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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• 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.
• 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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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Silent movie-era fake rock house was a fixture on the Iverson Movie Ranch in the 1920s

"Three Ages" (Buster Keaton, 1923): Fake "cave house" near Garden of the Gods

New details have recently come to light about a large fake rock that stood on the Iverson Movie Ranch during the 1920s. In the above shot from the silent comedy feature "Three Ages," the fake rock occupies much of the background — including a crude staircase visible on the left and a cave opening near the center of the frame.

Buster Keaton, left, and Wallace Beery vie for the affections of Margaret Leahy in "Three Ages"

The rock has a prominent role in "Three Ages" as the home of "The Girl," played by Margaret Leahy, along with her cave parents. Leahy's cave girl is Buster's love interest during the caveman portions of the film, which make up about a third of the one-hour movie.

Buster Keaton's "armory" on top of Rock Island in "Three Ages"

All of the caveman sequences in "Three Ages" were filmed on the Lower Iverson, in what was at the time one of the most extensive film shoots ever undertaken on the location ranch. I've blogged previously about one of the sets used in "Three Ages" — an "armory" built high atop Rock Island, as seen above. Please click here to read my earlier post about Buster's armory.

The best study I've seen of the Iverson locations in "Three Ages" can be found in the John Bengtson book "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton." Along with "Three Ages," Bengtson examines the Iverson shoots for the Keaton shorts "The Paleface" (1922) and "The Balloonatic" (1923) — not to mention countless other Keaton productions filmed in other locations.

Above you'll find a link where you can shop for "Silent Echoes" on, along with Bengtson's similarly exhaustive Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd location books, "Silent Traces" (Chaplin) and "Silent Visions" (Lloyd). I can give an enthusiastic recommendation to all of Bengtson's crucial film location research.

The set of the big battle scene in "Man-Woman-Marriage" (photo taken in 1920)

Recent scouring of old production photos — especially by longtime Iverson researcher Ben Burtt — reveals that the fake rock was in place well before "Three Ages" arrived at the movie ranch for filming in 1923. The above photo that Ben dug up from 1920 is a key piece of evidence.

This remarkable behind-the-scenes photo from the filming of "Man-Woman-Marriage" — which I've zoomed in on here — provides a clear view of the fake cave house, near the left of the frame. I may sound like a broken record, but I'm going to once again recommend that you click on these photos to see them in a larger format.

This version of the shot highlights the fake cave house. Many of the other features seen in the photo are known to be from filming in 1920 for the early 1921 release "Man-Woman-Marriage."

The curved wall, pillars, palace front and large fake rock wall behind the palace, along with various other features, leave no doubt that the photo was taken in 1920, when a huge battle scene was filmed at the location. The set also includes a number of shrub-like structures that I believe are huts.

Another fun item you may have already spotted in the photo is a group of old cars parked on the set, mostly hidden behind one of the huts. For more about the big Iverson shoot for the "Man-Woman-Marriage" battle sequence, please click here to read my recent post.

Lobby card for "Man-Woman-Marriage" (1921) — photo taken in 1920

A lobby card for "Man-Woman-Marriage" also captures a portion of the fake cave house. I talked more about this lobby card in the recent entry on "Man-Woman-Marriage."

Promo still for "Tell It to the Marines" (1926)

Another piece of the puzzle surfaces a few years later, in connection with the 1926 silent feature "Tell It to the Marines." The above promotional still for the movie includes a partial glimpse of what I believe to be the same fake rock house.

It should be noted that the widely circulated promo still uses movie magic to create the overall effect. My initial impression was that the shot must be a composite, but I have since come to understand that the bridge, the fake gorge and all the surrounding fake rocks were in fact built on site, at Iverson. I will go into detail about this impressive construction effort in an upcoming post.

The key feature of the "Tell It to the Marines" promo still, for the purposes of understanding the fake cave house, is what appears to be the same fake rock, still in place in the area north of Garden of the Gods — the same spot where it appeared three years earlier in "Three Ages."

Another photo associated with "Tell It to the Marines" provides a better view of the rock house. This wide behind-the-scenes shot appears in Robert Sherman's Iverson book "Quiet on the Set!"

The fake cave house appears near the left of the frame, as indicated above. Along with the familiar Garden of the Gods rock features, the shot includes a large arch that was built for the movie.

Here's a zoomed-in portion of the wide shot, offering a slightly more detailed view of the fake rock.

Ben Burtt found one of the most interesting photos of the cave house, sending along this undated snapshot — presumably again from the early 1920s — depicting an unidentified group of people standing on top of the feature.

The big questions with any fake rock or other construction at Iverson are always: "Who built it, and where does it first appear?" I'd love to say I know the answers, but I don't. When it comes to the silent movies in particular, records are so sporadic that we may never know the answers.

We know this much: The fake cave house does not appear to be a part of the shoot for "Man-Woman-Marriage," even though it can be seen off to the side during the shoot. That places its origin even further back, perhaps pre-1920.

"The Primitive Man" (D.W. Griffith, 1914): Not believed to be filmed at Iverson

Was it always a "cave house"? Was it a part of an old caveman movie from before that time? Suffice to say the fake cave house is a pretty hot topic among location researchers at the moment, and if the answer is out there, I have a feeling someone will find it.

This post is the latest entry in what's planned as a comprehensive series of blog posts exploring silent movies filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch. We have previously reported on a few of the Iverson silent films, and you can read those posts by clicking on the following links:

• Here's a link to a recent post that set the stage for this one, focusing on the battle sequence filmed near Garden of the Gods for the 1921 release "Man-Woman-Marriage."

This blog post talks a little bit about the iconic scene used in the label above, in which Noah's Ark is "beached" on top of the sandstone giants of Garden of the Gods. The shot comes from the 1928 silent feature "Noah's Ark," directed by Michael Curtiz, who later directed "Casablanca" and who brought crews to the Iverson Movie Ranch on a number of occasions. 

• Buster Keaton's 1923 comedy feature "Three Ages" may be the best-known of the silent-era Iverson shoots, and this post from August 2014 explores a rarely discussed set for the movie: an "armory" controlled by Buster's caveman character, built high atop Rock Island in the Iverson Gorge.

Click here to see some terrific behind-the-scenes photos from the 1925 silent feature "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," provided by Jill Bergstrom, the granddaughter of the great Iverson cinematographer George B. Meehan Jr., who was part of the camera crew on "Ben-Hur." (Note that the material in this post is mostly non-Iverson.)

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