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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Terrific find: An old Western "town" set near Garden of the Gods — and Boris Karloff working at Iverson, one year before "Frankenstein"

"The Utah Kid" (1930): A rare early adobe in front of the Phantom, near Garden of the Gods

I recently found out about a group of buildings that stood near Garden of the Gods, on the Iverson Movie Ranch, all the way back in 1930. Film location researcher Tinsley Yarbrough brought the discovery to my attention after he spotted the structures in the early sound Western "The Utah Kid," starring Rex Lease.

The set appears to consist mainly of three "adobe" buildings. That is, they're adobe in appearance, although in all likelihood they were made of something more flimsy — and cheaper.

It's possible that other buildings were included in the set, but these three are the only ones I was able to find in "The Utah Kid." For research purposes, I've labeled them Adobes A, B and C. I have begun to think of the set as what may be the earliest Western "town" set built on the Iverson Ranch — although it's a stretch to call it a town.

The buildings are tucked in just north of some of the most familiar sandstone giants on the Lower Iverson, including the Garden of the Gods mainstays Tower Rock, Sphinx and Phantom.

Inside the Saloon at "Robber's Roost" (studio shot)

The set appears in "The Utah Kid" as "Robber's Roost," a gathering place for bad guys where they can enjoy many of the comforts of the law-abiding world — including a busy saloon — while they're hiding out.

The giant sandstone boulder known as the Phantom looms over Adobe A

Much of the focus in the movie is on Adobe A, the fanciest of the three buildings, by far. The building, distinguished by its unusual angled roof, serves as the exterior for the Robber's Roost saloon.

Adobe B

The much smaller Adobe B also gets a fair amount of screen time in "The Utah Kid," with a role as a honeymoon hideaway of sorts.

In this shot of Rex Lease in front of Adobe B, we get a more detailed view of the building.

Boris Karloff lurks outside Adobe B

One of the many surprises in "The Utah Kid" is that it features Boris Karloff in a rare Western role, playing a henchman. The release of "Frankenstein" a year later — with Karloff in the role of "The Monster" — would make the actor a household name.

Boris Karloff on the Iverson Ranch — promo still for "The Utah Kid"

Here's a promotional photo of Karloff taken for "The Utah Kid," which offers a clearer look at the actor. The print we have of "The Utah Kid" isn't horrible, but it's pretty heavily scored in some places, as you may have noticed.

Lobby card for "The Utah Kid" — where's Karloff?

I found it interesting that Karloff, who had already spent more than a decade honing his acting chops in the silent movies, wasn't big enough yet to crack the movie's "top five" and find his way onto the lobby card. His role in "The Utah Kid" was larger than those of some of the actors who did get their names on the card.

An ad for the movie, apparently from a newspaper published around the time of the film's release, misspells the name of the leading lady, Dorothy Sebastian.

Adobe C

Adobe C, the smallest of the three buildings, is barely used in the movie. But it does appear on screen, albeit a bit blurry, as Rex Lease and Sebastian, his leading lady, ride past.

Adobe A — the Robber's Roost saloon — under siege

Adobe A, the saloon, becomes the focal point of a climactic siege on Robber's Roost by the sheriff and his men. In this shot the building is obscured by gunsmoke as the firefight rages.

Head bad guy Tom Santschi, center, and his henchman, Boris Karloff, leave the Saloon

While "The Utah Kid" makes good use of the Robber's Roost set, it is unlikely that the set was built for the movie. The studio behind the picture — Tiffany Productions, a notoriously low-budget Poverty Row studio — would have been reluctant to spend the kind of money needed to build even a flimsy version of the relatively elaborate set.

"The Utah Kid" — shootout filmed from the interior of Adobe A

Some of the camera angles seen in the big shootout were filmed from the interior of Adobe A, with the view outside the door — including a wispy tree, presumably a fake — matching the actual location as it appears in exterior shots.

This version of the shot points out the wispy tree.

A wide shot of the Robber's Roost set area includes the same wispy tree, seen from the reverse angle.

Here's another shot taken from the interior of Adobe A. The inclusion of these shots means the building was designed with sufficient room inside for the clunky filming equipment in use at the time — adding fuel to the theory that the set construction would have been too expensive for Tiffany Productions.

A minor set that also turns up in "The Utah Kid" is this corral area, situated not far from where the adobes were built. The location of this set, just south of the Phantom in Central Garden of the Gods, is pinpointed by Getaway Rock, the large rock that dominates the background of the shot.

"Tennessee's Partner" (1955) — Getaway Rock, in Central Garden of the Gods

Getaway Rock gets its name from its appearance in the 1955 John Payne-Ronald Reagan Western "Tennessee's Partner," where the rock marks the getaway route of the villainous Turner in the film's climactic sequence. You can read a detailed account of the location shoot for this sequence by clicking here.

Getaway Rock as it appears today

Getaway Rock can still be found easily today. It's in Central Garden of the Gods, at the west end of the open area south of Phantom and Sphinx.

Rex Lease outside Adobe B in "The Utah Kid"

Rex Lease, the star of "The Utah Kid," may not be among the best-known cowboy heroes, but he had a prolific and durable movie career, mostly in low-budget Westerns — many of them filmed at Iverson.

"Rough Riding Ranger" (Superior, 1935)

He played his share of bit parts, going all the way back to 1924, eventually working his way up to lead status and starring in a string of B-Westerns for Poverty Row studios such as Superior and Argosy, as well as Tiffany.

"Custer's Last Stand" (Stage and Screen, 1936)

Like many cowboy heroes of the '30s, Rex also put in his time in the matinee serials. One of his most high-profile cliffhangers was "Custer's Last Stand," which once again had Rex riding the Iverson Ranch.

Rex Lease with actress Charlotte Merriam, his first wife (1928)

In all, Lease appeared in about 250 movies in a career spanning more than 35 years. Capping off his career, he played a series of "henchman"-type roles in the late '50s on the TV series "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," before hanging up his spurs in 1960. The West Virginia native died in Van Nuys, Calif., in 1966 at age 62.

Given that it's unlikely the adobe set was built for "The Utah Kid," we're left with an obvious question: Who, then, did build the set? For now, that question remains unanswered, and it could prove challenging to answer. In fact, given the scarcity not just of records from this period, but also of movies from the era — with many films from the '20s having dissolved into piles of nitrate dust — we may never know. But let's not let that keep us from trying.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post of The Utah Kid adobe village. Thank you.

Phil Bird said...

Well done, fascinating post.

Swami Nano said...

You're welcome, and thanks for the feedback.

Phil, I hope your rock watching is going well!