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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Stegosaurus Caught in an Awkward Moment

"Thunder River Feud" (1942)

One pastime that evolved early in my Iverson exploration was finding weird stuff in the old movies, whether it was really there or not. I noticed a lot of what can best be described as tricks of light — images that weren't necessarily formed out of actual objects but had more to do with the way multiple objects coexisted in the frame and the way the camera played with the light and shadows. Sometimes it was just because the footage was so bad to begin with that I had to use my imagination to fill in the details.

I found myself giving names to these accidents of light and imagination, because you have to name things to have a way to reference them in connection with the research. My goal is simply to describe it as accurately as possible, so, for example, the image above from cinematographer Robert Cline's strange masterpiece "Thunder River Feud" became "Stegosaurus Caught in an Awkward Moment" because that's what I see when I look at it — a dinosaur with an embarrassed expression on its face.

When I unexpectedly found Stegosaurus at Iverson, it was one of those peak moments that make exploring the place so much fun. It was just such a surprise. I always assumed that what I had seen in the movie was just a trick of light. But then there it was in real life, as seen in the photo above. This was the surprise ending to what I thought at the time was pure flight of fancy: Not only did Stegosaurus in fact exist at Iverson, but to my shock, I was able to find it.

It turned out to be a configuration along the face of a familiar rock in the Above Nyoka area, which I previously had been calling Pavlova — the left side of the Vultura's Temple or Vultura's Palace feature from the Republic serial Perils of Nyoka, released the same year as Thunder River Feud, 1942. The rock now has a brick wall built onto it, which separates the condominium community on this side of the wall from the undeveloped area beyond the wall. In the photo above, you can see the top of Hangdog — also seen as the right side of Vultura's Palace in Perils of Nyoka — sticking up just above the wall, toward the right of the photo.

If you're having trouble spotting the similarities between the two photos, start with the tip of the dinosaur's nose, which is the rounded shape pointing toward the top left corner in either photo. Below it is the mouth — the look of embarrassment being evident only in the screen shot at the top, not so much in the real-life photo above. A bush is growing out of the rock in the same place in both photos, near the dinosaur's eye, even though the pictures are taken more than 65 years apart.

The great Iverson cinematographers:
Robert Cline

born July 1898, Arizona
died November 1946, Hollywood (age 48)

Robert Cline emerges as the mad genius of the Iverson era, and probably would hold that title even if he had shot just one film: his mystical 1942 Range Busters masterpiece Thunder River Feud. While it’s possible that the artistic “brilliance” of Cline’s fuzzy visual poetry in this strange and wonderful movie is purely accidental, it seems unlikely. Shot after shot reveals subtle, elusive images, often tucked away in the corners of the frame. For the viewer who is able to relax into it and surrender to the weirdness of it all, it adds up to a cinematic experience that is more akin to spotting faces in the clouds or looking at a book of hidden-eye puzzles than to watching a B-Western.

Regardless of whether Cline intentionally injected illusions into his work, whether it’s all attributable to a bad print or whether the puzzling images in his shots are purely imaginary, he showed a flair for Iverson in a solid string of 1940s B-Westerns, part of an ephemeral career that began in the silent era and soon saw Cline emerge as one of the key shooters in early sound Westerns. By the time the genre hit its stride in the mid-1930s he was already a master of the outdoor action sequence, had already developed much of his unique visual style and had already begun shooting at Iverson.

Working mostly with smaller outfits — including Trem Carr Pictures and William Berke Productions in the early days and later the Alexander brothers and A.W. Hackel’s Supreme Pictures — Cline found himself at the center of what was suddenly the hottest film commodity in the business, the B-Western. He began to connect with some of the bigger players, flirting briefly with Republic, where he shot three Westerns in the late 1930s. He found more steady work at Monogram starting in 1940, migrating over to Ray Corrigan’s Monogram-affiliated Range Busters Productions in 1941. He settled in for a good run with Corrigan, shooting 16 Range Busters features before moving on to PRC in 1943.

Much of his best Iverson work was done during this Range Busters/PRC period, including the Range Busters installments
Underground Rustlers and Fugitive Valley (both 1941) and the Buster Crabbe/Billy the Kid/Billy Carson yarns Western Cyclone and Devil Riders (both 1943) at PRC. 

An early Iverson standout for Cline is the 1938 Bob Steele feature Paroled to Die from A.W. Hackel, and one of Cline’s later career highlights is the Lash LaRue movie Law of the Lash from PRC, released in 1947, after Cline’s death.

He rarely stayed long in any one place, adding to the mystique of Robert Cline as a restless and perhaps troubled genius. He avoided the one thing that almost all major Iverson cinematographers share: a lengthy stay at Republic Pictures. Maybe it’s part of his genius that he found a way to keep himself from getting sucked into that machine in a big way, something almost no one else seemed able to resist.

He has presided over our pantheon of Iverson DPs from the beginning, and was the inspiration for the creation of a pantheon in the first place. His volume of work doesn’t stand alongside prolific Republic shooters such as Ernest Miller or John MacBurnie, but Robert Cline is clearly one of the masters, if not THE master of shooting Iverson. This despite his relatively high “miss ratio” — for example working quite a bit at Corriganville, working on low-Iverson-percentage Texas Rangers movies and working extensively in the silents (and therefore largely unseen).

Like many of the cinematographers from the B-Western era, Robert Cline was born out West. He came from Arizona, which may have helped instill his affinity for Westerns and the Western landscape. And like so many of the cinematographers of the period, he died young — in his case even younger than most, at 48. But he also started young, well back into the silent era. His career essentially spanned 1925-1946, with a few releases coming out after his death, in 1947. He has a respectable 139 productions listed in his filmography. He lived long enough to see television coming, but he was dead before he had a chance to work in the new medium.

Then and now: a famous movie rock known as Wrench Rock (aka Indian Head, Upper Indian Head, Bobby ...)

One of the first and most compelling mysteries I chased at Iverson was who was that gargoyle figure who showed up briefly in the background in "Thunder River Feud" (1942). The blurry black-and-white image above, snapped from the TV screen, haunted me in the early stages of my expeditions to Iverson — as the rock that I soon began calling "Bobby" seemed to be winking at me with that "eye" of his.

It took a few months to find him, but Bobby turned out to be one of the most intriguing characters still lurking on the site of the old Iverson Movie Ranch. It was an emotional high point to finally see Bobby in person — not the least of which was attributable to knowing for the first time that he had survived.

I later learned that the rock I had been calling "Bobby" had already been given at least a couple of names over the years. One that seems to have stuck is Indian Head (or Upper Indian Head), which is unfortunate because it creates confusion with a more famous Indian Head located on the Lower Iverson, in Garden of the Gods. Another name for Bobby that has been around for a while is Wrench Rock. I usually embrace the existing names when I learn about them, so I reluctantly let go of "Bobby." My name for this one now is Wrench Rock, in part because it avoids confusion with Iverson's many rocks known as Indian Head.

Girl in the Sky

Turning to the endlessly intriguing topic of tricks of light and imagination, we find reason to once again go on about "Thunder River Feud" (1942), the Magna Carta (or whatever) of tricks of light. As usual, the enigmatic figure at the center of it all is the man behind the camera, cinematographer Robert "Did He Do That on Purpose" Cline. 

It probably has more to do with the primitive camera technology and the bad print than with art, but "Thunder River Feud" has more interesting "extras" hovering around the corners of each frame than any other movie I've seen. Take for example the scene above. Supposedly it's just some dude on a horse against a nondescript but unintentionally surrealistic background. But then when you look in the top right corner, there she is: Girl in the Sky. WTF? Click on the photo to enlarge it — she'll still be there!

If that's not enough, shift your attention to the top left corner and you just might see a close approximation of Eugene the Jeep, from the Popeye cartoons.
Eugene the Jeep
I don't know where this scene was shot, but most of the outdoor action for "Thunder River Feud" took place at Iverson. I have a feeling that if you could find this spot today, Girl in the Sky and Eugene the Jeep wouldn't be there.

Am I the only one who sees a Circus Clown in Agony here?

"Thunder River Feud" (1942)

This may not work for everyone, but when I look at this shot from the insanely weird Monogram B-Western "Thunder River Feud," I see a figure that, to me, looks like a circus clown in agony. In fact, I've come to call the figure "Circus Clown in Agony." If you see it, you know what I mean, and if you don't, then I suppose we should all just step away.

But before we do, here's another chance to enjoy this weirdness. As indicated in the annotation in the above photo, you have the option to see it or not see it. As everyone has been saying since the digital boom, your mileage may vary, or YMMV.

Above is a detail of Circus Clown, just in case this is that one last chance you needed to see the clown. Can't say I didn't try.

If you like this sort of thing, click on this link for more such madness.

More magic from cinematographer Robert Cline

I've watched hundreds of movies, serials and TV shows shot at the Iverson Movie Ranch, and almost all of them contain some great shots. But the gift that keeps on giving is "Thunder River Feud" — on the surface just another unexceptional hourlong entry in Monogram's Range Busters series, starring Ray "Crash" Corrigan, John "Dusty" King and Max "Alibi" Terhune. Either cinematographer Robert Cline was a genius, or he was accidentally brilliant in shot after shot. The above scene depicts what I believe is the Iverson Gorge, transforming it even in fuzzy old black and white into a mystical wonderland.

Cline, the cinematographer on "Thunder River Feud," was an Arizona native, born in 1898, who filmed something like 136 movies going back to the silent era. At the time he shot "Thunder River Feud" in 1941 (it was released in January 1942), he was getting a lot of work, filming as many as 15 movies a year. He shot a number of films at Iverson, including working with "Thunder River Feud" director S. Roy Luby on other Range Busters productions, such as "The Kid's Last Ride" and "Fugitive Valley" (both 1941). He died in Hollywood in 1946.

"Thunder River Feud" has been the subject of a number of other posts, including more than its share of "tricks of light." Again, was Robert Cline just lucky, or was he really that good?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Church in Iverson Village

Here's a screen shot from "The Hawk of Powder River" (1948) showing the church at the southern end of Iverson Village, along with a large rock behind it (Church Rock, for lack of a better name) that has been helpful in determining where the village was located. The area where the town was built is now part of a trailer park off Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just south of the 118 freeway.

The Western town was built in 1945 for the Gary Cooper movie "Along Came Jones." It remained more or less intact and grew over the years, being used in a number of movies and TV shows through the 1960s. Inevitably, it met the fate that seems to befall all Western movie towns: It burned down. 

The church wasn't around in the very beginning but appeared early on. I've heard a theory that it was mobile and was put in place whenever the producers wanted a church in town. Personally I think it probably just existed for a certain period of time and if one were to track the movies in which it appears, one could approximate the years that made up its lifespan. (Update: New information has surfaced on the history of the church since this post. Check it out here.)

Trailers now occupy the former site of Iverson Village, but that same Church Rock can be seen still marking the spot. The slightly shorter rock to the left of it is Gumdrop, which is an even more reliable marker that appears in a lot of movies, identifying the southern end of town.

The Chili Pepper

I haven't found this rock yet at Iverson, but based on this appearance in "The Hawk of Powder River" (1948), it seems to be an amusingly precise, albeit oversized replica of a chili pepper, right down to the stem. From its context in the movie, it is apparently somewhere on the Upper Iverson. The search continues. Click here for more about "The Hawk of Powder River," a 1948 oater from PRC starring singing cowboy Eddie Dean, directed by Ray Taylor and filmed by the great Iverson cinematographer Ernest Miller.

Here's where the Lone Ranger once forged his silver bullets, in Chatsworth, Calif. — the only surviving manmade foundation at the Iverson Movie Ranch

"Annie Oakley" TV show (1954)

Here's a look at the little cabin that used to stand in the widely filmed South Rim area of the Upper Iverson Movie Ranch. The building is commonly known as the Miner's Cabin because it was often filmed with fake mine entrances to its left. Some of the metal fastening devices that were used to install the mine entrances can still be seen attached to the rocks if you visit the former Upper Iverson. The shot above appears in the "Annie Oakley" TV show, in the episode "Annie Finds Strange Treasure." The structure is also sometimes called the Lone Ranger Cabin, and legend has it that, on TV at least, the Lone Ranger mined silver and forged his silver bullets here.

Miners' Cabin (Lone Ranger Cabin) foundation as it appears today

Today all that's left are the stone steps and part of the stone foundation, including the front porch area. The rocks don't look much like they did, partly because they're overgrown with grass and also because a number of them are missing. But if you go stone by stone and see how they match up, it works.

Here's another shot of the stones that remain today, along with some rocks on the right of the photo that used to be behind the cabin. They match the rocks seen at the far right in the "Annie Oakley" shot. As humble as these remains are, they're virtually the only remains — and by far the best — of any manmade structure from the filming era at the Iverson Movie Ranch.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The great Iverson cinematographers:
John MacBurnie

born December 1892, New York
died September 1956, L.A. (age 63)

One of Republic’s best and most prolific B-Western and serial shooters, John MacBurnie spent his relatively brief but productive film career (1940-1953) with the company before making a successful transition to television.

After polishing his skills on Republic’s low-profile Don “Red” Barry movies in the early 1940s, he moved on to the company’s serials and a wide variety of features. He eventually became a go-to shooter for higher-profile B-Westerns, making his mark in particular with the Allan “Rocky” Lane series. By the late 1940s he was shooting about 20 movies a year and working with Republic’s top Western stars, including Roy Rogers and Monte Hale as well as Rocky Lane, whom he continued to shoot from 1947 through the end of MacBurnie’s tenure at Republic — coinciding with the end of the Rocky Lane series — in 1953.

In Marshal of Amarillo, filmed by John MacBurnie, Allan "Rocky" Lane keeps an eye on the bad guys from an unusual vantage point — behind the rock known as World of Outlaws, in the North Rim. While most Upper Iverson filming was focused on the South Rim, Republic's Rocky Lane series shot extensively along the ranch's northern boundary.

Like Ernest Miller, his Republic stablemate for much of their careers, MacBurnie’s camera work displayed the Iverson rocks in ways that reveal he had a fondness for them. His thoughtful showcasing of the movie ranch’s many dramatic rock features can be seen in Iverson masterpieces such as Call of the Rockies (1944), starring Sunset Carson, and Rocky Lane features Renegades of Sonora (1948), Marshal of Amarillo (1948) and Desperadoes’ Outpost (1952) as well as landmark Iverson serials Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), Jesse James Rides Again (1947) and Desperadoes of the West (1950).

Even in El Paso Stampede (1953), the last movie in the Rocky Lane series, it appears that MacBurnie continued to work to set up interesting angles for whatever original footage was still being shot at Iverson. For one sequence in the film he went to the trouble to set up his camera in a rarely used elevated area on the backside of Water Tank Hill, above the Cliff on the South Rim of the Upper Iverson — and this was at a time when the filmmakers were relying heavily on recycled footage, shooting at the studio whenever possible and writing scripts based mainly on continuity while making the most of existing material.

During the early 1950s MacBurnie focused his lens on the company’s new star, popular singing cowboy Rex Allen. With Republic scaling back its operations at this time and opportunities opening up in television, MacBurnie made the leap to the new medium and worked steadily for the next few years. He died in 1956 at age 63.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The great Iverson cinematographers:
Reggie Lanning

born October 1893, Arizona
died December 1965, Woodland Hills, Calif. (age 72)

Reggie Lanning spent virtually his entire film career at Republic before capping off his resume with a successful stab at television in the mid- to late 1950s, shooting 56 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Born in 1893 and hailing from out West in Arizona, his early credits go as far back as the 1920s. But his run as a cinematographer got under way in earnest in the early days of Republic, which opened shop in 1935. His DP credits there span 1936-1955, coinciding with the two decades in which Republic was a powerhouse in serials and B-movies.

Lanning filmed a variety of productions at Republic but made an impact in B-Westerns and eventually became something of a serial specialist. Besides shooting a number of the company’s most important Iverson serials — Jungle Girl (1941), Perils of Nyoka (1942) and Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) among them — he got his share of featured B-Western assignments, working with Republic’s front-line roster of stars: John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Wild Bill Elliott, Rex Allen, Bob Steele, Don “Red” Barry, Sunset Carson and Monte Hale. He learned the ropes in B-Westerns with a string of entries in the company’s high-profile Three Mesquiteers series — then featuring John Wayne — in 1938 and 1939, and continued to work on the long-running series sporadically over the years as the cast evolved. He also dabbled in various incarnations of Republic’s popular Red Ryder series.

Turtle Rock, a fixture in the widely filmed South Rim area of the Upper Iverson, looms in the background in a scene shot by Reggie Lanning for the landmark 1942 Republic serial The Perils of Nyoka.

While not nearly as prolific as Republic stablemate Ernest Miller, Lanning produced a respectable volume of work in the heyday — he’s listed as a DP on a total of 129 productions, a number that doesn’t take into account the extra work involved in shooting serials, and one that would be still higher if his individual TV episodes were added up.

His Iverson work caught my eye early on, before I knew his name, with Perils of Nyoka still standing as one of the most important Iverson productions. He was an early entry in my Iverson cinematographers’ pantheon, earning that spot on the basis of his landmark serial work as well as the Roy Rogers Iverson spectacle Cowboy and the Senorita (1944).

Lanning lived into his 70s, something a number of the DPs of his era did not manage. He died in Woodland Hills in 1965.