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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The Tomb": A rare shoot at the Iverson Movie Ranch in the 1980s

An unusual entry in Iverson Movie Ranch lore is the 1986 movie "The Tomb," directed by Fred Olen Ray with a cast that includes Cameron Mitchell, John Carradine and Sybil Danning. The plot involves the theft of artifacts from an unmarked Egyptian grave — which turns out to be located on the Upper Iverson — and the revenge sought by the ancient Egyptian woman whose tomb it was. It's apparently based on a Bram Stoker novel, "The Jewel of Seven Stars."

A few well-chosen landmarks such as the Sphinx and the Pyramids — presumably stock footage — place the action in Egypt, before it shifts to the Upper Iverson. (Note that the Iverson Movie Ranch does have its own Sphinx, also known as Eagle Beak, which can be seen here.) What's interesting to me about "The Tomb" is that 1986 was almost two decades after Iverson stopped being a working movie ranch, and only a few productions were filmed there around this time. The movie includes just one short sequence at Iverson, but it's important footage — and it includes the appealing sight of cast members tromping around the South Rim of the Upper Iverson with a couple of camels.

The above shot features a rock I call Tamale, in the top left corner. It was widely seen in the B-Westerns and serials of the 1930s through the 1950s, and I believe it still exists today although I've never seen it. The area where it was located (and should still be located) is a spot I would love to get a look at but it's part of a private estate and remains essentially unexplored by movie historians. "The Tomb" may be the last movie to be filmed in this area before it was developed.

On their journey to find the hidden tomb, the adventurers pass some other familiar Iverson sights, including these iconic stone towers that have been called the Totem Rocks, Totem Pole Rocks, Easter Island Committee or simply Easter Island. The distinctive overhanging tower — Notch Rock — seen just right of center (directly above the head of the camel on the right) has at times served as the clincher that a production is shot at Iverson. More about Easter Island and the Notch, or Notch Rock, can be found here.

This shot from "The Tomb" is probably one of the last overviews of a portion of the Upper Iverson to appear in the movies. The shot looks north toward Oat Mountain (in the distant background, toward the right), with some of the rocks of the South Rim in the foreground. The photo below shows what this area looks like today.

Here's a view of approximately the same portion of the Upper Iverson in more recent times, from a 2009 visit, showing a number of the estates that have been built on the former movie ranch property. Construction has slowed considerably in recent years, but still continues. In many cases the landmark rocks seen in the movies and TV shows have been removed to make way for houses, and in other cases they remain preserved, in a way, as part of the landscape — often in driveways and back yards. Still others survive in hiking areas around the fringes of the developed land.

As the two American adventurers and their Egyptian guide close in on the hidden tomb, they hike below an instantly recognizable rock I call Moschops, which I've talked about in a previous post. In the shot above, Moschops is the pointed rock in the background, above and to the right of the guide. Moschops is still in place on the South Rim, and this shot turned out to be helpful in my own search for the tomb.

Here's a shot of Moschops and its environs in more recent times, taken during my search for the "tomb" in October 2011. This shot has some of the same rocks in the foreground that are seen in the movie shot, and these rocks turned out to be where the tomb entrance was situated. Moschops is pretty small in this shot, but it's in the background, along the skyline, a little right of center. I'll highlight it in the shot below.

This is the same shot, with Moschops and the tomb entrance pointed out.

Back to the movie, at last the team arrives at the secret entrance to the tomb — and heads on in.

One surprising thing — after finding the place myself and realizing how small it is — is that the filmmakers were able to film the entry in a continuous shot and somehow all three of those guys squeezed in there, into what amounts to little more than a small crack between a couple of rocks.

Here's the secret tomb entrance today, still readily accessible on the Upper Iverson's South Rim. The area surrounding this feature was heavily filmed, and it surprised me when I found this spot because cave entrances and arches are generally big attractions and got plenty of use during the filming days ... but this one appears to have been largely overlooked. I'm sure it will eventually turn up in other productions, but at this point I can say I've never seen it anywhere else. In honor of the movie's featured use of this spot, I've been calling this rock formation Tomb Rock, and referring to the cave itself as the Tomb (or alternately, Tomb Cave).

Sort of an amusing coda to the quest for the tomb is that once the boys got inside they found a huge hidden chamber, complete with plenty of treasure and smooth, carefully built walls — not at all what one would suspect from the outside!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Harry Stradling Jr.: an unsung Iverson hero

Oscar-nominated cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. is well-known for his work as director of photography on a string of successful movies from the late 1960s through the 1980s — "With Six You Get Eggroll," "Little Big Man," "The Way We Were," "Rooster Cogburn," "Midway," "Carny" ... the list goes on. What's less well-known, but also deserving of recognition, is his work at the Iverson Movie Ranch, which was in some cases pioneering and in other cases just plain unequaled.

"The Way We Were" (1973)

Stradling, who earned back-to-back Oscar nominations for best cinematography in 1973 (for the movie "1776") and 1974 (for "The Way We Were"), is the son of another acclaimed cinematographer, Harry Stradling Sr., who piled up an imposing 14 Oscar nominations during his long career and took home trophies for "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945) and "My Fair Lady" (1964).

The family's lineage also includes silent film-era cinematographer Walter Stradling, Harry Stradling Jr.'s great-uncle, an industry pioneer whose work goes all the way back to the 1914 drama "Captain Alvarez" and includes a number of Mary Pickford films — "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (1917), "The Little Princess" (1917), "Stella Maris" (1918) and others.

On the set of "Gypsy" (1962): former first lady Mamie Eisenhower, 
left, camera operator Harry Stradling Jr., actress Rosalind Russell 
and, bottom right, DP Harry Stradling Sr.

Like most DPs, Harry Stradling Jr. spent much of his early career as a camera assistant and camera operator, often uncredited, starting with "Gaslight" in 1944. He worked alongside his dad on some of the elder Stradling's high-profile projects in the late 1950s and early 1960s — "Guys and Dolls" (1955), "The Pajama Game" (1957), "A Summer Place" (1959), "Gypsy" (1962). Beginning in the mid-1960s he spread his wings as a DP in his own right, with the 1967 movie "Welcome to Hard Times" his first feature film as cinematographer. (IMDb lists the 1965 movie "Synanon" as his first, but Harry confirms that's an erroneous listing, as "Synanon" was shot by his dad.)

Stradling Jr. came into his own — and stepped up to the plate at Iverson in a big way — during the middle years of the long-running TV Western "Gunsmoke." Between 1964 and 1967 he shot 87 episodes of the show — a drop in the bucket for a series that was on television for 20 seasons and churned out a record 635 episodes, but a significant contribution to the evolution of the TV Western and, in particular, an important part of the later history of the Iverson Movie Ranch.

Stradling's "Gunsmoke" work brought him to Iverson on only a few occasions, but he made the most of them. Above and below are a few shots from the episode "Outlaw's Woman," which first aired on Dec. 11, 1965. These shots were taken from high up in the boulders atop Garden of the Gods, which had to be a logistical challenge, to say the least. This first shot in the sequence shows two bushwhackers looking down on the iconic giants known as Eagle Beak, or Sphinx, on the left, and Indian Head, or Tower Rock, on the right. The fact that we're looking down on them says something about how high up we are. Eagle Beak and Indian Head are two of the most imposing, and most famous, rocks at Iverson. They're usually seen from the opposite angle — from below and from the other side — towering over the action, as in their trademark appearance in John Ford's "Stagecoach," shown in another post.

The views from this unusual angle are pretty spectacular, and Stradling would have had to orchestrate a lot of equipment and crew members to get these shots. Among the problems: the height and inaccessability (I doubt he could have used a crane up there); the awkward, heavy, delicate and expensive camera gear; the wind (it's just about always windy up there); and the uneven surface of the rocks. Just getting the camera in place — and keeping it from going down in a mighty crash — would have taken significant planning. The above shot looks down on the Iverson Gorge, including Nyoka Cliff just above the hat of the guy on the right. Nyoka Cliff usually looms above everything else, so seeing how far below us it is gives another indication of the height. A number of other familiar Iverson rocks also appear in the shot, including Lone Ranger Rock near the top left corner.

Another shot taken high up in the rarefied air atop Garden of the Gods — this one appears to be shot from even higher than the previous shot. We're again looking down on Sphinx/Eagle Beak (top left corner) and Tower Rock/Indian Head (top center). Stradling was shooting, in effect, from the Lower Iverson's highest point — it's the only time in my hundreds of scans of Iverson productions that I've seen any DP attempt this.

One more shot from the same "Gunsmoke" episode — this one isn't taken up in the heights but it's a personal favorite. Marshal Matt Dillon has just shot a bad guy, who earns his money by collapsing on one of the rocks in Garden of the Gods.

Stradling moved on from "Gunsmoke" in 1967 to take a position as the DP for a new TV Western, "Cimarron Strip," which starred Stuart Whitman. The series lasted just one season (1967-68), but it accounted for a few good moments at Iverson. Stradling shot 21 of the show's 23 episodes.

Only a couple of episodes of "Cimarron Strip" were shot at Iverson. The best examples are found in the episode "Fool's Gold," as seen above. The episode premiered Jan. 11, 1968, and was probably shot during the few months before that airdate. It includes the relatively rare phenomenon of water features on the Upper Iverson — an indication that it would have probably been taped during the rainy season. By the way, that's Slim Pickens at the gate.

In general, water features at Iverson are rarely shot, maybe because it's hard to plan for them to be there. The place tends to be bone dry, to the point where film crews have to bring in their own water source when they do need to make a splash. My sense is that natural ponds such as this one get used in productions only when a production crew comes along that's able to think on its feet. Someone had to adapt quickly to take advantage of something as unexpected as a waterhole on the Upper Iverson, and Stradling got the shot — reflection and all.

The building in these shots is also pretty rare, and I've never seen it featured to the extent it is in this "Cimarron Strip" episode. It's generally just a shed on the outskirts of the Fury Set — a set consisting mainly of a large barn and small ranch house, built for the TV show "Fury." In its "Cimarron Strip" appearance the shed serves as the home of Malachi Grimes, Slim Pickens' character.

Here's another angle on the Fury Set, including the barn, as seen in the same "Fool's Gold" episode of "Cimarron Strip." The set was situated on the Upper Iverson's North Rim. That's the back of Malachi's place in the foreground.

One more shot from the terrific "Fool's Gold" episode of "Cimarron Strip": This one shows a rock that's a personal favorite of mine, which I call World of Outlaws. It's the round rock with the massive "wing" atop it, seen near the center of the shot, above the horse with two riders on it. Sadly, World of Outlaws no longer exists — a casualty of the development of the Upper Iverson.

Not long after "Cimarron Strip" shut down, Harry Stradling Jr. returned to Iverson to shoot a key scene for a feature film, 1969's "Support Your Local Sheriff." The comedic Western can be thought of as Iverson's farewell to the 1960s and the coda to the era of Iverson as a working movie ranch.

James Garner and Jack Elam
in "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969)

This was after the 118 Freeway was in place, rendering the Lower Iverson unusable, and by this time the Iverson as a whole had ceased being a full-time filming location. But Stradling shot the title sequence and a few other minor shots for "Support Your Local Sheriff" on the Upper Iverson, giving us what amounts to one last look at the place.

The title sequence features a fast-paced land rush, with a number of Iverson landmarks popping up. Above is a relatively rare movie rock found on the Upper Iverson's North Rim, which I call Platypus. (This isn't the angle where it looks like a platypus; stay tuned for that — I'm looking for a good one. In fact, I believe the above shot, shown as it appears in the movie, is flipped horizontally.)

Here's a nice wide shot from the opening land rush sequence, showing Oat Mountain in the distance and again featuring Platypus, in the background at left, along with a neighboring rock, Fish Head. You'll probably have to click on the photo to enlarge it for a better look. Today Platypus and Fish Head stand as symbols of the frustration that is an inescapable part of Iverson research. I believe one or both of these intriguing rocks have survived, but I've never seen them in person as they are concealed on private property — hidden under a tree in the backyard of one of the estates that now occupy most of the Upper Iverson. I often wonder whether the owner of the property has any idea about the sandstone treasure he has in his yard.

Harry Stradling Jr. worked in an era that was already well past the heyday of the Iverson Movie Ranch, and things had evolved since the age of the B-Westerns of the '30s and '40s and the early TV Westerns of the '50s. For one thing, Harry notes that the directors called all the shots, which, even in an industry where the director has always been king, stands in contrast to the relative autonomy enjoyed by DPs on some of those earlier productions. When cost-conscious operations such as Republic and PRC showed up at Iverson, with their much smaller crews, we're pretty sure the decision-making responsibility trickled all the way down to the man behind the camera — leaving room for legendary Iverson DPs such as Ernest Miller and John MacBurnie to work things out for themselves. We're curious what Harry would have done with the place had he come along a couple of decades earlier and really had carte blanche. But we're grateful that he got a shot at it when he did.

Thanks for the Iverson memories, Harry!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Scratch off another mystery:
The Toucan has been found

One of the mysteries that captured my fancy in the early days of my research into Iverson (before I even considered it "research") was this unusual rock seen in the background of the Lone Ranger movie, shot in 1949:

To me it looked like a large beak, and I started calling it Toucan. I always suspected the appearance might be an optical illusion, and it turns out that it is.

Maybe you can see the resemblance to a real toucan.

Of course, this is the toucan that's familiar to most Americans.

Toucan eventually began turning up in a few other places, and each time I got clues that helped pinpoint its location. The above shot from Range Beyond the Blue (1947) helped establish it as Lower Iverson, with a distinctive peak in the background that I think is Rocky Peak, which I also call Pyramid Peak. (Everyone always talks about Rocky Peak, and kind of nods in that general direction, but no one has ever said with any conviction whether that particular rocky peak is the real Rocky Peak.) Toucan is in the center of the shot, and doesn't look as "Toucan-y" as it did in the Lone Ranger movie. Incidentally, the quirky rock in the foreground has yet to be found.

Another angle, this time from Rocky Mountain Rangers (1940). That's Toucan at the right of the photo. With each new angle it looks less like a toucan. The hills in the background are west of Chatsworth Park.

Today, more than three years after first spotting it in Lone Ranger, I finally found Toucan. It was hiding under a tree. It was a lot smaller than I expected, and covered with green moss (or something), presumably from getting too much shade. It's located in a portion of the former Iverson that has been preserved as a park, in the area just north of Garden of the Gods, which I call the North Cluster. The above shot shows what it looks like today, from close to the same angle as the Rocky Mountain Rangers shot above.

Here's the most "toucan-y" shot I can get of it today, which isn't very toucan-y. It's hard to get a good look at the rock because of the tree that surrounds it.

It's right next to the Saddle, a rock that is on the radar of most Iverson researchers. Toucan and Saddle are kind of hidden under the same tree. I used to call this one the Bongos before I encountered other researchers and found out that some of these rocks already had perfectly good names — in most cases more Western-sounding than mine, which is a good thing when naming rocks that may have appeared in hundreds of Westerns.

Here's a shot I took today showing the Saddle, on the right, which is a little bit hard to see because of the tree, and the Toucan, on the left, which is almost impossible to see under the tree — just to show their proximity to each other.