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.
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

The mystery of the Chinese bridge in the 1926 Lon Chaney movie "Tell It to the Marines"

"Tell It to the Marines" (MGM, 1926): The Chinese bridge

I've had to slow down a little on my blogging in the past few weeks, as I've been spending most of my spare time trying to solve the mystery of the Chinese bridge.

The bridge appears in the 1926 MGM feature "Tell It to the Marines" — one of the many silent movies believed to have filmed scenes on the Iverson Movie Ranch, but one of only a handful for which film historians have succeeded in confirming the Iverson connection.

Lon Chaney and Eleanor Boardman: Promo still for "Tell It to the Marines"

The movie stars Lon Chaney, a major figure in silent cinema and the father of horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. Playing the love interest in the movie is Eleanor Boardman.

William Haines and Lon Chaney

William Haines is on board as the brash recruit who's the thorn in the side of Chaney's tough Marine drill instructor — and conveniently, the three main players also form a love triangle.

Lon Chaney in "Tell It to the Marines" (1926)

Known as "the Man of a Thousand Faces," the elder Lon Chaney launched the family horror movie franchise with iconic performances in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "Phantom of the Opera" (1925), years before son Lon Chaney Jr. would pick up the baton and become a horror icon in his own right.

Lon Chaney Jr. menaces Evelyn Ankers in "The Wolf Man" (1941)

Chaney Jr. wound up becoming an even more familiar face — at least to modern-day audiences — with his performances as the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster and the Son of Dracula, among other monster movie favorites.

"Tell It to the Marines": bridge spanning a steep gorge

But I digress. Let's talk about the Iverson Movie Ranch, and specifically, the ambitious 1926 shoot near the location ranch's Garden of the Gods for "Tell It to the Marines" — and that amazing Chinese arched bridge. Believe it or not, the above shot of the bridge is filmed at Iverson.

That is, part of the shot is filmed there. The shot uses a matte painting to create the effect of the steep gorge, which does not exist in the real world. The arched bridge spanning the gorge was set up at Iverson, along with a huge assemblage of fake rock to support it, as I will explain below.

The small section of the bridge shot consisting of the hill above Nyoka Cliff, marked in red in the bridge shot, matches the section marked in red on this photo taken on a recent visit to the site.

A feature of the matte painting that I find intriguing is a large section of Nyoka Cliff that was used as the basis for the fake gorge. I believe by incorporating the actual cliff into the matte painting the filmmakers succeeded in making the gorge look more realistic than it otherwise might.

This shot highlights that same part of Nyoka Cliff as it appears today. You may be able to spot the same rock patterns in the above two shots.

The promo shot for "Tell It to the Marines" offers a spectacular view of Garden of the Gods as a detachment of Marines marches over the Chinese bridge. The scene takes place near the end of the movie, with the Iverson Ranch standing in for a section of "Hangchow, China" (more commonly referred to now as Hangzhou).

I initially thought the promo shot must be a composite, with the lower portion of the scene filmed separately from the upper portion. But I later learned that the bridge as it appears from this angle was filmed entirely at Iverson, with an elaborate fake rock structure built to create the fake gorge around the bridge. MGM was one of the few studios at the time that would have considered it worth funding a quirky construction project of this scale.

The shot provides a glimpse of a fake cave house that was featured in the 1923 Buster Keaton movie "Three Ages." I mentioned this shot in a recent post about the fake cave house, which you can read by clicking here.

The rocks in close proximity to the bridge and fake gorge complex help pinpoint where the set was built. Among the most important neighboring features is the cluster of relatively small rocks identified here.

I took this photo on a recent trip to Iverson, and it captures the same cluster of small rocks from a similar angle — minus the elevation of the promo shot, which would have required a camera tower to duplicate. Incidentally, you should be able to view any of these photos in a much larger format by clicking on them.

"Go West, Young Lady" (1941): Glenn Ford and Glenn Ford Rock

The cluster of small rocks includes one that I've been calling Glenn Ford Rock, based on a sequence in the Columbia musical comedy "Go West, Young Lady." I blogged not long ago about this sequence in a post about the Footholds area, and you can find a number of photos from the sequence by clicking here.

Glenn Ford Rock as it appears today

This shot from 2009 captures Glenn Ford Rock from approximately the same angle seen in "Go West, Young Lady," and also shows a portion of the Low Wall — the much larger rock feature beneath Glenn Ford Rock.

The cluster of small rocks that includes Glenn Ford Rock is the same cluster highlighted a few shots up, both in the promo still for "Tell It to the Marines" and in a recent overview of Garden of the Gods.

1926 production photo from "Tell It to the Marines": the Chinese bridge

Within the past few weeks, the above behind-the-scenes photo surfaced from production on "Tell It to the Marines." This production photo, unearthed by Iverson historian Ben Burtt, may be the single most important clue to come along in the effort to pinpoint the location of the bridge.

Some of the rock features in the production shot are fake, although most of them appear to be real. It's not always easy to tell which is which, but the column of fake rock to the right of the bridge is relatively easy to spot.

A portion of the same fake rock column is seen in the matte shot, as noted here.

It took several visits to the site, production photo in hand, before the picture of where the bridge once stood began to reveal itself. Eventually, I was able to match up additional features, and determined that the bridge was positioned directly over the Footholds area.

The column of fake rock would have stood more or less on this spot during filming of "Tell It to the Marines," with the portion of Low Wall seen in the left half of the frame providing support for the fake gorge structure and bridge.

A portion of the Footholds area (2015)

The Footholds area, or simply "Footholds," can be found a short distance north of Garden of the Gods and contains a high concentration of manmade indentations in the rocks. Many of them do appear to have been used as footholds, but it has also become clear that some of these "footholds" played roles in the construction of movie sets. For an intro to the Footholds, I encourage you to check out this blog entry from earlier this year.

Closeup of Foothold A

After I published my post on Footholds back in June, several readers came forward with their own theories. Movie location aficionado Bob Chancey, a regular reader of the blog, even suggested that some of the Footholds — especially the square ones, such as Foothold A — might be related specifically to the bridge in "Tell It to the Marines." As it turns out, Bob's suggestion appears to be right on the mark.

Examining the production shot in detail, it's possible to identify Boots Rock, along with the rock directly north of it, which is one of the other key rocks in the Footholds area.

This is those same two rocks as they appear at the site today. I realize the rocks look different here from how they appear in the production shot — believe me, they were not easy to match up. But they are the same rocks.

I've zoomed in a little for this version of the production photo. The section of rock highlighted in red is another feature that I was able to find at the site, and this one I think really helps narrow down the bridge location and possible anchor points for the struts supporting the bridge.

Here's that same section of rock, photographed on a visit to Iverson within the past few weeks.

Examining the production photo yet again, it appears to me that the two "south struts" come together at exactly the point where one might expect to find Foothold A, on the back side of Boots Rock. This may not prove anything, but it does seem more than coincidental. I think it's reasonable to conclude that Foothold A was probably created specifically to help support the bridge structure for "Tell It to the Marines."

Newly discovered "Foothold G"

I recently did a little more exploring at the site, and I think I struck gold. The above photo shows a rectangular "foothold," or anchor point, that I had missed on previous expeditions. For now, I'll call it "Foothold G," to maintain consistency with the alphabetical system that's already in place.

In this shot taken from an angle similar to the one used in the original promo still (the photo at the very top of this blog post), we can see where Foothold G is positioned in the Footholds area. With a little imagination, we can picture its position beneath the Chinese bridge — just below where the bridge meets the north bank of fake rocks.

Looking again at the production shot, it's possible to conclude that Foothold G might be located exactly where the northeast bridge support would be anchored, While such a conclusion remains speculative, it does seem to be supported by the location of rocks at the site today that match the production shot. The best theory I have at this point is that Foothold G was the anchor point for the northeast bridge strut.

I have also searched for a possible counterpart where the northwest strut would have been anchored, but have been unsuccessful in that effort. The anchor point appears to be just above the triangular rock area with the vertical crack, which has been found at the site, as noted above.

Based on all of the available evidence, the above diagram provides a rough approximation of where the Chinese bridge and its two banks of fake rocks were situated during the shoot for "Tell It to the Marines" in 1926. The bridge location is marked in red, with the south bank of fake rocks in yellow and the north bank in light blue.

Shots from the movie tend to corroborate the bridge location. This screen shot looking toward the northeast includes a nice clue among the background hills.

First, note the position of the Chinese bridge and fake rocks.

Notice the distinctive group of background hills highlighted here.

These are the same hills in a recent photo taken from the Footholds area, where the bridge once stood.

One noteworthy change in the landscape since 1926 is that this hill no longer exists, having been leveled around the time of construction of the 118 Freeway in the 1960s. The "stump" of the hill now is home to condominiums and a large apartment complex just north of the freeway.

A close shot of the bridge, again looking toward the northeast, includes a glimpse of a rock tower that stood just beyond the bridge, visible near the top center of this shot.

This tower is a rock feature that remains in place today. I call the rock "Minisub" in my research, based on its appearance from a different angle, as I will explain below.

This is Minisub today, from pretty much the same angle seen in "Tell It to the Marines." As you can see, not much of the rock is visible now from this angle.

Looking toward the west, Minisub takes on the appearance — to me, anyway — of a miniature submarine. I tossed around the idea of calling it the Yellow Submarine, but "Minisub" was more efficient — and the name has stuck.

Minisub can be spotted in the bird's-eye view, not far from where the bridge and fake rocks were located. It lines up with the eastern edge of the bridge, just as it should based on the screen shot.

Zooming in on the key area of the bird's-eye view, we can see that this layout provides a nice flat "staging area" between Minisub and the fake rocks that could have been used to help organize the Marines as they prepared to march over the bridge.

Turning again to the matte shot, details can be found in the top left corner that shed further light on the location of the bridge, the staging area and the fake rocks.

This zoomed-in version of the matte shot reveals that Minisub, along with a distinctive tilted rock nearby, can be seen in the photo. Both of these rocks can still be found on the grounds of the former Iverson Movie Ranch.

Minisub, photographed in 2011

The overgrowth of foliage in recent years makes it difficult to duplicate the angle seen in the matte shot, but this relatively recent photo of Minisub from a similar angle should provide enough detail to match it up with the portion of the rock appearing in the matte shot.

The tilted rock, as it appears today

Similarly, a modern-day photo of the unnamed tilted rock, taken from a similar but not exact angle, is a pretty good match for the matte shot.

The tilted rock is a little hard to make out in this shot from 2009, as it's positioned directly in front of Minisub.

It appears to me that this part of the matte shot detail is made up of fake rocks built for "Tell It to the Marines."

The matte shot also reveals that the Marines are assembling in the staging area as they prepare to approach the bridge. In fact, the large detachment of extras assembled for the shot stretches beyond the staging area as noted above, with the rear guard forming right next to Minisub.

In the recent bird's-eye view, we can now identify the tilted rock — and we can see the area where the Marines marched toward the bridge, passing between Minisub and the tilted rock before crossing the main section of the staging area.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I invite readers to revisit the in-depth report I posted about three months ago on the Footholds area — keeping in mind that at the time I had yet to discover the "Tell It to the Marines" connection. Please click here to read all about Footholds when it was still thought of as just a bunch of footholds.

This blog item is part of a series of posts exploring silent movies filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch. We have previously reported on a number of the Iverson silent films, and you can read those posts by clicking on the links below:

• "Man-Woman-Marriage" (Dorothy Phillips, 1921): This post explores a large-scale battle sequence filmed near Garden of the Gods in 1920 that was billed at the time as "so stupendous that it amazed even the film colony of Los Angeles."

• "Richard the Lion-Hearted" (Wallace Beery, 1923): Click here to see how a massive Medieval castle was created amid the huge rock features of Garden of the Gods.

• "Three Ages" (Buster Keaton, 1923) — Buster's "armory": This movie may be the best-known of the silent-era Iverson shoots, and this post explores a rarely discussed set for the movie — an "armory" controlled by Buster's caveman character, built high atop Rock Island in the Iverson Gorge.

• "Three Ages" (1923) — the fake cave house: Please click here to read about a fake cave house that stood near Garden of the Gods for several years in the 1920s — and possibly as far back as the 1910s — which had a prominent role in the 1923 Buster Keaton silent feature "Three Ages."

"Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" (Ramon Novarro, 1925): Click here to see some terrific behind-the-scenes photos provided by Jill Bergstrom, the granddaughter of the great Iverson cinematographer George B. Meehan Jr., who was part of the camera crew on "Ben-Hur." (Note that most of the material in this post is non-Iverson, even though parts of "Ben-Hur" were filmed on the location ranch.)

Noah's Ark (Dolores Costello, 1928): Here's where the label for this series comes from (see above), in which Noah's Ark is "beached" on top of the sandstone giants of Garden of the Gods. The movie is directed by Michael Curtiz, who later directed "Casablanca" and who brought crews to the Iverson Movie Ranch on a number of occasions.