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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Friday, October 30, 2015

Was Gary Cooper the first person to play the swimming pool game "Marco Polo"?

Clip from "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938)

As a footnote to the recent post about the 1938 Gary Cooper movie "The Adventures of Marco Polo," while I was doing research into the movie I got to thinking about the game "Marco Polo," which we always used to play in the swimming pool when I was a kid.

You know, the kid who's "It" covers his or her eyes and starts yelling "Marco!" The other kids then yell back "Polo!" and the kid who's "It" has to try to find them by following the sound of their voices. So it turns out nobody really knows the origin of the game.

Ernest Truex

I think the clip at the top of this post — in which Ernest Truex, as Marco Polo's faithful assistant Binguccio, searches the canals of Venice for his womanizing friend — may in fact be where the game comes from. This particular version of the clip happens to be dubbed in French, which I think makes it work even better. (You may have noticed that the person whose voice is dubbed for Truex sings like Elmer Fudd.)

Other origin stories are out there, including one about the real Marco Polo hallucinating in the desert and imagining that people were calling him. But almost no one seems to think this anecdote has any real connection to the swimming pool game. It was a long time ago. Way before the modern swimming pool.

The Great Bath in Mohenjo-daro, built ca. 2500 BCE — often cited as the first swimming pool

Not that the idea of a swimming pool is anything new. Public pools have been around for close to 5,000 years, since well before the bath houses of ancient Greece and Rome popularized the concept. But it wasn't until much more recently that swimming pools became associated in particular with kids — and games.

Swimming pool at Dolores del Rio's house, circa 1930s

It was when the swimming pool moved into the back yard — a trend that the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age helped launch — that the pool started to become a fixture of everyday life.

Hey, look — it's Marco Polo himself, Gary Cooper, in the pool! Taken at the home of Dolores del Rio and Cedric Gibbons in Santa Monica, Calif., the photo also has Dolores lounging on the diving board and actress Sandra Shaw at right.

Dolores del Rio with LeRoy Mason in "Revenge" (1928): Garden of the Gods in background

Incidentally, Dolores del Rio starred in at least one silent movie filmed on the Iverson Ranch, "Revenge," directed by Edwin Carewe. Born in Durango, Mexico, del Rio had a 40-year career in Hollywood, and is considered the first Latina to cross over and become a mainstream movie star.

Dolores del Rio with Joel McCrae in "Bird of Paradise" (1932)

Speaking of water games, del Rio's skinnydip with Joel McCrae in the sexy pre-Hayes Code tropical romance "Bird of Paradise" made quite a splash in 1932. McCrae kept his skivvies on, but del Rio — or her body double — went au naturel. But I digress ...

The backyard pool

In the decade that followed the 1938 release of the "Marco Polo" movie, the private swimming pool would experience a boom. In the U.S. in particular, the postwar years brought a mass migration to the suburbs, and with it came the proliferation of the backyard pool. The timing was right for the dawning of a new game.

It was probably some kid's dad who first got the idea. My guess is Dad never quite forgot the gondola scene, and in the middle of playing with the kids in the pool and singing about "Marco Polo," a lightbulb went off: "Wait, I'll say 'Marco' and YOU say 'Polo!'"

I don't suppose we'll ever know the game's origin story with any certainty, but I'm sticking with my theory. One thing we do know is that the game wound up being a cultural phenomenon.

These days you can even find your phone by yelling "Marco!" If you have the right app, your phone will yell back "Polo!" This is apparently a real thing.

A new TV series about Marco Polo is currently running on Netflix. I haven't seen the new "Marco Polo," but I got a kick out of this interview clip with a couple of the show's actors, Mahesh Jadu and Remi Hii, who were asked about, among other things, the Marco Polo game. It's interesting that Hii, who's Australian, knows all about the game while Jadu, who also is an Aussie, didn't know about it.

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