Of all the cowboy action heroes of the B-Western heyday, I'd be willing to bet that no one got to know the giant sandstone boulders of the Iverson Movie Ranch any better than Johnny Mack Brown.
"Six Gun Gospel" (1943) — Johnny Mack Brown and Rebel (Upper Iverson)
It was de rigueur back in those days for Hollywood cowboys to spend a good chunk of their time negotiating the harsh landscape of the busy Chatsworth, Calif., filming location — a place that was notorious for its blazing hot temperatures in the summer and its cutting winds the rest of the year.
"The Stranger From Pecos" (1943)
Johnny learned to work so closely with the rocks and other features of the Iverson Ranch that he became a part of that landscape. In this shot from the Monogram B-Western "The Stranger From Pecos" he keeps an eye on things from just north of Garden of the Gods.
Johnny Mack Brown with Fuzzy Knight and Maria Montez, "Boss of Bullion City" (1940)
Before his 10-year run with Monogram, Brown made a series of B-Westerns for Universal from 1939-1943. A recent blog post focused on the shoot for Universal's "Boss of Bullion City," in which frequent Johnny Mack Brown sidekick Fuzzy Knight left his mark on the Upper Iverson's South Rim. Please click here to read that post.
"Six Gun Gospel" (1943) — Johnny Mack Brown in Central Garden of the Gods
In this shot from the Monogram B-Western "Six Gun Gospel," Johnny shares the screen with a small group of rocks that have become known as the Harum Scarum Cluster — the same rocks that appeared in the background behind Elvis Presley when he was filming the original tent scene for his 1965 movie "Harum Scarum."
Elvis Presley and Fran Jeffries in promo still for "Harum Scarum" (1965)
Here's a colorized version of those same rocks — the Harum Scarum Cluster — 22 years later in a promotional still for the Elvis movie. For more details on the Elvis shoot, please click here to read my earlier blog item about it.
During Johnny's stints at both Universal and Monogram, the bulk of the outdoor action was filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch. In this photo Johnny calls the shots from a perch on top of Fish Head, on the Upper Iverson.
"Raiders of the South" (1947)
Here's a happy Johnny Mack Brown holstering his weapon after a confrontation on the South Rim in Monogram's "Raiders of the South." In the background I've noted a couple of familiar North Rim features.
Johnny's horse, Rebel, rears up just outside the north entrance to Devil's Doorway. The horse's sudden action was clearly unplanned, but with Johnny calmly handling the animal and staying focused on the scene, it made for a nice addition to the movie. The producers apparently liked it too — they used the same footage again the following year in "Canyon Ambush."
Rebel could be a handful. He got into a frisky mood again during the shoot for "Whistling Hills," released four months after "Montana Desperado."
"Whistling Hills" — Johnny and Rebel
But Johnny was an expert horseman, whose riding skills were regularly put to the test at Iverson. His long working relationship with Rebel also helped lend authenticity to his equestrian scenes.
Johnny shared the rocky terrain of the Iverson Movie Ranch with leading lady Noel Neill in "Whistling Hills." The western San Fernando Valley — some of which was still farmland in 1951 — can be seen in the background.
"Superman" (Columbia serial, 1948) — Noel Neill with
the original Superman of the movies, Kirk Alyn
the original Superman of the movies, Kirk Alyn
Noel Neill had already played Lois Lane in Columbia's two "Superman" serials by the time she paired up with Johnny for "Whistling Hills."
Johnny and Noel seemed to really hit it off. "Whistling Hills" was directed by Derwin Abrahams, who was working steadily in TV at the time and went on to direct many episodes of "The Cisco Kid" and "Hopalong Cassidy."
"Adventures of Superman" TV Series, circa 1953: Noel Neill (Lois Lane)
and George Reeves, in his Clark Kent disguise, go over a script
Soon after "Whistling Hills," Noel's star power would take a giant leap when she reprised her Lois Lane role for the TV series "Adventures of Superman" starting in 1953.
"Whistling Hills" — Noel Neill on the darker horse, Johnny Mack Brown on Rebel
Who knew Lois Lane could ride? Noel was able to keep pace with Johnny during the many equestrian scenes in "Whistling Hills." It does not appear that doubles were used during this sequence.
"Colorado Ambush" (1951)
When he wasn't out among the rocks, Johnny was a fixture on the Iverson Western street. In this shot from the climactic sequence in Monogram's "Colorado Ambush," a wounded Johnny Mack Brown kneels in the middle of the street outside the Hotel, on the left, and the South Adobe, on the right.
Here's another shot of Johnny on the set of the Western street. Behind him in the top left corner is the water trough, part of the corral area just east of the main street.
"Montana Desperado" (1951) — Johnny Mack Brown in front of Cooper Rock
In a screen shot from Monogram's "Montana Desperado," the football-shaped rock behind Johnny is Cooper Rock — named after another movie icon who put in time at Iverson, Gary Cooper.
1926 Rose Bowl: Johnny Mack Brown, with ball
In his youth, Brown was more focused on actual footballs. Known as "the Dothan Antelope" during his college days, the Dothan, Ala., native was a standout halfback for the University of Alabama in the mid-1920s, capping off his playing career by scoring two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1926.
"The Dothan Antelope" — Johnny Mack Brown — MVP of the 1926 Rose Bowl
Brown's heroics earned him Rose Bowl MVP honors and carried the Crimson Tide to its first national title. Alabama's come-from-behind 20-19 victory over the Washington Huskies went down in sports history as "The Football Game That Changed the South."
A young Johnny Mack Brown goes Hollywood
After college he turned down offers to play pro football, opting for Hollywood and finding work in the silent movies. One version of the story is that Johnny auditioned for MGM while he was in L.A. for the Rose Bowl, and landed a five-year contract. True or not, we know he began appearing in a string of MGM movies the following year.
"The Fair Co-Ed" (1927) — John Mack Brown with Marion Davies
Even with his acting chops still unrefined, his good looks helped the young John Mack Brown, as he was then billed, quickly work his way up to leading man status. By the time he was 22 he was playing opposite some of the biggest stars of the day — including his first lead role, opposite Marion Davies in "The Fair Co-Ed."
"A Woman of Affairs" (1928) — John Mack Brown and Greta Garbo
A frequent co-star in Brown's early career was Greta Garbo, with Brown and Garbo working together in "The Divine Woman" (1928) and "The Single Standard" (1929), along with "A Woman of Affairs" in 1928.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928) — John Mack Brown in lead role opposite Joan Crawford
Other big-name actresses who co-starred with the young John Mack Brown in the silent pictures included Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.
John Mack Brown with Mary Pickford in "Coquette" (1929)
As the silents were giving way to the talkies, Brown was among the actors who successfully made the transition, starring with screen legend Mary Pickford in her first talking role, in "Coquette."
"Montana Moon" (1930) — Joan Crawford and John Mack Brown
An early Western role for Johnny came in the 1930 talkie "Montana Moon," where he was reunited with his leading lady from "Our Dancing Daughters" two years earlier, Joan Crawford.
"Billy the Kid" (1930) — John Mack Brown and Kay Johnson
It soon became clear that the handsome, athletic and agile Johnny Mack Brown was well-suited for work in Westerns, which were emerging as Hollywood's hottest genre. A milestone role on his path toward Western hero was playing the title character in director King Vidor's landmark 1930 Western "Billy the Kid."
King Vidor and the set for "Lincoln, N.M.," in the hills of the northern San Fernando Valley
This remarkable promotional shot for "Billy the Kid" shows the film's director, King Vidor, overlooking the set for the town of Lincoln, N.M., which was built for the film along what is now Wilbur Avenue in the hilly Porter Ranch area above the northwestern San Fernando Valley.
"Billy the Kid" set in modern-day Porter Ranch (Jerry England collection)
The choice of this location for "Billy the Kid" — a short distance east of the Iverson Movie Ranch, where filming had been going on since the 1910s — was part of a surge in interest in filming in the northwest corner of the Valley that coincided with the rapid rise of the Western genre in the early 1930s.
After a brief stint at Paramount, Johnny landed the title role in the Mascot cliffhanger "Fighting With Kit Carson." The 12-chapter serial jump-started Johnny's long working relationship with the Iverson Movie Ranch.
"Guns in the Dark" (Supreme Pictures/Republic, 1937)
Johnny went to work for Poverty Row producer A.W. Hackel's Supreme Pictures in 1935, a move that brought Johnny into the Republic fold when Hackel signed a distribution deal with Republic the following year. Republic was just ramping up its Iverson production slate, and Johnny started heading out there regularly in 1937.
"Flaming Frontiers" (Universal serial, 1938)
A move to Universal in the late 1930s had Johnny working briefly in serials again — including "Flaming Frontiers," where he was once again billed as "John Mack Brown." But by the early '40s he had moved solidly into B-Westerns and had become one of the most prolific stars in the Universal lineup.
"Oklahoma Justice" (Monogram, 1951): One of the great Iverson movies,
directed by Lewis D. Collins; cinematography by Ernest Miller
The move to Monogram put together one of the top stars of B-Westerns — Johnny Mack Brown — with the B-Western "A-Team" that Monogram had assembled, including directors Lewis D. Collins, Thomas Carr, Lambert Hillyer, Howard Bretherton, Ray Taylor, Lesley Selander and Wallace Fox — all Iverson Movie Ranch veterans. Master Iverson cinematographers Ernest Miller and Gilbert Warrenton were also in the Monogram stable.
"Whistling Hills" (Monogram, 1951)
Monogram was working Johnny especially hard around 1951, when some of his best Iverson footage surfaced. "Whistling Hills," "Oklahoma Justice," "Colorado Ambush" and "Montana Desperado" were just a few of the great Johnny Mack Brown Iverson titles that came out that year — along with the Iverson masterpiece "Man From Sonora." I devoted a blog post to that one a while back, which you can read by clicking here.
I'll go ahead and make the point that Johnny went from working in the shadows of Hollywood royalty — Garbo, Pickford, et al. — to lurking in the shadows of a different kind of movie star: the rocks of the Iverson Ranch.
"Montana Desperado" (1951) — Johnny Mack Brown on Iverson's Western street
The Monogram years — 1943-1952 — also brought Johnny to the Iverson Western street on a regular basis, once the place was built in 1945. I believe much of the location shooting was done in bunches, with footage filmed for multiple movies during a single visit — one reason Johnny always wore the same outfit around this time.
"Whistling Hills" — Johnny Mack Brown and Bud Osborne
Johnny seems to be enjoying hanging out with B-Western stalwart Bud Osborne during a scene shot in the corral area near Iverson's Western street. Osborne chalked up a whopping 630 screen appearances — most of them in B-Westerns — during a career spanning 1912-1963. He plays Pete the stage driver in "Whistling Hills."
"Montana Desperado" — Left to right: Myron Healey, Johnny Mack Brown and Virginia Herrick
Johnny works the Lower Iverson with one of his frequent co-stars in Myron Healey, along with actress Virginia Herrick. The actors are photographed in Devil's Pass, also known as Vultura's Pass, with the camera aimed toward the west.
Johnny does an action dismount as he rushes to the aid of a wounded Jimmy Ellison, who played Johnny's pal in a string of Monogram productions. In the background is a quirky stacked rock that stood for a period of time near Zorro's Cave on the Lower Iverson.
In this unusual sequence, where Johnny's about to get the drop on the masked killer he has been chasing throughout the movie, the star is filmed from the interior of the Saddlehorn Relay Station with the set's shed visible in the background. My hunch is that cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton had a lot to do with setting up this shot, although director Wallace Fox knew his way around Iverson too.
Trees were integral to the Johnny Mack Brown landscape, and in this shot from "Whistling Hills," cinematographer Ernest Miller and director Derwin Abrahams found an especially gnarly one for Johnny to work with, located near the Cave Rocks in what is now the Indian Hills Mobile Home Village.
Low branch: Johnny Mack Brown and Rebel near the Grove, on the Lower Iverson
Johnny had a different tree to contend with during an earlier sequence in "Whistling Hills." Shots using trees and rocks as framing devices are a trademark of Ernest Miller, the movie's director of photography.
"Whistling Hills" — Johnny Mack Brown on Rebel (Lower Iverson)
So many great shots can be found of Johnny Mack Brown working the Iverson Movie Ranch that it's impossible to do justice to the subject even in a blog post as long as this one. So I'll start wrapping it up for now, but you can bet I'll be featuring Johnny again in future posts.
I want to give a shout-out to the great Monogram Cowboy Collection DVD sets, the source of many of the screen shots seen in this blog post and elsewhere on the Iverson Movie Ranch Blog. The release of these sets is something of a minor miracle — one of the most exciting developments in recent years for fans of old B-Westerns and old filming locations.
Much of Johnny Mack Brown's Monogram career can be found on these sets, along with Whip Wilson, Jimmy Wakely and other B-Western stars. The sets contain a wealth of Iverson material, and the movies are fully remastered and appear in incredible picture quality — something that usually doesn't happen with B-Westerns.
"Only" eight volumes have been released, and each volume typically contains about nine movies. I hope more are on the way — and I hope the people who are sitting on the old Republic, Universal, Columbia and other Western catalogs take the hint and get rolling on their own remastering projects.
Below you'll find links to all eight volumes produced so far in the Monogram Cowboy Collection, which are available on Amazon.com. These sets are highly recommended!