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 iversonfilmranch@aol.com.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Behind the scenes on "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" with Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman and the great Iverson cinematographer George B. Meehan Jr.

A treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos from the 1925 silent epic "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" has been unearthed thanks to Jill Bergstrom, the granddaughter of the great silent movie-era and B-Western cinematographer George B. Meehan Jr.

Behind the scenes on "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1925):
Francis X. Bushman and George Meehan

In this shot from Meehan's personal collection, Francis X. Bushman, one of the biggest stars of the silent era, poses grandly on his chariot during a break from shooting the climactic chariot race sequence for "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." Relaxing on the wheel of the chariot is George Meehan, who was a part of the camera crew for the movie.

This interesting shot from the George Meehan collection reveals one of the production techniques used to create the chariot race footage. The "chariot" in which Francis X. Bushman is standing, at bottom right, is not pulled by horses for this part of the shoot, but is in fact attached to a car. Meanwhile, a camera truck is in position to catch all the action from beside the unusual rig, with five cameras and five cameramen on board.

One of those five cameramen is George Meehan, identified here along with actor Francis X. Bushman, who played Ben-Hur's former friend and now bitter enemy Messala in the movie.

In this encounter on the camera truck, Meehan, standing between the two cameras, appears to be showing the film's star, Ramon Novarro, how the camera works. Novarro played the title role of Ben-Hur.

Meehan and Novarro continue to hang out during a break from filming, posing for a "candid" photo next to the camera truck. Meehan would go on to become one of the most accomplished cinematographers of the B-Western era, working for years for Columbia shooting cowboy heroes including Bill Elliott and Charles Starrett — and doing some of his best work on the Iverson Movie Ranch.

This shot from the set of the chariot race gives some idea of the massive scale of the set pieces used during the sequence, with the cameramen at right dwarfed by a large statue in the background. The race is said to have been filmed in a sprawling arena built for the movie near the intersection of La Cienega and San Vicente in Los Angeles, although it has sometimes been reported in error that the sequence was shot at Iverson.

A wide swath of open space where the chariot race was filmed can be seen in this shot. The sequence was one of the most ambitious undertakings up to that time for a still relatively young movie industry — a large-scale shoot that encompassed a wide arena and featured enormous sets. The movie, which took almost two years to film, is often cited as the most expensive silent movie ever made, coming in at about $4 million.

Here's a closer look at some of those sets, filled with hundreds of extras. A number of the stars of the era reportedly had uncredited roles as race spectators — a list of names including John and Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford and even Samuel Goldwyn and Sid Grauman. Future B-Western hero Bill Elliott is also on that list.

A promotional still for the movie provides a better look at the packed stands during the chariot race.

Myrna Loy

The movie also featured an all-star lineup of uncredited — and in some cases, unconfirmed — slave girls, with Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray among the names that have been mentioned.

Another shot taken during a timeout from filming has Bushman waving from his chariot — still rigged up to the tow car — Meehan nearby with hand on hip and other members of the crew standing by.

This shot of George Meehan in his "office" on the back of the camera car again provides a sense of the large scale of some of the sets.

"Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (1925) — Lone Ranger Rock

This screen shot features one of only a handful of scenes from "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" that were shot on the Iverson Movie Ranch. The crowd is gathered at the rock we now call Lone Ranger Rock, which can be seen in profile at top right. For more about Lone Ranger Rock, including this appearance in the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur," please click here.

George Meehan in the trenches — literally — in 1918

Meehan took time out from what was already a busy career as a cameraman in the silent movies to put in time as an official photographer with the U.S. Army during World War I. With his movie camera aimed toward the sky, he appears to be filming aerial action in the above photo. His scrapbook notes at this time refer to "the World War."

George Meehan, ca. 1920

Although Meehan was acclaimed for his technical prowess, his artful camera work and his willingness to do whatever it took to get the shot — such as bringing his camera into a cage of lions or operating it on a swinging steel girder many stories above the street — much of his work in the early silents remains undocumented. Sadly, I believe that's the norm, and not the exception, with many of the earliest Hollywood pioneers.

In the span of a career in the movies that lasted until 1947, George Meehan filmed at least 20 movies on the Iverson Movie Ranch, including two that are on my list of the greatest Iverson showcases: the Bill Elliott feature "Taming of the West" in 1939 and the Charles Starrett movie "Pardon My Gun" in 1942. I plan to revisit Meehan's work in an upcoming post, where I will focus more on his B-Westerns and his work at Iverson.

I'd like to thank Jill Bergstrom for her generosity in sharing these rare glimpses into the past with my readers and helping to preserve the memory of George Meehan's terrific contributions to movie history.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Mission: Impossible's" Mr. Phelps — Peter Graves in action on the Iverson Movie Ranch

Peter Graves in "Fury" (1956) — on the North Rim at the Iverson Movie Ranch

Peter Graves achieved his greatest fame as Mr. Phelps, head of the Impossible Missions Force on the classic spy show "Mission: Impossible" in the 1960s. (Insert your own "self-destruct" joke here.) But earlier in his career he was devoted adoptive dad Jim Newton on the TV show "Fury," raising Joey, played by Bobby Diamond, and helping to nurture the bond between the youngster and the stallion Fury at the Broken Wheel Ranch in California.

The same rocks as they appear today, on the North Rim of the Upper Iverson

The fondly remembered "Fury" is one of the most Iverson-intensive TV shows of all time, having shot parts of almost every episode on the movie ranch during its five-year run on NBC, from 1955-1960. The above shot, taken by film historian Cliff Roberts on a recent research stop at the North Rim, captures the same rocks seen behind Peter Graves in the top photo. You may be able to match up some of the holes in the rocks, such as the round one above the brim of Graves' hat. For research purposes I call this the Skull Rock area.

Pulling back for a wider shot, this photo shows the bulk of the Rocks Across the Way-East formation as it appears today, with the Skull Rock area visible toward the left of the frame. The area surrounding these rocks has been almost entirely developed and is now home to a number of large estates. This particular lot, in the foreground, has been prepped for development but has not yet been built.

Rocks Across the Way — on the North Rim of the Upper Iverson

This bird's-eye view of the area shows the not-yet-developed parcel in the bottom right corner, immediately adjacent to Rocks Across The Way-East on the formation's south side. Solar panels for a home on the north side have been incorporated into the rock area, and the rocks form a backdrop for both a residential swimming pool, at top right, and a small basketball court — the red area closer to the center of the photo. You may want to click on these shots to see a larger version with much more detail.

Here's the same bird's-eye view with the key rock features identified, including the "Skull Rock" area seen behind Peter Graves in the photo at the top of this post. The Rocks Across the Way are also known as the Festival Rocks.

"Montana Territory" (1952)

This shot includes a more familiar view of the Rocks Across the Way, from the Columbia B-Western "Montana Territory." The rocks are seen in the distance, which is how they were most commonly filmed. The flat expanse in front of the Rocks Across the Way, also visible in the background, contained a network of chase roads and well-maintained camera car roads. The Rocks Across the Way thus became a common sight in the backgrounds of chase sequences filmed throughout the B-Western era and the early days of the TV Western.

This shot identifies the two main clumps that make up the Rocks Across the Way, as seen in the "Montana Territory" shot.

Those same two clumps of rocks can be seen in this photo of the area in more recent years. The photo also reveals some of the extensive development that has been undertaken on the former Upper Iverson.

This version of the recent shot again points out the two main clumps that make up the Rocks Across the Way.

The Fury Set in 1955 — its first appearance in "Fury," in the show's fifth episode

Regular readers of this blog may already know that for almost the entire run of "Fury" — all but the first four episodes — the Broken Wheel Ranch was in fact a set on the Upper Iverson, including buildings constructed specifically for the TV show. The Fury Set, as it's still known (although the set perished in the wildfires of 1970), initially consisted of just a barn and corral, with a rarely filmed main house and a smaller cabin added later.

"Fury" episode "The Earthquake" (1956)

This shot from an episode early in season two of "Fury" shows Joey, played by Bobby Diamond, hard at work in the corral area of the Fury Set. In the background we can see a portion of the Rocks Across the Way-East.

This version of the screen shot points out a distinctive rock shape that helps identify the background rocks as the Rocks Across the Way-East. The episode, "The Earthquake," premiered Oct. 20, 1956.

Here's the same rock feature as it appears in one of Cliff Roberts' recent shots of the Rocks Across the Way — the same photo that can be seen near the top of this post.

Midway House — located south of the Fury Set and used as the family home in "Fury"

Construction of another house a short distance to the south of the Fury Set, which I call Midway House, was completed in time for season two of "Fury" and became the family home for the remainder of the TV show. The above shot of Midway House comes from the "Fury" episode "An Old Indian Trick," which first aired Feb. 14, 1959, during the show's fourth season.

William Fawcett, Peter Graves and Bobby Diamond (left to right) at Midway House

Here's a shot of the three main protagonists in "Fury" on the front porch of Midway House, from the episode "Trial by Jury." B-Western fixture William Fawcett, at left, was on hand for the full five-year run of the show, playing Pete Wilkey, who cooked and helped out around the house while Jim Newton (Peter Graves) was busy ranching and parenting. Bobby Diamond's mission as young Joey Newton was to be a kid and have adventures.

This is another shot from the same episode, with the three regulars joined by guest stars Pamela Baird, as Joey's friend Sally, and Ray Montgomery as her dad. We get a better look at the porch of Midway House here, and we can begin to see some of the rocks to the south of Midway House. "Trial by Jury" premiered Oct. 27, 1956.

One more from "Trial by Jury": In this shot of Pamela Baird and Ray Montgomery we get a look at the rock feature Smiling Lion, which was one of the closest neighbors to Midway House. Smiling Lion was situated just south of the house, overlooking the creek when it was running.

Same shot, this time with Smiling Lion highlighted. A previous blog entry you can go to by clicking here has a section on Smiling Lion with more details and photos.

A sign reading "Broken Wheel Ranch" hung on the gate into the Fury Set during the five-season run of "Fury."

Fury was played by Highland Dale, seen here frolicking on the Upper Iverson in a shot from the season four episode "Feeling His Oats," which premiered Jan. 24, 1959. The shot appears here the way it ran in the show, where it was horizontally flipped.

This is a "fixed" version of the shot, flipped horizontally to its correct orientation, showing what Highland Dale — and that section of the Upper Iverson — really looked like.

William Fawcett and Peter Graves at Skull Rock in "Fury"

Someone apparently thought Peter Graves looked like a Jim, because besides playing Jim Newton on "Fury," he also played one — Jim Phelps — on "Mission: Impossible." Graves won a Golden Globe in 1971 for his work on "Mission: Impossible." His brother was another well-known Jim: James Arness, known to the world as Marshal Dillon on "Gunsmoke."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Nailing down the location of the Snakeskin Mine Shack in the George Montgomery movie "Gun Belt"


The 1953 Western "Gun Belt" shot virtually all of its outdoor action on the Iverson Movie Ranch. The scene depicted in the above promotional still for the movie, featuring George Montgomery on the left with a young Tab Hunter, was filmed in Central Garden of the Gods.

"Gun Belt" (1953) — Snakeskin Mine Shack

The movie contains a few Iverson rarities, notably this small cabin located in the Rooster Foot area near the northern edge of Cactus Hill. The cabin is presumed to be a facade, as this view of it is the only one that appears in the movie. But it's noteworthy nonetheless, because it was extremely rare to find any manmade structures on Cactus Hill during the filming era.

I call the structure the Snakeskin Mine Shack because of this sign that appears early in the film, pointing the way to what turns out to be the shack.

Cactus Hill, on the former Iverson Movie Ranch

Cactus Hill, seen from the north in this Bing bird's-eye view, is a large hill that separated the Upper Iverson and Lower Iverson. Today it is home to a couple of water tanks, and construction of residential estates has recently begun at its eastern end. This shot and the additional bird's-eye views that follow can be seen in greater detail by clicking on them to enlarge them.

Much of the northern edge of Cactus Hill is strewn with heavily filmed movie rocks, appearing in this shot as a diagonal band of rocks stretching from bottom left to top right. Most of the former Upper Iverson has been taken over by large residential estates, a few of which can be seen in the bottom half of the shot. It should be noted that, because these shots look at Cactus Hill from the north, the shot is "upside-down," with the former Upper Iverson appearing at the bottom of the frame.

Of particular interest for examining the shack location in "Gun Belt" is this zoomed-in portion of Cactus Hill, again seen in a Bing bird's-eye view. This shot offers a better look at a large rock formation I call Rooster Foot, near the bottom of the frame.

This is the large rock feature I'm talking about when I refer to Rooster Foot.

Zooming in further on the Rooster Foot area we can pinpoint the location of the Snakeskin Mine Shack.

This shot points out the rocky background area that appears behind the mine shack in the movie shot.

Here's another look at the shack in "Gun Belt." Notice the rocks in the background.

This is what those rocks look like today. The shot was taken by photographer and film location researcher Jerry Condit, who discovered the location of the shack.

"Gun Belt" (1953) — Platypus Shack

"Gun Belt" contains a few other interesting Iverson structures as well, including an upgraded version of the Platypus Shack, seen in this screen shot. As modest as this building may appear, an earlier version of the Platypus Shack wasn't nearly as fancy. It was also located in a slightly different spot, sitting just a bit farther away from the rock Platypus, seen at the left of the shot. I've blogged previously about the Platypus Shack, and you can read that entry by clicking here.

"Gun Belt" lobby card showing action on the Upper Iverson

You can click on the Amazon link below to check out a four-movie DVD set that includes "Gun Belt" along with another nice Iverson movie, "The Lone Gun," from 1954. The set also contains two non-Iverson movies, "Gunsight Ridge" and "Ride Out for Revenge."