving holes in rocks at Iverson weren't particularly clear yet at the time Tom Mix rode the ranch in "The Miracle Rider," as it was still relatively early in the evolution of the movie ranch. Then again, maybe the Iversons gave their blessing for the carving work — they were known to do plenty of their own modifications on the rocks over the years. At any rate, I believe such things came to be frowned upon in the decades that followed, as the movie ranch became busier and its operation more professional. But Tom and "The Miracle Rider" left behind a nice movie relic for us to ponder all these decades later.

I'd like to thank Scotty for pointing out the bootholes in "The Miracle Rider" and enabling us all to share in a really cool bit of movie history.

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's Now or Never: Time to find out whether Elvis Presley ever worked the Iverson Movie Ranch

The King of Rock 'n' Roll — in costume for "Harum Scarum" (1965)

I've been trying for some time now to nail down a definitive answer to the question of whether Elvis Presley ever appeared in movie footage shot at the Iverson Movie Ranch. That answer was surprisingly elusive, but I believe I finally have it — and the answer is ... Yes!

It happened in the 1965 MGM musical "Harum Scarum." It's widely known that a number of the outdoor scenes for the movie were shot at Iverson, but I had to put together a few separate pieces of evidence to determine whether Elvis himself took part in filming at the movie ranch. Finally, I can confirm that Elvis not only showed up at Iverson, but also ran around among its famous rocks.

"Harum Scarum" — Is that Elvis running around in the North Cluster?

This shot features Elvis' character, at the center of the frame, running near an Iverson rock that can be recognized from its appearances in other movies, as noted below. The shot does not provide a clear look at Elvis, but it's about as good as it gets as far as actually seeing the King at Iverson in the movie. (You may want to click on the photo to see a larger version.)

The rock seen just to the right of Elvis in the shot is one that appears frequently in old Westerns, which I call E.T. I've been aware of this shot for a few years, but I didn't consider it proof that Elvis was at Iverson because it could be that a stand-in was used in the shot. In those days big stars were routinely spared from having to do actual location work for long shots, especially in a harsh locale such as the Iverson Ranch. Until recently I remained skeptical about the actual presence of Elvis — Then I saw the promo still.

Promo still for "Harum Scarum" (1965) — shot on the Lower Iverson 

The promotional still, from the collection of film historian Jerry England, makes it clear that Elvis was indeed at Iverson. Whether the action here was a special setup for the photo or was a part of the actual filming doesn't matter. Clearly, the actors are all in costume for the movie, positioned in their same spots from the movie, and they're running through the same sequence that appears in the movie. Add it all up, and it means that's indeed Elvis in the scene in the movie.

The action in both the promo still and the movie scene takes place in a section of the former location ranch just north of Garden of the Gods known as the North Cluster. In this version of the shot I've identified the rock I call E.T.

"Come On, Cowboys" (1937)

This shot from the Three Mesquiteers movie "Come On, Cowboys" might help explain the origin of the name "E.T." The rock appears from a different angle here than in the Elvis movie, but is once again at the right of the frame.

This shot pinpoints E.T., as I want to make sure readers are certain which rock I'm talking about.

"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982)

I find the shape of the rock to be strongly reminiscent of the title character in the Steven Spielberg movie. This shot also features a young Drew Barrymore.

"Stagecoach" (1939) — the stage arrives at Apache Wells

E.T. — the rock — appears in a minor role during an iconic sequence in one of the most high-profile movies filmed at Iverson, John Ford's Great American Western, "Stagecoach." The sequence in which the stagecoach arrives at the Apache Wells outpost, with the Garden of the Gods rock behemoths in the background, also includes the much smaller E.T. — although it would be easy to miss.

This version of the "Stagecoach" shot points out E.T. As I mentioned, it would be easy to miss the rock in this shot if you didn't know exactly where to look.

Here's a more widely recognized shot from the sequence, in which the giant Garden of the Gods towers are prominently featured in the background. From this angle, E.T. is blocked out by the wall and cannot be seen.

The best shot of E.T. in "Stagecoach" is probably this one, which appears as the stage pulls out of Apache Wells.

Pointing out E.T. one final time. In these shots we can begin to see that the rock was sort of out by itself, in a flat area where it was distanced from the other rocks. Its solitude and distance ultimately proved fatal, as E.T. was removed when the flat area was prepped for condo development in the 1980s.

"Harum Scarum": Is that Elvis, or a stand-in?

Getting back to "Harum Scarum," I wanted to point out a couple of other shots. The above scene is filmed at Iverson, with Cactus Hill in the background. But as with some of the other shots, it's unclear whether it's Elvis in the scene. His character is riding the second horse in the group, but here again, it could be a stand-in — and in this sequence, where only distant shots are included, my hunch is that this is not Elvis.

The situation is similar with this sequence of shots taken in the Iverson Gorge. Elvis is again supposedly a part of the group of riders, but it's impossible to be sure in the long shots. This shot includes the rock feature Bald Knob, directly above the riders. I talked about this shoot in a post about Bald Knob a couple of months back, which you can see by clicking here.

Below are some links to DVD versions of "Harum Scarum" and "Stagecoach," along with a link to a streaming version of "Come On, Cowboys," for those who are interested in seeing more of the Iverson Movie Ranch in these movies — or maybe just seeing the movies themselves.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Upper Iverson's Cul de Sac area and the northern slope of Cactus Hill, as seen through the lens of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Ernest Miller in "Little Big Horn"

"Little Big Horn" (1951) — filmed by DP Ernest Miller

At the suggestion of blog reader Steven Dwyer, I recently revisited the astonishingly good Iverson movie "Little Big Horn." The movie is an embarrassment of riches for an Iverson researcher — it's not just that virtually the entire movie was shot on the location ranch, but, more important, that the movie was shot by Ernest Miller, one of the greatest Iverson cinematographers and a man with a keen eye for the drama and the rugged beauty that was the Iverson Movie Ranch. The above shot, using silhouettes of the Garden of the Gods rock towers, at right, as a framing device in combination with an angry sky, is a prime example.

The protagonists of "Little Big Horn" speed past what is now the Cul de Sac area on the Upper Iverson

The movie stars Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland, with Charles Marquis Warren directing for Lippert Pictures. But to my eye the film is above all a showcase for Miller. I've blogged previously about him, talking about how he used Iverson's rocks in ways that almost no one else did, consistently showcasing them as artistic elements. As I mentioned in a post not long ago, Miller was one of two DPs to receive an Academy Award nomination for cinematography for the movie "Army Girl," which he also filmed at Iverson.

This action sequence shot by Ernest Miller not only captures the drama of riders in full flight on one of the Upper Iverson's broad chase roads, but also depicts some key rocks in juxtaposition to each other in a way that is helpful to film location research. Even though the background rocks are located in the heavily filmed Cul de Sac area, this shot pinpoints the position of at least one of them, Shoe Fluffer, with a degree of certainty that is rare in shots of this area.

"Fury" TV series — "Joey and the Wolf Pack" (premiered Nov. 3, 1956)

This shot from the TV show "Fury" is one of surprisingly few other examples I've run across that give a good idea of the location of Shoe Fluffer — seen here filling up the foreground of the shot with Lobsterclaw in the background, at the right. Shoe Fluffer, so named because its shape is similar to those wooden devices that go inside of shoes to help them hold their shape, did not survive the development of the Upper Iverson, but its neighbor Lobsterclaw remains in place today — albeit on private property as part of someone's landscaping.

This is what Lobsterclaw looks like in its contemporary setting, in a planter next to a circular driveway. The rock fared better than its neighbor Shoe Fluffer, which would have been out in the middle of the street and therefore had to be removed.

"The Golden Stallion" (1949)

Here's another production where Shoe Fluffer and Lobsterclaw can be seen — in color this time — along with the twisted rock tower that dominates the rock formation I call the Cul de Sac Crew. The shot comes from the Roy Rogers B-Western "The Golden Stallion," from Republic Pictures.

In this version of the shot I've identified some of the main landmarks. All of the labeled features remain in place today with the exception of Shoe Fluffer. It's worth pointing out that while "Oat Mountain" is the formal name for much of the mountain ridge that appears in the background to the north of the Upper Iverson, in many cases the names I use for various Iverson features are either my own creation or adopted from common use among film location researchers. When it comes to rock naming in the Cul de Sac area, most of the terms I use have evolved from my own research and are simply used for convenience.

The Cul de Sac Crew in modern times

In its contemporary setting the Cul de Sac Crew has some modern annoyances in its environment such as a chain-link gate and a property marker, but it also has a cool oak tree up above, and a nice flowerbed below.

The Cul de Sac Crew today is located at the end of a residential cul de sac, which is how it got its name.

Another view of the Cul de Sac area from "Little Big Horn" adds perspective to how the various rocks were positioned. With Eagle Beak Rock towering over the scene at top center, we can again see Shoe Fluffer, to the left of the frame, along with a portion of another relatively frequently seen ground rock at right, which I call Nautilus.

Here's the same shot with the key players identified. While neither Shoe Fluffer nor Nautilus has survived, the rocks in the background, positioned a short distance up Cactus Hill, remain in place today.

Eagle Beak Rock as it appears today

Eagle Beak Rock today is part of the same residential landscape as Lobsterclaw, and is easy to spot at top center in this shot from 2011. Shoe Fluffer and Nautilus are no longer anywhere to be found, but you can see the tip of Lobsterclaw jutting into the frame near the bottom left corner.

A wider shot of the area from a visit later in the day reveals more of Lobsterclaw, near the center of the shot, along with the Cul de Sac Crew at the left, while Eagle Beak Rock oversees the setting from its elevated perch at top right. These heavily filmed movie rocks are all clustered around the same cul de sac on the former Upper Iverson.

Here's the same recent shot of the Cul de Sac area with the key rock features identified.

"Little Big Horn" — Cowbones

Moving to higher ground, this shot from "Little Big Horn" is taken just above the Cul de Sac area, along the northern slope of Cactus Hill. While the familiar and heavily filmed Turtle Rock lurks in the background, a far less commonly photographed, but I think equally interesting, rock can be seen filling much of the left half of the shot. This largely overlooked rock feature hovering above the South Rim reminds me of a bleached set of cow bones, and that's what I have been calling it: "Cowbones."

Here's the same shot with Cowbones identified, along with a couple of the key rock features seen in the background.

Cowbones as it appears today

I found Cowbones on a recent visit to Iverson. It's perched near the northern edge of Cactus Hill, above the South Rim of the Upper Iverson. The rock in the lower right corner can also be seen in the "Little Big Horn" shot. For readers who saw my recent entry about the Snakeskin Mine Shack, Cowbones is in the immediate vicinity of the shack location, just out of the picture in "Gun Belt" but just to the northeast of the shack.

There's plenty more to appreciate in "Little Big Horn," but I'll save the rest for upcoming posts. In the meantime, the links below will take you to DVD versions of "Little Big Horn" on Amazon, in case you're interested in obtaining a copy. The first one links to a two-movie DVD set that includes "Rimfire," which also contains a little Iverson footage.