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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• 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).
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Monday, June 16, 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Crouching Cat, Rock Island and the indignities suffered by rocks

"The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (1958)

When I spotted this shot on the "Wyatt Earp" TV show — in the episode "One-Man Army," which first aired Jan. 7, 1958 — something about it didn't look right. That's Hugh O'Brian as Earp standing on the left and Robert Anderson as the ne'er-do-well Drum Denman on the horse, at right. The boys look OK — it's the rock in the background that bugs me. That sharp-pointed "Alpine" pinnacle at the top doesn't fit in with the rest of the Iverson Movie Ranch landscape.

I knew we were at the Iverson Movie Ranch because of some of the surrounding scenery — including a little bit of Cactus Hill, visible toward the left in the above photo. This shot reveals more of the rock, which is featured prominently during a fistfight between Earp and Denman. I'm pretty familiar with the rocks at the site, and something about this one cried out "Fake!" At first I thought maybe they were trying to hide something in the background.

But the background in general includes some pretty cool stuff. As the scene plays out and an angry Earp beats the living daylights out of Denman, Rock Island pops in and out of camera range. It's one of my favorite Iverson features — it can be seen in the above photo, at the right of the frame, and it's highlighted in the shot below.

Here's the same "Wyatt Earp" shot with Rock Island pointed out. It looks small here, but that's because it's some distance away and well below the elevation of the foreground action. The area where the sequence is shot is up near the top of Nyoka Cliff.

Part of Rock Island as it appears today — held captive in Rock Island Prison

These days Rock Island is mostly buried, and the fraction of it that remains above ground is behind bars — in a location I call Rock Island Prison. It's actually one of the swimming pool areas for the Cal West Townhomes, and the rock serves as a decoration of sorts alongside the driveway into the condos. The "prison bars" kind of dampen its decorative usefulness if you ask me, but no one did. So there it sits — I suppose it's better than being blown up.

"They Died With Their Boots On" (1941) — Rock Island

This is Rock Island in happier times, when armies marched below the mighty cluster of rocks, as seen in Warner Bros.' big-budget feature on the Custer/Little Big Horn story "They Died With Their Boots On," starring Errol Flynn. The massive formation of sandstone boulders was an imposing presence, towering above a detachment of mounted Cavalrymen who had no idea they were about to be on the losing end of one of U.S. history's most famous massacres.

"Fighting Seabees" (1944) — Rock Island at top right

Custer's army wasn't the first or last to have to negotiate Rock Island. With World War II still raging a few years later, another big-budget war movie, John Wayne's "Fighting Seabees," set up shop in the Iverson Gorge and Rock Island became part of the battle in the South Pacific. This shot underscores the massive scale of the rocks, as the men look like toy soldiers beneath the towering boulders. I'll point out some of the key details of this shot in the next photo.

Fake palm trees were put up to make the Iverson Gorge's rocky terrain look more like the South Pacific. The large fuel tank that takes up much of the foreground plays a big role in the battle depicted in "Fighting Seabees." A portion of Crown Rock has survived and remains a neighbor of the remnants of Rock Island in the condo community — just down that same driveway from Rock Island Prison.

"Ride 'em Cowboy" (1942) — Rock Island

Another view of Rock Island more closely matches the angle seen in the Wyatt Earp sequence — and the angle seen in the "Rock Island Prison" view. In this shot from the Abbott and Costello comedy "Ride 'em Cowboy," the car at the center of the frame is about to splash into a manmade pond in the foreground.

In it goes — through the magic of special effects. I used this shot on my business cards for a while.

To get an idea of how much more there is to Rock Island than meets the eye these days, the portion of the rock that can be seen in the contemporary "Rock Island Prison" shot above is marked here. The bulk of Rock Island was buried during grading for the condo development.

Back to the Wyatt Earp fistfight, here again I've marked the portion of Rock Island that remains visible today.

One could make the point that the rock featured in the "Wyatt Earp" sequence suffered its own indignities. I'm baffled as to why the rock in its natural state wasn't deemed adequate for the sequence, but for whatever reasons, someone saw fit to slap fake stuff on it. I have considered whether the "prosthetics" may have been left over from some other production, but this wasn't a rock that saw a lot of screen time, and it's showcased here so prominently that I have to think the "Wyatt Earp" producers were the ones who dressed it up for the occasion.

The same rock as it appears today

The question is why — and I'm afraid I don't know the answer. This is what that same rock looks like in real life, and I can't say I see anything wrong with it. To me the rock looks a bit like a crouching cat. The shot includes a number of the modern annoyances that have pretty much ruined the ambiance of the area, namely condos, water tanks and the 118 Freeway. I would propose that the fake "Alpine peak" was there to conceal the water tank, but the tank hadn't been built yet in 1957, when the "Wyatt Earp" episode was shot.

Seen from a slightly different angle here, the rock as it lives and breathes today is free of the plaster-of-Paris humiliation that it suffered during filming on "Wyatt Earp." More important, the birthright of geography — with the rock's high perch in terrain that wouldn't be cost-effective to develop — allowed it to avoid the fate suffered by Rock Island. The rock stands today on public land, preserved in an unmarked section of Garden of the Gods Park. It has a cave under it, which you can kind of see from this angle. Here you can also see Oat Mountain in the distance, at top left, hiding behind a section of Cactus Hill.

The cave played a key role in the "Wyatt Earp" sequence. After Earp grows weary of hammering his fists into Denman's face, he forces him down into the cave — down past all that plaster of Paris. In this shot it appears as though they didn't even bother to tidy up the crumbs.

The TV version of the cave interior is spacious and well-lit. I've been inside the cave, and this is not what it looks like. As one would expect, the cave sequence is shot in the studio.

The inside of the actual cave looks like this. I know it's a crummy shot, but that's kind of the point. As with most caves, the lighting is really bad inside, which is one reason they're always shot in the studio. An even bigger reason is you'd have a heck of a time squeezing a TV production crew, complete with lighting, sound and camera gear, into these cramped quarters. As it is, a full-sized person has to contort a bit to shinny down into the hole.

The crouching cat rock provides an illustration of what goes into naming these rocks. I'm not trying to name every rock at Iverson, even though sometimes it might seem that way. The problem is we need a way to refer to them — something more efficient than, "You know, that rock in the 'Wyatt Earp' episode." So I did eventually bestow a name on this rock, at least for the purposes of my research.

Christened: Crouching Cat

I was torn between One-Man Army Rock, in honor of the "Wyatt Earp" episode, and Crouching Cat, because that's what the rock looks like to me. I initially tried to go with One-Man Army Rock, and some readers may have seen the rock briefly ID'd that way on the blog. But as the weeks went on I found I couldn't remember the name and I was constantly asking myself, "What was that name I came up with again for the Crouching Cat rock?" I finally accepted that the rock, by virtue of its stubborn insistence on looking like a crouching cat, had named itself: It's Crouching Cat.

"The Purple Monster Strikes" (1945)

Crouching Cat wasn't one of Iverson's most widely filmed features, but it did make an appearance in the Republic Serial "The Purple Monster Strikes."

It may be hard for readers to tell that it's the same rock in some of these shots, so here's a "then and now" comparison pointing out a few details visible in both the "Purple Monster" shot and the recent shot.

Here's another look at Crouching Cat in "The Purple Monster Strikes." Once again, a bit of Rock Island can be seen down below, at the far left edge of the frame — as noted in the next shot.

I'm including links to Amazon, below, for some of the productions discussed in this blog entry ... check 'em out!

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